Archive for the ‘Transboundary Aquifers’ Category

Transboundary Offshore Aquifers: A Search for a Governance Regime

Monday, June 27th, 2016

The following essay by Renee Martin-Nagle is a summary of her recently published article entitled: Transboundary Offshore Aquifers: A Search for a Governance Regime, which appears in Vol. 1.2, 2016, pp. 1-79, of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law. Ms. Martin-Nagle is a PhD Researcher at the University of Strathclyde and a Visiting Scholar at the Environmental Law Institute. She can reached at renee.martinnagle [at] gmail.com.

In December 2013 an article appeared in Nature magazine describing aquifers lying under continental shelves around the world and containing fresh to slightly brackish water.  Entitled ‘Offshore Fresh Groundwater Reserves as a Global Phenomenon’, the article summarized scientific studies since the 1970s and suggested that the volume of water held in these offshore reserves could amount to twice the volume of groundwater withdrawn from aquifers globally since 1900.  Within days, the global press seized on the article and gleefully announced that the global water crisis had been solved.  Intrigued by the possibilities, I determined to understand the scientific support for such claims as well as the potential they held for supplementing existing freshwater supplies.  Moreover, I began to wonder what governance regime might apply in the likely event that one or more of these offshore aquifers straddled an international border  Since the topic of sharing transboundary offshore aquifers has not been addressed previously, there was no template to follow.  However, logic suggested that a governance regime for the these unique aquifers should be influenced by at least three current regimes: legal principles embodied in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (‘UNCLOS’), legal principles applicable to transboundary offshore hydrocarbon development, and legal principles that have evolved for transboundary land-based freshwater resources.

Global_Sumarine_Aquifers1My article begins with an explanation of the origins of offshore aquifers.  Not surprisingly, they were formed in the distant past, when meteoric and geological conditions were different than they are today.  During the last glacial maximum between 26,500 and 19,000 years ago, sea levels were much lower than they are today.  At that time the current continental shelves were actually part of the continental coastlines and were, therefore, exposed to rain and other meteoric conditions.  Over thousands of years, freshwater became entrapped between confining layers that were generated by the same natural processes that produced other land-based confined aquifers.  As glaciers melted and sea levels rose, the confining layers protected the now-offshore freshwater aquifers from saltwater intrusion.

With this background, the article proceeds to analyze three legal regimes in search of guidance on how these resources might be governed in transboundary circumstances.  It begins by looking at the UN Convention on the Continental Shelf (the precursor to UNCLOS) and its equidistant method for apportioning shared natural maritime resources among nations with adjacent and opposite coasts.  It then considers the assessment of the International Court of Justice in the North Sea Cases, which rejected the equidistant approach, urged nations to seek equitable solutions based on locally-specific facts and circumstances, and referenced the unity of a deposit. UNCLOS followed the ICJ guidance in advising nations to seek equitable solutions.

Global_Sumarine_Aquifers2Following the North Sea Cases, the oil and gas industry quickly filled the void by developing its own legal mechanism, which is the second regime assessed in my article.  Under that regime, and in harmony with the ICJ’s suggestion to preserve the unity of deposits, the industry utilized a system called unitization where parties sharing a resource appoint a single operator to exploit that reserve, with their respective shares being pre-determined in the applicable agreement.  The concept of unitization later evolved into joint development agreements where nations agreed on an operator for both exploration and exploitation of the resource.

The third regime considered in my study is the body of law that has developed for land-based groundwater resources.  While there are only four ratified treaties and several sets of guidance that address transboundary aquifers, certain concepts for land-based water have evolved to the point of representing accepted principles of customary international law.  Principles such as reasonable and equitable use, no significant harm, cooperation, and sharing of information have been enshrined in treaties for surface water and have also influenced principles for sharing hydrocarbon resources.

After examining these three bodies of law, I propose suggestions for a governance regime for transboundary offshore aquifers that incorporates the best aspects of each of them while still bearing in mind practical aspects of resource development.  Whether this regime will be needed in the near future remains to be seen. Nonetheless, by offering this analysis, I hope to begin the conversation and lay the groundwork for the time when offshore aquifers may be used to support existing freshwater supplies.

The entire article is available here.

 

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.

Conclusion

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.

Online Presentations on International Water Law and Policy

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

By Gabriel Eckstein

In recent years, technology has allowed us to become more informed and engaged at greater distances. This includes viewing lectures and presentations via the Internet. I wanted to draw your attention to a number of presentations on international water law and policy that were recently posted online and that may be of interest. If any of you know of other relevant lectures online, please do let me know via the comment box below or at iwlpwebsite [at] gmail.com.

On 22 May 2015, the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, organized two lectures as part of its SCELG Seminar Series.

Entry into Force of the United Nations Watercourses Convention: Why Should it Matter

Dr. Salman M.A. Salman, fellow with the International Water Resources Association, delivered a lecture in which he outlined the progressive development leading to the adoption of the United Nations Watercourses Convention, and comprehensively explained the importance and relevance of the Convention now it has entered into force. The seminar was supported by the Scottish Government.    View the presentation here.

