The following post, by Dr. Dinara Ziganshina, is the third in the series of essays related to the entering into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (see links to all of the essays here). Dr. Ziganshina is based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where she serves as Deputy Director of the Scientific Information Center of Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in Central Asia. She can be reached at dinara.ziganshina [at] gmail.com.
The role and relevance of the UN Convention in Central Asia
Managing the impacts of climate change and demographic growth, as well as reconciling different demands on water for drinking needs and sanitation, ecosystems, agriculture, food production, industry and energy are major water security challenges in the Aral Sea basin shared by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. These challenges require a holistic, mutually beneficial and cooperative solution that is agreeable to all parties involved. A 2011 regional assessment on the role and relevance of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention to the Aral Sea basin countries found that this global instrument could improve the legal framework for transboundary water cooperation in the basin, and assist countries in building and maintaining effective and peaceful management systems for their shared water resources.
Although there are plenty of legal instruments at the bilateral, sub-basin, and basin levels governing the use and protection of shared watercourses in Central Asia, these agreements are in dire need of improvement as they fail to incorporate key principles of international water law and best management practices. In this context, the UN Convention could play a supplementary role to the existing regimes, and serve as a resource to help interpret the region’s bilateral treaties and arrangements. While the norms of the UN Convention are mostly couched in broad terms, to be applied to a range of different river basins, some of its provisions are still more precise and specific than the norms of sub-regional agreements in the Aral Sea basin. The rule of equitable and reasonable use and the notification procedure on planned measures, which the sub-regional agreements seem to subsume under “joint management” and “joint consideration” provisions, are the most notable examples.
In addition, the UN Convention could serve as a common platform for Central Asian countries to negotiate future accords since it does not preclude or dismiss the need for local and regional watercourse agreements. Existing legal arrangements in the basin were not designed to accommodate changing circumstances, nor can they be easily amended. As a result, many of these treaties have become stagnant and have lost their value.
Most prominently, by joining the UN Convention, Central Asian countries could benefit not only from its individual provisions, but also the entire text of the Convention, which was carefully crafted to provide a system of interacting and mutually supporting rules and procedures. Of particular relevance is the Convention’s contribution to the peaceful management of controversies as manifested in its sound procedural system and range of dispute settlement mechanisms, including an impartial fact-finding commission.
Perspectives for the UN Convention in the region
Despite the UN Convention’s value and relevance, Uzbekistan remains the only country from the region to have acceded to it. During the Convention’s adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1997, none of the Central Asian nations voted against it. While Kazakhstan voted in favor and Uzbekistan abstained from the vote, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were absent from the voting process. The example of Uzbekistan, which abstained from voting but eventually acceded to the Convention, demonstrates the possibility that countries can change their position. One can speculate on the reasons for Uzbekistan’s change, which may be grounded in political considerations, increased environmental and social concerns related to transboundary waters, or improved legal understanding of the benefits from the Convention for the peaceful use of the resource. It is also possible that the country intended to express its position to the international community by cementing its adherence to international water law. In this context, what are the chances that other countries in the region will join the Convention?
Kazakhstan, which voted in favor of the Convention, is the most likely candidate. This would be a logical, and not very demanding, step for the country since it has already committed to all water-related UNECE Conventions, which impose even stricter obligations. The Espoo Convention, for example, sets forth detailed provisions on notification procedures for planned measures, while the UNECE Water Convention stipulates stringent requirements for preventing and controlling transboundary harm, environmental protection, and establishing joint bodies.
Turkmenistan is another downstream country that has considered joining the UN Convention, after recently acceding to the UNECE Water Convention. An official representative of that country stated at a 2011 international water conference in Tashkent that preparatory procedures to join the Convention were under way (see 2011 regional assessment).
The chance in the short term that the two upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan might join the UN Convention, however, is not very high. In the early 2000s, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic found it inadvisable for the country to accede to the Convention (see 2011 regional assessment), although Kyrgyzstan acceded to the Espoo Convention in 2001. Since then, there has been no evidence of a changed attitude towards the Convention. The head of the Kyrgyz delegation to the 2011 Tashkent international water conference largely supported this proposition and added that his country may consider joining the Protocol on Water and Health under UNECE Water Convention as a first step. At the same time, he added that Kyrgyzstan would be more willing to sign on to the UN Convention than UNECE Water Convention as, in his opinion, it was more relevant to the issues facing the Central Asian region (see 2011 regional assessment).
Similarly, Tajikistan is reluctant to accede to the Convention despite the fact that the President of Tajikistan highlights the key role of international agreements in addressing water-related problems in the region. For instance, in his address at the 1st Asian Pacific Water Summit, Emomali Rahmon stated, “Elaboration and adoption of International Water Convention could be one of the important steps in a unification of efforts which would determine universal principles of water policy taking into account ensuring the interests of all consumers.” Nevertheless, Tajikistan’s existing legal commitments could set the pace for it to join the Convention. For example, under the 1998 Commonwealth of Independent States Agreement on Transboundary Waters, Tajikistan agreed to take into account the provisions of the 1966 Helsinki Rules, on which the UN Convention is largely based, and of the UNECE Water Convention. In addition, on 17 February 2004, Tajikistan promulgated Decree of 1287 on Accession to the Espoo Convention, however, the Depositary of the Convention has not yet received the ratification documents. If Tajikistan completes the ratification process for the Espoo Convention, it will be a party to another instrument largely aligned with the procedural norms of international water law.
The way forward
The unwillingness of the two upstream countries to join the UN Convention does not appear to be based on their rejection of its normative prescriptions, but rather is due to a misunderstanding of its provisions. Thus, the UN Convention has been criticized by some nations as giving preferential treatment to the interests of wealthy and powerful states, ignoring the situation in water-stressed countries, leaving individual states too much discretion to interpret its provisions for their own benefit, and being vague and imprecise in defining the rights and obligations imposed on riparian countries.
A careful analysis of the UN Convention and the broader international legal environment in which it sits dispels some of these apprehensions. The Convention imposes identical obligations on all watercourse states, irrespective of their location on an international watercourse. Moreover, concerns related to vagueness and lack of precision must be tempered by the understanding of the framework and residual character of the Convention. Lastly, the Convention must be viewed as a system of substantive and procedural obligations that establish a regime resulting from all of its provisions considered collectively.
The UN Convention has much to offer the countries of the Aral Sea basin in addressing their transboundary water problems. But to secure its benefits, the countries in the region must take an informed decision to join the Convention and implement its provisions. This means that remaining misperceptions about the Convention must be clarified and care must be taken not to create additional confusion. This includes raising false claims that the Convention is a panacea for building effective transboundary cooperation in the basin. While it would be much easier if this were true, it is not. In this respect, supporters of the Convention can be instrumental in raising awareness and understanding about the instrument. We have already witnessed the tremendous influence of World Wildlife Fund, Green Cross International, and other partners in the Convention coming into force. This campaign should be continued with a view of expanding the membership in the Convention, as well as highlighting the benefits of its good faith implementation, as a means for achieving a water-secure world for all.