Archive for August, 2015

The Newest Transboundary Aquifer Agreement: Jordan and Saudi Arabia Cooperate Over the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer

Monday, August 31st, 2015

By Gabriel Eckstein

By any standard, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are two of the most water-scarce countries on the globe (see here and here). Hence, it is no surprise that the neighbors have long looked to the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer on their shared border as a partial source for relief. Until recently, though, competing water needs and a lack of knowledge about the aquifer complicated efforts at compromise. That complexity appears to have been surmounted. On 30 April 2015, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia entered into an agreement for the Management and Utilization of the Ground Waters in the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Layer (Arabic original / unofficial English translation).

Saq-Ram Aquifer Map

Saq-Ram Aquifer


The Aquifer

The Aquifer, known as Al Sag in Saudi Arabia and Al-Disi in Jordan, is a fossil transboundary aquifer containing water that accumulated 10,000-30,000 years ago. It is part of the western section of the Saq-Ram Aquifer System, a Paleozoic carbonate aquifer that spans nearly 308,000 km2 and is estimated to hold as much as 10 km3 of water in Jordan and 65 km3 in Saudi Arabia (see here).

Use of the Aquifer’s Water

Both countries began exploiting the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer in the late 1970s and 1980s soon after its discovery. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia dramatically increased its extractions to support its wheat production. As a result, groundwater, which typically flowed toward Jordan, reversed to flow toward the Saudi well field. While Saudi Arabia greatly reduced its extractions in the 1990s, Saudi withdrawals in 2008 were estimated at over 1,000 MCM (see here).

In Jordan, the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer was initially only used as a local water supply. In the late 1980s, Jordan began developing agricultural activities along its southern border and now withdraws some 60 MCM. To overcome water scarcity in other regions of the country, in the 1990s Jordan conceived the Disi Water Conveyance Project (DWCP) to extract an additional 100-150 MCM of water that would flow through a 325 km pipeline from Disi to Amman. While the project failed to obtain World Bank support, Jordan pursued the DWCP on a build-operate-transfer basis with a Turkish contractor and water began flowing to Amman in 2013 (see here and here). The project became especially controversial in 2009 when an independent study revealed that water in the aquifer contained naturally-occurring radiation (20 times international levels regarded safe for drinking) and posed a potential health hazard (see here). Subsequent Jordanian tests claimed the water met all safety standards when diluted with clean water (see here).

Disi Water Pipeline (from Ferraginaa & Greco (2008). The Disi project: an internal/external analysis, Water International, Vol. 33(4)

Disi Water Pipeline (from Ferraginaa & Greco (2008). The Disi project: an internal/external analysis, Water International, Vol. 33(4)).

The Agreement

The Agreement over the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer is concise with four main articles. Article One contains terms and definitions; Article Two describes the main norms for managing the aquifer; Article Three discusses the creation and responsibilities of a Joint Saudi/Jordanian Technical Committee; and Article Four contains administrative provisions related to the implementation of the Agreement.

Notwithstanding its minimalist approach, the Agreement is noteworthy in a number of important ways. As a general matter, its very nature as an agreement over a transboundary aquifer is unique since today there is only one transboundary aquifer globally with a comprehensive management regime and two with more rudimentary consultative and data sharing arrangements (see here). This is in sharp contrast to the over 3,600 treaties relating to the use of transboundary surface waters that have been catalogued since 800 CE (see here).

More specifically, the Agreement imposes no numerical limitations on extractions. Rather, Article 2(1) creates a “Protected Area” of approximately 400 km2 within each country along the border where “all activities … which depend on the extraction of groundwater therefrom” must be discontinued within five years. In addition, Article 2(2) requires the Parties to maintain the Protected Area free from all activities that require groundwater. In effect, it creates a forbidden zone between the well fields of the two nations. When looking at the map accompanying the Agreement and the straight lines demarcating the Protected Area, it is unclear whether this zone is the result of unique hydrogeological conditions, or simply based on a desire to maintain a geographical buffer zone between the two parties.

In addition, the Agreement creates a broader “Management Area” that encompasses the Protected Area and spans approximately 1,000 km2 in each country.  Although water extractions are permitted from within the Management Area, but outside of the Protected Area, they are limited solely for municipal purposes. While the aquifer extends beyond the Management Area on both sides of the border, these regions are not subject to the Agreement. Whether this is intentional is unclear, however, some studies indicate that some sections of the aquifer are less productive while others are at depths where extraction is not economical (see here).