Transboundary Aquifers: An Interdisciplinary Conversation

Prof. Gabriel Eckstein, Professor of Law at Texas A&M University, gave a guest lecture on the challenges for transboundary aquifer law and governance. The lecture was followed by a roundtable discussion that also included an esteemed panel from the fields of hydrogeology (Prof. Robert Kalin, University of Strathclyde), human geography (Dr. Naho Mirumachi, King’s College London), and international water law (Dr. Salman M.A. Salman, International Water Resources Association).    View the presentation and roundtable here.

Over the past few years, United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law has organized a lectures series on various international issues, including International Watercourses.

Dr. Stephen C. McCaffrey, Distinguished Professor and Scholar at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law, delivered a lecture on The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. This lecture provides an overview of the background and content of the Convention, and then examines the Convention’s influence. The lecture is available in Arabic, English, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish and can be viewed here.

Dr. Salman M.A. Salman presented a lecture on The Evolution, Codification and Current Status of International Water Law. The lecture describes the developments in international water law since 1911. It reviews and analyzes the work of the Institute of International Law, the International Law Association, and the International Law Commission, paying particular attention to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The lecture is available in Arabic, English, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish and can be viewed here.

Not long before he passed away in 2013,  Ambassador Chusei Yamada, who served on the ILC during the drafting of the UN Watercourses Convention and later as Special Rapporteur for the ILC’s Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers, delivered a lecture on Codification of the Law on Transboundary Aquifers (Groundwaters) by the United Nations. The lecture describes how the UN International Law Commission, a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly with the mandate of codification of customary international law, formulated Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers (groundwaters) for the proper management of the transboundary aquifers in order to attain the reasonable and equitable utilization through international cooperation. The lecture is available in Arabic, English, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish and can be viewed here.

The Global Environmental Facility Groundwater Community of Practice, coordinated by UNESCO-IHP, has featured a of seminars on groundwater law and policy.

Webinar #1, which took place 17 October 2013, was entitled Multiple Dimensions of Groundwater Governance: What We Are Doing and What More Can We Do? The video and webinar material can be accessed here.

Webinar #2, which took place 11 December 2013, was entitled Groundwater and International Law: Current Status and Recent Developments. The video and webinar material can be accessed here.

Webinar #3, which took place 29 April 2014, was entitled The Coastal Zone: Where Groundwater Merges With the Sea. The video and webinar material can be accessed here.

On 15 January 2015, IGRAC and UNESCO-IHP organized the IW:LEARN Groundwater Webinar entitled: Moving with the Momentum: Reviewing Lessons for Groundwater from 2014 and a Looking Ahead to 2015. Part I of this program can be accessed here  /  Part II can be accessed here.

 

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

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

The following post by Professor Gabriel Eckstein is the seventh 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). Professor Eckstein is a member of the law faculty at Texas A&M University, directs the International Water Law Project, and edits the International Water Law Project Blog. He can be reached at gabriel [at] internationalwaterlaw.org   or   gabrieleckstein [at] law.tamu.edu.

With Vietnam’s accession to the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC), the global community has taken an important step toward cooperative riparian management of transboundary waters. Although most scholars and UNWC parties have focused on the surface water implications of the Convention, there is another critical component of the instrument that should not be neglected. The UWNC applies to many aquifers worldwide. The purpose of this essay is to consider the scope of the Convention in relation to groundwater resources and place it in the context of emerging international law for transboundary aquifers.

Groundwater: a hidden treasure

Groundwater is the world’s most extracted natural resource. It provides approximately 45% of humanity’s freshwater needs for everyday uses, such as drinking, cooking, and hygiene, and 24% of water used in irrigated agriculture (see here).

Transboundary Aquifers of the World - 2012 Source: International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (http://www.un-igrac.org/dynamics/modules/SFIL0100/view.php?fil_Id=213)

Transboundary Aquifers of the World – 2012
Source: International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre
http://www.un-igrac.org/dynamics/modules/SFIL0100/view.php?fil_Id=213

 

 

Not surprising, groundwater is highly transboundary. While 276 international watercourses traverse the world’s land areas, an ongoing study identified 448 aquifers and aquifer bodies traversing international political boundaries. In places like the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mexico-United States border, transboundary aquifers serve as the primary or sole source of available freshwater for human and environmental sustenance.

Despite their importance, transboundary aquifers have been comparatively ignored in cross-border water management and treaty development. While thousands of agreements have been forged for transboundary rivers and lakes, only a handful directly apply to aquifers that traverse international frontiers. As one of the few international instruments to address this topic, the UNWC provides critical recognition of the important role groundwater resources play in human progress and development, as well as the need to establish principles of law governing this “hidden” but valuable natural resource.

