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

The following post by Dr. Götz Reichert is the fifth in the series of essays related to the entering into force of the by 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (see links to all of the essays here). Dr. Reichert is head of the Environment Department at the Centre for European Policy in Freiburg, Germany. He can reached at goetz.reichert [at] t-online.de.

The upcoming entry into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC) can be attributed, in large part, to the sixteen European ratifications out of the thirty-five that have been recorded thus far. In fact, Europe forms the largest regional group of state parties to the UNWC. This somewhat disproportionate representation gives rise to the question: why did so many European countries join the UNWC? Moreover, given the complex, multi-level water management, allocation, and protection mechanisms already in place, what added value does an additional international framework convention have for Europe? To answer these questions, we must first consider the existing legal regime in Europe that is applied to freshwater resources.

Specific International Agreements

Europe’s hydrological environment is very diverse, ranging from water-rich areas, often under pressure from industrial pollution and frequent floods, to water-scarce regions with intensive agriculture. Moreover, Europe contains approximately 75 transboundary river basins and over one hundred international agreements pertaining to internationally shared rivers, lakes and aquifers. Following decades of mixed experiences with international cooperation, since the 1990s, a “collective learning curve” has resulted in the emergence of a promising legal regime. Examples include the cooperative efforts between the riparians of the rivers Rhine and Danube.

Map of EU River Basin Districts indicating transboundary co-operation (from: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water-framework/facts_figures/pdf/Transboundary-cooperation-%202012.pdf)

Map of EU River Basin Districts indicating transboundary co-operation (from: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water-framework/facts_figures/pdf/Transboundary-cooperation-%202012.pdf)

Once infamous as “Europe’s most romantic sewer”, the Rhine is now recovering from years of excessive industrial pollution. Ill-designed agreements from the 1970s, fierce disputes between upstream and downstream riparians, and the disastrous Sandoz chemical spill in 1986 finally prompted the International Commission for the Protection of Rhine to adopt a more holistic, ecosystem-oriented approach, codified in the 1999 Convention on the Protection of the Rhine. Furthermore, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 opened new opportunities for international cooperation, most importantly for the Danube. The 1994 Convention on Cooperation for the Protection and Sustainable Use of the Danube River forms the legal basis for cooperation between the fourteen riparian countries and the European Union within the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River. Today, the regimes pertaining to the Rhine and Danube are exemplary for their detailed substantive regulations, clear procedural obligations, and strong institutional framework, each consisting of a conference of the parties, expert groups working on technical questions, and permanent secretariats.

1992 UNECE Convention

Substantive, procedural and institutional elements are also established by the 1992 UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (UNECE Convention), which functions as an overarching, general agreement. Originally designed as a regional framework convention for European and Central Asian countries under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the UNECE Convention was opened to all United Nations members in February 2013. Presently, the Water Convention has forty parties.

The UNECE Convention’s institutional provisions, which establish a regular meeting of the parties and a permanent secretariat and various expert working groups, enable the regime to play an active role in the development of international water law in Europe and beyond. Together with its 1999 Protocol on Water and Health, the 2003 Protocol on Civil Liability (not yet in force) and a number of soft law instruments like the 2014 Model Provisions on Transboundary Groundwaters, the UNECE Convention provides guidance for the continuous improvement of international cooperation on the protection and use of transboundary water resources. This is reflected in a number of subsequent international agreements, such as the 1994 Danube Convention, 2002 Meuse Agreement, the 1998 Portuguese-Spanish Basin Agreement (Spanish), and the 1999 Rhine Convention. All of these instruments make a serious effort to adapt the basic approach of the UNECE Convention to their specific needs. The agreements share the catalogue of aims and principles laid down by the UNECE Convention (e.g., sustainable water management, the precautionary principle, the polluter-pays principle). They also establish river commissions with significant tasks and competences. Most importantly, all agreements take the “river basin” as the managerial unit for the protection and management of freshwater resources, including both surface waters and groundwater.