Read together, these provisions effectively protect ongoing water projects supplying villages and cities in both nations, including the DWCP. They also ensure both nations’ extractions for agricultural and other purposes in areas outside of each country’s Management Area. This is especially important for Saudi Arabia, since a large portion of the aquifer lies in that country. The absence of more detailed pumping restrictions, however, could be worrisome in the long run as projections indicate that current pumping rates will deplete the aquifer in Jordan by mid-century and in Saudi Arabia shortly thereafter (see here).

Also noteworthy is the near absolute prohibition in the Agreement on groundwater pollution. Article 2(4) prohibits horizontal or slant wells explicitly to avoid aquifer pollution, while Article 2(5) creates an affirmative obligation to both protect groundwater against “any pollution” as well as prevent the injection of “any pollutant” into the aquifer. The only caveat is the fact that these obligations are limited to the Management Area; there are no pollution-related or other provisions pertaining to areas outside of the Management Area.

A further unique development found in the Agreement is the creation of a Joint Technical Committee (JTC). It is unique because relatively few agreements over transboundary surface water, and only one for a shared aquifer, have created such mechanisms. In the case of the Al-Sag/Al-Disi Aquifer, while the JTC is entrusted with “the supervision of the implementation of the terms of this Agreement,” it does not have any decision-making authority. Rather, under Article 3(4), it is primarily responsible for monitoring both the quantity and quality of extractions, collecting and exchanging information, analyzing collected data, and submitting their findings to the competent authorities in both nations. Accordingly, it may be argued that derivative to the creation of the JTC is the Agreement’s recognition of the international water law principles of exchange of information and ongoing monitoring, as well as the more progressive notion that such endeavors should be pursued jointly (see Art. 2(3)).

While the Agreement is notable for what it includes, it is also significant for what is conspicuously absent from the text. Under contemporary international water law, including trends identified in the emerging international law of transboundary aquifers (see here), two cornerstone principles require: equitable and reasonable utilization, and no significant harm. Neither norm appears explicitly in the Agreement. Possibly, the prohibitions on extraction and types of uses within, as well as the de facto permissible uses outside of, the Management Area could be interpreted as a form of equitable and reasonable utilization. Similarly, the prohibitions on the pollution of the aquifer could be deemed a variation on the rule of no significant harm, at least for purposes of ensuring water quality. Such analyses could be investigated further through access to the negotiators and any documentation that underpinned the Agreement.

One additional well-accepted norm of international water law that is missing from the Agreement: prior notice of planned measures that may have a transboundary effect. However, since all activities requiring groundwater are prohibited in the Protected Area, and limited to municipal purposes in the remaining section of the Management Area, such notice obligations may be superfluous. Of course, it is unclear whether activities in other sections of the aquifer that traverse the Jordanian-Saudi border could have transboundary consequences.


Of the more than 600 transboundary aquifers and ground water systems that have been identified globally (see here), only a miniscule number have any cooperative arrangement among these critical subsurface water resources. Accordingly, the Agreement over the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer is a significant milestone. It suggests that states may be beginning to recognize the importance of their transboundary aquifers and the need to cooperate with their neighbors. Hopefully others will soon follow suit.

The Kishenganga Awards and their Contributions to International Water Law

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

The following post is by Dr. Mara Tignino, Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of the Platform for International Water Law, Faculty of Law, University of Geneva. She can be reached at Mara.Tignino [at]


In May 2010, Pakistan initiated an arbitration proceeding against India concerning the construction of a hydroelectric infrastructure project (“KHEP”) undertaken by India on the Kishenganga River—part of the Indus River basin. The KHEP is situated in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir in north-west India, about 12 kilometres upstream of the Line of Control with Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir, and is aimed at producing hydropower via a diversion of the River’s flow. Once completed, the diverted waters would flow through a tunnel around 23.5 kilometres long toward a power facility situated 666 meters below the Kishenganga dam. The water will then be redirected into Wular Lake and the River Jhelum, which flows into the territory of Pakistan. The falling water would drive turbines producing about 330 megawatts of electricity. According to Pakistan, the KHEP will have an impact on water flow downstream in Pakistan and affect its own production of hydropower.

Kishenganga Hydroelectric Project (Source: Partial Award, p.51)

Kishenganga Hydroelectric Project (Source: Partial Award, p.51)

The uses of the Indus River and its tributaries are regulated by the Indus Waters Treaty, adopted by India, Pakistan and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) in 1960. Article IX of the treaty provides for the establishment of mechanisms for the settlement of differences and disputes between the two States. As a result of Pakistan’s request, an arbitral tribunal composed of seven arbiters was established under article IX, which subsequently issued four decisions: an Order on Interim Measures in September 2011, based on an application made by Pakistan in June 2011, a Partial Award in February 2013, a Decision on India’s Request for Clarification or Interpretation in May 2013, and a Final Award, issued in December 2013. All four decisions were adopted unanimously.