Applicability of the UNWC to groundwater resources

Although the UNWC clearly applies to many of the world’s groundwater resources, it is important to delineate precisely which aquifers are included and excluded from the rubric of the Convention. The UNWC defines “watercourse” to mean “a system of surface waters and groundwaters constituting by virtue of their physical relationship a unitary whole and normally flowing into a common terminus,” and an “international watercourse” as “a watercourse, parts of which are situated in different States.” Parsing out this phraseology reveals a number of important qualifications.

For an aquifer to fall within the scope of the UNWC, it must be a part of a “system of surface waters and groundwaters.” Use of the “system” criterion in the definition implies an interrelationship between multiple and interlinked water bodies. This assessment is supported and complemented by the subsequent definitional language that emphasizes the “physical relationship” and “unitary whole” of the system, and the “common” characterization of a terminus. Hence, solitary transboundary aquifers – such as independent fossil aquifers and rain-fed aquifers – are presumptively excluded from the scope of the UNWC.

It is noteworthy that subsequent to drafting the principles for the UNWC, the UN International Law Commission (ILC) submitted a Resolution on Confined Transboundary Groundwater in which it commended states to be guided by the principles of its work product in regulating independent and hydraulically unrelated transboundary groundwater resources. This progressive recommendation was not incorporated into the UNGA’s final version of the UNWC.

Model of a Transboundary Aquifer Model, from Puri, et.al., "Internationally shared aquifer resources management, their significance and sustainable management: A framework document," IHP-VI International Hydrological Programme Non-Serial Publications in Hydrology SC-2001/WS/40 (UNESCO 2001)

Model of a Transboundary Aquifer
Source: Puri, et.al., “Internationally Shared (Transboundary) Aquifer Resources Management: Their Significance and Sustainable Management – A framework document,” IHP-VI International Hydrological Programme Non-Serial Publications in Hydrology SC-2001/WS/40 (UNESCO 2001)

 

 

In addition, a textual reading of the two definitions suggests that the Convention applies where the transboundary character exists in any part of the system. Hence, a domestic aquifer is subject to the UNWC if it is hydraulically connected to a transboundary river. Similarly, an internal river would be bound by the terms of the Convention if it is linked to a transboundary aquifer. This latter scenario, however, may be subject to debate. In its Thirty-Second Session Report during its preparatory work to the UNWC, the ILC asserted that “the main stem of a river traversing or forming an international boundary” is the “core” of a watercourse. Additionally, Ambassador Chusei Yamada, who served on the ILC during the drafting of the UNWC and later as Special Rapporteur for the ILC’s Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers (Draft Articles), explained to this author in a private conversation that in its deliberations the ILC, and later the UNGA, never contemplated applying the Convention where the transboundary character of the system could not be found in a surface water body. Given that the qualification has yet to be considered in state practice, it remains unclear how broadly it may be interpreted.

Another criterion affecting the UNWC’s applicability to certain groundwater resources is the phrase “flowing into a common terminus.” The criterion intimates that the interlinked water resources must flow toward the same end point to be subject to the Convention’s regime. The directional flow of rivers and lakes, however, is generally described in two dimensions (from point X to point Y). In contrast, groundwater flow is defined in three dimensions because its movement is dependent on local geological conditions, which can vary throughout the aquifer. As a result, groundwater can flow toward a disparate terminal point from that of a related surface water body. Moreover, while aquifers do sometimes terminate at a single point, such as at a spring, it is more common for aquifers to discharge over an extended geographical area along the entire edge of the aquifer. Accordingly, the Convention does not apply to aquifers that do not share a common terminus with hydraulically connected rivers and lakes.

In summary, the UNWC does apply to groundwater resources. However, the Convention’s definitions narrow its relevance to domestic and transboundary aquifers that are hydraulically linked to a transboundary river or lake and that flow into a common terminus. They may also apply to transboundary aquifers that are hydraulically linked to an internal water body, so long as the interrelated surface and subsurface waters flow into a common terminus. All other aquifers are excluded from the Convention’s regime (for a more detailed analysis, see here).

UNWC, transboundary aquifers, and international law

While the UNWC is widely regarded as codifying customary international law, it draws almost exclusively from state practice related to the management and allocation of transboundary rivers and lakes. This perspective is understandable as the bilateral and multilateral cooperative experience over transboundary groundwater resources is scant in comparison. Nevertheless, many of the norms contained in the UNWC are equally (or, at least, similarly) applicable to transboundary aquifers.

A 2011 study suggests that the customary responsibilities most conspicuous in state practice include the substantive obligations of equitable and reasonable utilization and of no significant harm. The study also recognized the existence of accepted procedural duties, including: regular exchange of data and information, generation of supplemental data and information through continuous monitoring and related activities, and prior notification of planned activities. The latter obligation is considerably more general and less developed procedurally than what is contained in the UNWC. Principles contained in the UNWC, but which have yet to arise in state practice for transboundary aquifers, include norms related to ecosystem protection and pollution prevention, cooperative management mechanisms, and the settlement of disputes. In addition, the study identified groundwater-specific concepts that, while logical, have yet to emerge in state practice, including obligations related to protecting recharge and discharge zones.

