Watercourse Convention Set to Enter into Force on 17 August 2014


Click HERE for the latest status of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention
Well, it finally happened.  On 19 May 2014, Vietnam became the 35th party to the 1997 UN Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. This means that on 17 August 2014, 90 days after that 35th ratification was deposited, the Convention will come into force.

Long in coming, the Convention’s success was never guaranteed. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1997, the Convention appeared set for ratification as 103 of the UN’s Member States voted in favor of it. Only three countries voted against – Burundi, China, and Turkey – while 27 nations abstained and 33 were absent from the vote. That vote, however, masked long-standing disagreements over how transboundary fresh water resources should be allocated and managed. In particular, upper and lower riparians disagreed between the primacy of the Convention’s cornerstone principles of equitable and reasonable use – favored by most upper riparians – and the doctrine of no significant harm – preferred by most lower riparians (for a more detailed analysis of the UNGA vote on the Convention, as well as the disparate interests, see my article).

Lackluster support in the years following the Convention’s inception suggested to some that the treaty was doomed to failure. More recently, though, the rate of ratifications more than doubled (18 in the first 12 years in comparison to 17 over the past five years). While that resurgence may have been due, in part, to the efforts of World Wildlife Fund (which in around 2009, added implementation of the Convention to its advocacy agenda), it also suggests a broadening recognition that nations have an obligation to cooperate over transboundary freshwater resources. Maybe it’s the threat of climate change, or concerns over dwindling domestic water resources. But, the fact that states are willing to bind themselves to the procedural and substantive norms of the Convention is a promising sign.

Map of State Parties to the UN Watercourses Convention

Map of State Parties to the UN Watercourses Convention

Entry into force of the Convention, though, is not the last word on the matter. In fact, this milestone raises as many new questions as existed leading to its implementation. For example, what does the geographic distribution of member states indicate for the global success of the treaty? Of the 35 ratifications, the vast majority are from either Africa (12) or Europe (16); only two ratifying parties are found in Asia and none come from the American hemisphere; five others are from the non-African Middle East region, albeit a total of eight MENA nations are now a party to the Convention. At the very least, this distribution suggests a certain geographic bias toward (and against) the Convention.

In addition, what will implementation of the Convention mean in practice? How will nations implement its mandates within their borders and in relation to riparian neighbors? Why have nations in the Americas and Asia eschewed ratification? What does the entry into force of the Convention mean for the UNECE Water Convention, which is already in force in much of Europe and on 6 February 2013, opened its membership to the rest of the world? And, what will the Convention’s implementation mean for existing regional and local transboundary freshwater agreements?

In the coming weeks, the IWLP Blog will host a series of essays addressing many of these intriguing questions. We have invited some of the most knowledgeable scholars and practitioners to offer their perspectives on the Convention’s imminent entry into force as well as on its future. As part of this series, we invite you to participate in the conversation by submitting comments at the bottom of each essay and add your own perspectives and opinions to the discussion. As you formulate your thoughts, you might want to review a prior series hosted by the IWLP Blog and prepared by Dr. Alistair Rieu-Clarke and Ms. Flavia Loures (see here and here). In addition, Water International published a special issue on the Convention accessible here.

The entry into force of the Convention is a significant landmark development in the international community’s efforts to better and peacefully manage transboundary fresh water resources. Whether this achievement translates into improved and more peaceful cooperation is a future that has yet to be written.

Essays related to the entering into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention

  1. Dr. Stephen McCaffrey: The Entry Into Force of the 1997 Watercourses Convention

  2. Dr. Salman M.A. Salman: Entry into Force of the UN Watercourses Convention – Where are the Nile Basin Countries?

  3. Dr. Dinara Ziganshina: UN Watercourses Convention in Central Asia – The Current State and Future Outlook

  4. Dr. Kishor Uprety: A South Asian Perspective on the UN Watercourses Convention

  5. Dr. Götz Reichert: Entry into Force of the UN Watercourses Convention – Should Europe Care?

  6. Professor Patricia Wouters: Considering China’s approach to the UN Watercourses Convention – Time to revisit?

  7. Professor Gabriel Eckstein: Implications of the UN Watercourses Convention for Groundwater Resources

  8. Robyn Stein and Georgina Mackenzie: Implication of the Entry Into Force of the UN Watercourses Convention for Southern African States

  9. Dr. Maria Querol: The UN Watercourses Convention and South America

  10. Richard Paisley and Taylor Henshaw: The 1997 UN Watercourses Convention from a North American Perspective

  11. Dr. Salman M.A. Salman and Professor Gabriel Eckstein: Concluding Thoughts on the Implications of the Entry into Force of the United Nations Watercourses Convention

4 Responses to “Watercourse Convention Set to Enter into Force on 17 August 2014”

  1. YARROW says:

    Referring to the Map of State Parties to the UN Watercourses Convention, the members states and continents tells a lot. What is the likely cause of the slow snail ratification process? Is it political or the states have better alternatives to what the convention offers? What could be in the minds of the so called super powers? What is hindering them from participating in the process, leave alone leading it as they used to do in political front?

    The earlier the convention is ratified by all states, the better it is for this generation and the future.

  2. Fascinating. Nice post (I’ll reblog) and a welcome development. Can you comment on the ratification pace vis a vis countries with/without transboundary waters? Isn’t the EU de-facto agreeing to these ideas, given the Water Framework Directive? Are there examples of transboundary cooperation that this treaty will reinforce/contradict?

  3. Nilmini Silva-Send says:

    Nice to hear about this. Has this late signature have anything to do with the problems Vietnam is facing with China in other areas as well?

  4. A couple of thoughts in response to the queries:
    * Regarding the “slow pace of ratification,” On the one hand, it took 17 years to reach the requisite 35 member states to bring the Convention in to force. On the other hand, the rate of ratification has more than doubled in the past five years (18 in the first 12 years in comparison to 17 over the past five years). My sense is that most countries are taking this issue quite seriously and ratifying the convention only after considerable evaluation of the options, alternatives, priorities, etc.
    * Re: Europe, while quite a few European nations have joined the Convention, they do have an alternative in the UNECE/Helsinki Water Convention, which provides a more robust and comprehensive regime.
    * One thing to keep in mind is that the Watercourse Convention is not intended to be the final word on transboundary waters. Rather, the Convention is structured as a framework or umbrella treaty – a treaty containing general legal norms and principles, and that contemplates the development of more specific and detailed regional and local regimes within its broad framework.