EU Water Framework Directive

The European Union is also involved in international cooperation on transboundary freshwater resources in Europe, inter alia, as a party to the UNECE Convention and conventions on the Danube, the Elbe, the Oder and the Rhine. Since 2000, the EU Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC (EUWFD) has played a pivotal role both in implementing the EU’s obligations under international conventions as well as in further developing international water law. Its objective is to achieve good qualitative and quantitative status of domestic and transboundary freshwater resources in the EU by 2015. To this end, the EUWFD sets up a complex and challenging regulatory program including phasing-out of hazardous substances and controls over the abstraction of fresh surface water and groundwater.

The EUWFD follows the drainage basin approach and regards the hydrological “river basin” as a starting point. The corresponding management unit is the “river basin district” (RBD), which refers to “the area of land and sea, made up of one or more neighbouring river basins together with their associated groundwaters and coastal waters.” If transboundary effects occur within a river basin, the EU member states concerned must establish an “international RBD” and coordinate the implementation of the EUWFD through a single River Basin Management Plan (RBMP). A river commission established under international law may be entrusted with implementation of the EUWFD. Where a RBD extends beyond the territory of the EU, the EU member states concerned must seek appropriate coordination with the non-EU riparians in order to achieve the EUWFD objectives. This is quite a challenge, given that 60% of the EU territory is covered by international river basins, and 55 of the current 110 RBDs are considered international. Nevertheless, international RBMPs have been adopted in several transboundary basins like the Danube, Rhine and Elbe within the framework of the respective international river commissions. Therefore, the EUWFD constitutes a legal interface between EU water law and international water law, thereby forming the centerpiece of an increasingly elaborate multi-level governance regime for the protection and management of transboundary freshwater resources in Europe.

Europe and the Watercourses Convention

In the light of this elaborate multi-level regime, why should Europe care about the entry into force of the UNWC? With the “globalization” of the UNECE Convention, the question becomes even more pressing. While both legal instruments are universal framework convention open to all states, they fulfill different but complementary functions: The UNWC primarily codifies the status of customary international water law. The long-standing controversy on the relationship between the principle of equitable utilization and the “no harm rule” clearly shows that the UNWC, at its core, is still focused on basic conflicts over transboundary freshwater resources and provides a legal framework for their balanced resolution. In contrast, the UNECE Convention, with its detailed provisions for substantive, procedural and institutional rules, goes well beyond the “least common denominator” of customary law and contributes to the further development of international water law. For countries willing to pursue integrated water management based on the drainage basin approach in close cooperation with their fellow riparians, the UNECE Convention serves as a supplement rather than an alternative to the UNWC.

Over time, European countries have learned – sometimes the hard way – that international cooperation on the protection and management of shared freshwater resources is beneficial for all riparians. This is why Europe now forms the largest block of state parties to the UNWC. Decades of intense work in international fora such as river commission and expert groups have gradually created mutual understanding and trust. The EUWFD has added challenging requirements to the substantive content of this work. On the one hand, European countries should share their experiences; on the other, they can benefit by the experiences of other regions. Therefore, Europe should continue to be involved in the global discussion and further development of international water law. Becoming a party to the UNWC would be a clear commitment in this respect. In a world where water-induced controversies are still the cause of many conflicts, a “constitution of the Earth’s freshwater resources” recognized by the community of states is needed. Therefore, European countries should care and join the UNWC.


4 Responses to “Dr. Götz Reichert: Entry into Force of the UN Watercourses Convention – Should Europe Care?”

  1. Kevin Linton says:

    Congratulations Dr. Reichert. A concise article that has clearly outlined (although briefly) the ‘state’ of European Water Law and the reasons for Europe becoming the largest ‘block of countries’ endorsing the UNWC.


    Kevin Linton.

  2. Carel de Villeneuve says:

    Congratulations also from my side, dr. Reichert. Your arguments are perfectly to the point. Having taken part in the UNWC negotiations, I am extremely pleased with the Convention’s entry into force, indeed, as a complement to the UNECE Water Convention, without, by the way, imposing a single water governance model. My country is seriously committed to both International instruments, and we hope and expect it will contribute to transboundary water conflict resolution all over the world.

  3. Lesha Witmer says:

    Thank you dr. Reichert. Excellent summary and we do hope your compelling argument why ALL European / EU countries and the EU as whole should join the UNWC (as well) will be heard and followed through. Every and all assistance to bring that about is highly appreciated and necessary. (and by the way: the UNECE WC still needs three more ratifications of the amendment to really open it globally).