In 2002, the UNGA tasked the UNILC with drafting principles of law for transboundary aquifers based on trends in state practice and customary norms. The resulting Draft Articles are now before the UNGA (see here). While the Draft Articles were modeled largely on the UNWC, there are a number of noteworthy differences. The UNWC applies to certain transboundary and some domestic aquifers as discussed above. In contrast, the Draft Articles apply to all transboundary aquifers, regardless of whether they are hydraulically linked to any other water body (surface or subsurface), and to domestic aquifers that are hydraulically related to a transboundary aquifer. In addition, the Draft Articles are tailored specifically for transboundary aquifers and include references and principles related to protecting recharge and discharge zones, ensuring the functioning of aquifers, and aquifer-related monitoring activities. If the Draft Articles proceed toward an independent legal instrument, which is yet uncertain (see here), the Draft Articles and UNWC will have to be harmonized.

Conclusion

The coming into force of the UNWC is a significant milestone in the evolution of international water law. While the Convention’s applicability to certain of the world’s groundwater resources may be limited, its growing acceptance and implementation signifies the global community’s broadening commitment to manage and utilize transboundary freshwater resources through peaceful and cooperative means. It also recognizes and affirms transboundary groundwater resources as a legitimate topic of international law.

Offshore fresh water aquifers: which law will apply?

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

The following post is by Renee Martin-Nagle, a Visiting Scholar with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC.  Ms. Martin-Nagle can be contacted at martin-nagle [at] eli.org.

In recent years, increasingly urgent voices have been warning of a global water crisis, as the human species consistently uses more water than is sustainably available.  Pictures of parched lands, disappearing lakes and streams, and single-faucet villages have become commonplace as thirsty straws siphon life-giving water from above and below the surface of the earth.  Currently a billion people – 40% of humanity – live in water-stressed conditions, and studies predict that the situation will deteriorate rapidly in the next few years, as the agricultural sector, which already accounts for an average of 70% of global fresh water use, struggles to feed an additional billion by 2030.

Figure 1: World map of topography and bathymetry showing known occurrences of fresh and brackish offshore groundwater.

Figure 1: World map of topography and bathymetry showing known occurrences of fresh and brackish offshore groundwater.
Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: V. Post, et.al., Offshore fresh groundwater reserves as a global phenomenon, Nature, Vol. 504, pp. 71–78 (5 December 2013) doi:10.1038/nature12858

Suddenly, in early December, a ray of hope appeared as a group of Australian scientists published a paper in Nature heralding discovery of vast meteoric fresh groundwater reserves off the coasts of China, Australia, North America, Greenland, Suriname, Nigeria and South Africa.  The group’s leader, Dr. Vincent Post of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT) and the School of the Environment at Flinders University, predicted that the “volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900,” and went on to say that “[k]nowing about these reserves is great news because this volume of water could sustain some regions for decades.”  In spite of a cautionary message in the article that “[o]ffshore groundwater is not the answer to global water crises”, one recent headline excitedly proclaimed, “Aussie Scientists May Have Solved the Global Water Shortage Crisis.”

There are several reasons why the prospect of vast seabed aquifers should not distract us from addressing fresh water shortages.  First, the article admits that “[d[espite convincing indications of the widespread presence of offshore paleo-groundwater, direct observations remain limited.”  With very few exceptions, the presence of seabed aquifers has not been proven but is based on sporadic sampling and intensive modeling.  Technical challenges must be overcome in order to locate and access the aquifers, without introducing contamination that would forever foul the confined waters.  Further, the waters are not expected to be fresh, but rather either brackish or somewhat saline, meaning treatment will be required prior to use.  Once the quantity and quality of the contained water is determined, it must be abstracted and transported to a treatment or desalination facility that would probably be located on-shore at some distance from the wellhead.  Finally, after weighing the benefits and risks, one or more parties must be willing to invest substantial sums to find, recover and treat the water.  The investors would be unusually philanthropic if they did not expect an economic return within a reasonable time, so a mechanism for monetizing the water would have to be agreed upon.  If we accept Dr. Post’s statement that the seabed aquifers would meet our needs for only a few decades, any “solution” offered by the discovery would be short-lived at current consumption rates.

Figure 2: Global overview of inferred key metrics and cross sections of well-characterised vast meteoric groundwater reserves.