Signed after ten years of negotiations, the Indus Waters Treaty represented an ambitious landmark in the development of international water law. The treaty is emblematic of the potential for international law to facilitate cooperation in the governance of international watercourses. As emphasized by the tribunal itself, the treaty has been continuously applied for over 50 years, despite recurring hostilities in the Kashmir region, including three episodes of direct armed conflict between India and Pakistan. In fact, while Pakistan had made use of the dispute settlement procedures of the treaty once before—in 2006, it requested the intervention of a Neutral Expert under article IX in the case of the Baglihar hydropower project—this was the first time that an arbitral tribunal had been established to settle a dispute concerning the application and the interpretation of the treaty.

Much as the treaty itself contributed to the development of substantive law on international watercourses, both the process and outcome of the arbitration offered noteworthy innovations in the settlement of disputes on transboundary water resources:

  1. In procedural terms, the inclusion of an engineer among the members of the tribunal offered an interesting approach to balancing the needs for various forms of expertise in the determination of the issues (the Neutral Expert charged with resolution of the 2007 Baglihar dispute was also an engineer). The presence of technical experts as equal participants in dispute settlement mechanisms facilitates the understanding of complex factual issues related to the construction and exploitation of hydropower infrastructures.
  2. From the perspective of substantial international environmental law, the recognition in the award of an obligation to ensure a minimum environmental flow in an international watercourse offers a possible indicator of future developments. The tribunal held that India could divert waters from the Kishenganga River, but that it had to ensure a continuing minimum flow rate of 9 cubic meters of water per second in the River itself (Final Award, p.326). Parties must provide the Permanent Indus Commission with daily data on River flows and the information on the inputs and withdrawals of water from the reservoir. According to the arbiters, the Commission is the most appropriate mechanism to ensure the exchange of data and monitoring of the uses of the tributaries of the Indus River (Final Award, par.121).
  3. Strikingly, the judges rejected the application of the precautionary principle to the case. Pakistan had argued that the flows of the Indus tributaries at the Line of Control are difficult to measure, and the Parties gave different estimations of future minimum flow levels. The tribunal recognized future flows levels would be uncertain, depending both on future uses and on factors outside the control of either India or Pakistan, such as climate change (Final Award, par.117). Rather than basing their judgment on the precautionary principle, they chose to account for this uncertainty by requiring India to finalise the KHEP in a manner that would allow for responsiveness to future variations in flow levels.
  4. Finally, the tribunal offered a lynchpin for the sustainability of this approach by creating a window for reconsideration: if, within seven years after the diversion of the Kishenganga River is finalized, one of the Parties considers it necessary to review the quantity of the minimum environmental flow as decided by the arbitral tribunal, the flow will be submitted to the Permanent Indus Commission or other mechanisms established by the Treaty (Final Award, par.119).
Members of the Court of Arbitration, 20 August 2012 Standing : H.E. Judge Peter Tomka, Judge Bruno Simma, Professor Lucius Caflisch, Professor Jan Paulsson. Seated : Sir Franklin Berman KCMG QC, Judge Stephen M. Schwebel (Chairman), Professor Howard S. Wheater FREng

Members of the Court of Arbitration, 20 August 2012
Standing: H.E. Judge Peter Tomka, Judge Bruno Simma, Professor Lucius Caflisch, Professor Jan Paulsson. Seated: Sir Franklin Berman KCMG QC, Judge Stephen M. Schwebel (Chairman), Professor Howard S. Wheater FREng

The decisions of the arbitral tribunal specify the general obligations related to the construction of hydroelectric projects upstream and downstream of an international watercourse. Thus, the Tribunal affirms that “There is no doubt that States are required under contemporary customary law to take environmental protection into consideration when planning and developing projects that may cause injury to a bordering State” (Partial Award, par.449), and takes note of the principle of sustainable development, the obligation to carry out a transboundary environmental impact assessment and the broader duty to avoid transboundary harm (Partial Award, pars. 448-451). In considering these obligations both in terms of conventional law, according to the Indus Waters Treaty, and in terms of customary law, the arbiters have contributed to the development and clarification of general principles of international water law relating to the environmental protection of transboundary water resources.