Figure 2: Global overview of inferred key metrics and cross sections of well-characterised vast meteoric groundwater reserves.
Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: V. Post, et.al., Offshore fresh groundwater reserves as a global phenomenon, Nature, Vol. 504, pp. 71–78 (5 December 2013) doi:10.1038/nature12858

Assuming, however, that the challenges regarding accessibility and financial return could be overcome, determinations would have to be made whether jurisdiction and ownership of the water would follow domestic law, international water law, or the Law of the Sea.  Aquifers lying under the territorial sea of one nation would doubtless be governed by its domestic laws, but questions would arise for transboundary aquifers. If international water law principles were to guide ownership and use, a further determination would have to be made about which guidelines to follow.  The Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (the Watercourses Convention) needs ratification by two more states to enter into force, but by its terms the Watercourses Convention only applies to aquifers with a link to a surface water system.  Since they are fossil aquifers, the seabed aquifers lack such a link to any surface water system.  The 2008 UN Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers (the “Draft Aquifer Articles”) include fossil aquifers within their scope, granting nations full sovereignty to aquifer formations and the water therein that lie under their borders (Art. 3).  However, the Draft Aquifer Articles have thus far received scant attention, and, in the Case Concerning the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros Project, the International Court of Justice rejected the notion of absolute sovereignty over transboundary waters.  If the treaty void for transboundary aquifers were to be filled by adopting customary laws that have developed for transboundary surface waters, then nations sharing transboundary seabed aquifers may be expected to abide by such customary law principles as equitable and reasonable use, prevention of significant harm and exchange of information.

Alternatively, one could argue that the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), which has entered into force, should serve as the prevailing set of guidelines.  In that case, a preliminary determination would have to be made as to whether water should be treated as a non-living resource such as minerals, oil and gas.  Under UNCLOS, non-living resources located within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of a nation belong to that nation.  Oil and gas extraction follows the law of capture, which can result in windfall for nations with access to technology and financial resources.  An argument could be made that fresh, or even brackish, water should not be treated as a non-living resource, since water is the most vital of resources, necessary to support terrestrial life.  Indeed, the scope of the Draft Aquifers Articles initially included oil and gas along with water, but water was deemed too important to be treated in the same way as other extractive resources (see C. Yamada, Fourth report on shared natural resources: transboundary groundwaters (2007)).

The day may come when technology, financing and need will all converge to make extraction of the water in the seabed aquifers practical and even necessary.  Prior to that day, fundamental questions on legal regimes and treatment of vital resources will have to be raised and answered.

Israeli-Palestinian Agreement on Water within Sight

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

The following post is by David B. Brooks, an Associate with the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Mr. Brooks can be contacted at david.b.brooks34 [at] gmail.com.

Many people have said that the last thing on which Israelis and Palestinians will be able to agree is fresh water.  They are very likely wrong.  Over the past year, the two governments have been discussing a draft water agreement that was designed by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian environmental NGO that focuses on border issues.

Failings of the Oslo Process

Since the start of the Oslo process in 1993, all attempts at the peace process have been predicated on the belief that that a peace agreement must provide a simultaneous solution to all issues (i.e., “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”). This approach has failed.

Based on the development of a draft water agreement for FoEME by two Canadians, David B. Brooks and Julie Trottier, as well as informal discussions with the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies and the Palestinian Water Authority, the best chance for reviving the floundering peace process is to start by tackling “easier” issues, particularly fresh water.

Shared Water Resources of Israel, Palestine and Jordan

Given the Palestinian need for more water, Israel’s new water supply from large-scale desalination, and a mutual need to deal with untreated sewage, bringing water from last to first in the peace process makes economic, ecological, and, most importantly, political sense. For Palestinians, it would provide fresh water in every home; for Israelis, it would remove pollutants from rivers that flow through its main cities. The goal in sight is a Final Accord on Water, not just another interim step.

Breaking Away from the Oslo Model for Water

In addition to the broad tradeoff – more water for Palestinians; better water for Israelis -– the FoEME Proposal is put forward on the basis of two political questions: First, why wait for conclusion of a final status agreement? If, instead of fixed allocations, as with the Oslo agreements, one thinks of ongoing joint management, agreement can be reached right now.  Second, why not shift from a static to a dynamic form of agreement?  The Oslo agreement is dependent on a particular set of borders; the FoEME Proposal is adaptable to any set of borders.  The Oslo-designed Joint Water Committee can only deal with what is deemed Palestinian water; the FoEME Proposal includes joint management of all shared water, which is to say any water that flows along, across, or under the border.  The Oslo approach looks at water as primarily a supply issue; the FoEME Proposal gives as much attention to reducing demand as to increasing supply.  Finally, but perhaps most important, the Oslo agreements propose fixed quantitative allocations of water to Israelis and to Palestinians; the FoEME Proposal incorporates an ongoing review process that adjusts water allocations over time, and ensures that total withdrawals stay within sustainable limits.

One cannot share water as if it were a pie.  Transboundary agreements can divide land this way, but not water.  Water may start as rainfall, but it is then typically used over and over again, sometimes by a group of Palestinian farmers cooperating in a decentralized way, sometimes by the highly centralized Israeli water network, before it finally evaporates or flows into the sea.   With each stage of use, water quality is altered, generally for the worse.  The Oslo approach treats water as if it were both immobile and constant in quality.  The FoEME Proposal recognizes that water is mobile in space and variable in quality.

The Structure of the FoEME Proposal

Cover Page - An Agreement to Share WaterThe FoEME Proposal suggests creation of two key bodies:

  • Bilateral Water Commission replaces today’s Joint Water Committee with responsibility for all shared water (non-shared water sources would remain managed nationally).  The BWC makes key decisions on rates of extraction and of delivery of shared water, and the removal and treatment of waste water.  Its decisions are based on advice from an Office of Science Advisors (OSA) made up of professional staff appointed or seconded by the two governments.  Because it is potentially so powerful, the BWC is not allowed to make decisions independently; rather, it can only accept or reject recommendations from the OSA, but not alter them.  This format avoids giving either side the ability to leverage water issues in endless horse-trading on other, wider issues.
  • Water Mediation Board comes into play whenever the BWC finds itself unable to accept a decision of the science advisors, or if a group or community opposes its decision.  The WMB would have a wide range of tools available to guide a process of seeking resolution ranging from scientific investigations to public forums.  All of these tools must be used in as transparent a way as possible, so as to give credence to its recommendations.

 

Both the BWC and WMB should be composed of an equal number of Israeli and Palestinian representatives plus possibly one person from outside the region. If voting is necessary, the rules are designed to prevent either side from dominating the other.  For example, if the BWC has seven members, any majority decision would have to have to have the support of least one Israeli and one Palestinian.

An Israeli-Palestinian water agreement is possible – Right now!  Though not designed for any purpose other than managing shared water, it could become the first step in creating the final status agreement that has eluded negotiators for so many years.

 

The full 180,000 word version of An Agreement to Share Water between Israelis and Palestinians: The FoEME Proposal (with Arabic and Hebrew translations of key chapters) by David B. Brooks and Julie Trottier is available here.  An abridged version, entitled Changing the Nature of Transboundary Water Agreements: The Israeli-Palestinian Case by Brooks, Trottier and Laura Doliner, is available here.

Adoption of Regional Strategic Action Plan on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

The following post is by Raya Marina Stephan, a water law specialist and consultant, and Chair of the Publication Committee of the International Water Resources Association. Ms. Stephan can be reached at raya.stephan [at] yahoo.com.

On 18 September 2013, the Ministers in charge of water resources in the four States of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS) (Chad, Egypt, Libya & Sudan), and the Chairperson of the Joint Authority for the Study and Development of the Nubian Aquifer, signed an important document, the Regional Strategic Action Plan (SAP).

The NSAS is one of the largest aquifer systems in the world, composed of non-renewable groundwater. It extends over 2,000,000 km2 and contains about 540,000 km3 of water, out of which 15,340 km3 is believed to be exploitable.

Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS)

Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS)

Cooperation over the NSAS dates back at least to 1989 when Egypt and Libya established among themselves a Joint Authority (JA) for the Study and Development of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System. In 1992, the two States adopted the agreement “Constitution of the Joint Authority for the Study and Development of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer Waters” (see Annex 7 in the GEF Project Document).  Sudan joined the collaboration in 1996 and Chad officially affiliated in 1999.   This agreement is one of the few agreements worldwide over a transboundary aquifer. While the number of identified transboundary aquifers globally exceeds 315 (IGRAC 2012), only four have an interstate agreement. Besides the NSAS, there are: the agreement on the Genevese Aquifer (French, English), the Ministerial declarations on the North Western Sahara Aquifer System, and the agreement on the Guarani Aquifer (Portuguese, Spanish, English). It is also relevant to mention the 2009 memorandum of agreement and road map adopted by the States of the Iullemeden aquifer system (Niger, Nigeria and Mali), however little progress has been made on this effort so far.

The agreement on the NSAS, as its name indicates, is an agreement creating the Joint Authority (JA), which is intended to serve as a joint institution/commission for the management of the shared aquifer. The agreement provides the basic rules for its functioning, and its responsibilities are quite wide and large. For instance, the JA can, conduct studies on the Nubian aquifer, is entitled to develop programs and plans for the utilization of water, and can propose and execute a common policy for the development and utilization of the water resources of the aquifer. The JA can also ration the consumption of water from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer in the member countries and, therefore, holds real management responsibilities. The agreement is, thus, more an institutional agreement than merely a water management one.

The first project (1998-2002) on the Nubian aquifer, the “Regional Strategy for the Utilization of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System” executed by the Center for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE), resulted in an improved scientific knowledge of the aquifer system and the consideration of the socio-economic conditions in the riparian States. During this project, the JA acted as the Project Steering Committee and was relatively active holding yearly meetings.

In 2006, the four States engaged in a second project – Formulation of an Action Programme for the Integrated Management of the Shared Nubian Aquifer – funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and executed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, with a support from UNESCO (see project website). The overall objective of the project is to establish a rational and equitable management of the NSAS for sustainable socio-economic development and the protection of biodiversity and land resources. To achieve this goal, national multidisciplinary teams in the riparian States were constituted and, with the support of a team of international experts, prepared the Shared Aquifer Diagnostic Analysis (SADA) to jointly identify, understand, and reach agreement on the priority issues, threats, and root causes of the NSAS. The SADA identifies the following key transboundary concerns:

  1. Declining water levels related to abstractions
  2. Damage or loss of the ecosystem and biodiversity that are linked to the aquifer at oases
  3. Water quality deterioration from pollution (industry, agriculture and urban)

Following adoption of the SADA, national team of experts identified the common NSAS vision and key water resource objectives as well as the ecosystems linked and dependent on the aquifer.  Finally, a common set of management actions addressing the key NSAS transboundary issues were prepared, which lead to the recently-signed SAP.  The adopted vision for the NSAS under the SAP is:

“To assure rational and equitable management of the NSAS for sustainable socio-economic development and the protection of biodiversity and land resources whilst ensuring no detrimental effects on the shared aquifer countries.”

The signing of the SAP document at the ministerial level represents an important step forward in building the cooperation process among the NSAS countries. It is the common and joint commitment to the identified shared vision for the cooperative management of the NSAS by the States and the JA, as well as the commitment to implement the actions.

Rethinking Transboundary Ground Water Resources Management: A Local Approach along the Mexico-U.S. Border

Monday, May 6th, 2013

The following post is by Gabriel Eckstein, Director of the International Water Law Project, Professor of Law at Texas Wesleyan University, and Of Counsel with Sullivan & Worcester. He can be reached at gabriel [at] internationalwaterlaw.org. This post is based on a new article by the same title.

The nearly 2,000 mile-long border between Mexico and the United States is hot and dry. Few rivers cross this arid expanse. Yet, despite the lack of visible, life-sustaining water, the region is growing – the combined border population, currently around 14.4 million, is expected to increase 40% by 2020.  The reason for this remarkable growth is ground water, more specifically, transboundary aquifers.  As many as twenty aquifers straddle the Mexico-U.S. border, many of which serve as the primary or sole source of fresh water for the border’s communities and unique ecosystems.

Map produced by the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, and the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre suggesting the presence of 10 transboundary aquifers or aquifer systems along the Mexico-U.S. border.

Notwithstanding the undeniable importance of the region’s transboundary aquifers, neither Mexico nor the United States seem inclined to pursue a border-wide pact to coordinate management of these critical freshwater resources. While recommendations have been proffered for more than forty years, all appear to have fallen on deaf ears.  As a result, these resources are now being overexploited on both frontiers as populations and industries pump with little regard for sustainability or transboundary consequences.  Moreover, these subsurface reservoirs are being fouled by untreated wastes, agricultural and industrial by-products, and other sources of pollution.  Imminently unsustainable, the situation portends a grim future for the region.

If both federal governments are unwilling to take decisive steps, what else can be done?  Are there alternatives to a formal, comprehensive, border-wide regime that would address the complexity and multitude of issues related to the various transboundary aquifers on the border?

In a recently published article, I advocate for an alternative approach, one that sidesteps the respective federal authorities and places the burden of pursuing cross-border cooperation on the communities that so depend on these critical fresh water resources.  Essentially, I propose that subnational entities at the local and regional level pursue cooperation over transboundary aquifers in the form of informal, locally-specific, cross-border arrangements.

While this tactic challenges the national governments’ traditional monopoly over international relations, especially as they relate to transboundary natural resources, there is good reason to believe that such an approach could achieve what Mexico City and Washington, DC have failed (or declined) to do – create effective collaborative schemes for the mutual and sustainable management of the region’s transboundary aquifers.

Map showing the six Mexican states and four US states, as well as numerous sister cities, along the Mexico-US border. Map courtesy of USEPA: http://www.epa.gov/region9/annualreport/07/images/mexico-us-border.jpg

Under the unique circumstances of the Mexico-U.S. border, informal and quasi-formal arrangements are more likely to create viable cross-border pacts that would be respected by the local communities.  The degree of interest that the national authorities have in a local issue is often directly proportional to the physical distance from the capitol.  In contrast, local decision-makers are typically better informed about local and regional cross-border concerns than federal bureaucrats, especially on issues related to the management of local fresh water resources.  Moreover, local authorities are better able to reflect the values and preferences of those most likely to be affected by a water accord with a neighboring country, which, for a local border community, is merely a short drive away.  Critically, local decision-making would likely be more sustainable, as well as responsive and adaptable to changing climatic and economic circumstances and improved knowledge, given that the local communities and their children will have to live with their decision far into the future.

In addition, a local approach to the management of transboundary aquifers makes hydrologic sense.  No two aquifers are alike; each functions as a complex and unique hydrological system.  Moreover, no two aquifers are perceived equally by overlaying communities, especially where those communities are highly dependent on the resources to meet their daily freshwater needs.  Hence, aquifers traversing the Mexico-U.S. border cannot be managed effectively through a single, comprehensive, border-wide treaty.  While a border-wide scheme may be politically convenient, such an approach could only offer very general guidelines and standards, and may prove detrimental to the sustainable management of some of the region’s subsurface waters.  Rather, an effective, sound, and equitable management plan should be tailored to each transboundary aquifer’s unique characteristics and circumstances.

One concern often raised with a local approach to the management of transboundary natural resources is the legality of such action.  As is true under most nations’ foundational instruments, both the Mexican and the U.S. constitutions recognize the national government as the sole authority empowered to deal with foreign representatives; they prohibit states, cities, and other subnational political units from entering into treaties and other formal relations with counterparts across the border.  The goal here, however, is not to create multiple, locally-specific, formal treaties throughout the border.  Rather, the goal is the development and implementation of informal or quasi-formal, locally-specific, cross-border arrangements that are implemented through cooperative understandings or memorandum of understanding, or more structured contracts for goods or services.  In the United States, while the former would be immune to Constitutional scrutiny due to their unofficial, unenforceable, and non-binding nature, the latter would be immune to the extent that the U.S. Congress has not preempted such activities under its authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Given the state of the economy, domestic and international terrorism, drug wars, and other societal and political challenges, ground water on the Mexico-U.S. border is not a priority of the Mexican and American governments.  Unfortunately, that lack of prioritization is jeopardizing the long-term viability and habitability of the border area and portends the possible downfall of many communities and ecosystems throughout the region.

The two federal governments, though, are not indispensable for developing sustainable and coordinated ground water relations on the border.  Through informal locally-specific, cross-border arrangements, frontier communities can, on their own, achieve viable cross-border pacts that will ensure the water futures of their peoples, economies, and environment.  For a more comprehensive consideration of this proposal, please see my recently published article.

Remembrance of Ambassador Chusei Yamada

Monday, March 25th, 2013

It is always sad when a colleague passes on. Somehow, it is even more sorrowful when that person was a friend to and respected by so many. On 21 March 2013, Ambassador Chusei Yamada passed away in his native Japan; and the global water community lost a great friend.

Ambassador Chusei Yamada

During his long and distinguished career, Ambassador Yamada served in various diplomatic posts, including as Japan’s Ambassador to Egypt (1989-92), India (1993-95), and Bhutan (1993-95).  He also served as an arbitrator and conciliator under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and most recently, as Special Assistant to the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan.  While all eminent and critical roles, his work toward bridging the water divide between riparian aquifer nations may be his most significant legacy.

I met Ambassador Yamada in 2003 when I was first invited to participate on a UNESCO-organized advisory group to the UN International Commission (UNILC).  Ambassador Yamada had been selected as the UNILC’s Special Rapporteur on the topic of Shared Natural Resources and had undertaken a process to draft principles of law that would apply to transboundary aquifers.

Ambassador Chusei YamadaI had always thought it rather astute of the Commission to select someone for this role from a country that, as an island-nation, had no contiguous neighbors with whom to share transboundary fresh water aquifers. As I got to know the Ambassador, though, I realized that his selection as Special Rapporteur was even more portentous in that from the start, Ambassador Yamada poured his heart and soul into this singular challenge.

Ambassador Yamada had no formal background in ground water resources let alone training in a hard science.  He was a lawyer and a diplomat, and above all a gentleman (see Ambassador Yamada’s brief bio).  Yet, in the six years that our advisory group supported his efforts, the Ambassador became so well versed in hydrogeology and related water issues that the International Association of Hydrogeologists recognized him “for outstanding contribution to the understanding, development, management and protection of groundwater resources internationally” and awarded him their Distinguished Associate Award for 2008 (see IAH newsletter, Issue D30, December 2008, pp. 3-4).

Yamada and IAH Award

“Ambassador Chusei Yamada receiving the IAH Distinguished Associate Award 2008 at a ceremony in Geneva in July 2008. Willi Struckmeier (then Secretary General and now IAH President) hands over a special issue World Hydrogeological Map showing transboundary aquifers while Shammy Puri, Chairman of the IAH Transboundary Aquifer Resources Management Commission and now IAH Secretary General, looks on.” From: IAH newsletter, Issue D30, December 2008, pp. 3-4.

Ambassador Yamada’s contribution to the global water community cannot be overstated.  He made every effort to ensure that the principles that the UNILC drafted for the management of transboundary aquifers would be based on sound science as well as be socially and politically feasible.  As he gained new knowledge and information, he sought to pass on that education to his colleagues in the UN; as his recommendations faced challenges based on misunderstandings and cross-border mistrust, he used his diplomatic acumen to achieve compromises.

It is true that some of the nineteen draft articles that the UNILC finally transmitted to the UN General Assembly in late 2008 may not be ideal.  Nevertheless, they represent the most significant and comprehensive effort to date to address transboundary aquifers and to develop a durable legal framework for the sustainable and peaceful management of shared ground water resources.  Based on that framework, nations around the world are now beginning to reach across their frontiers to coordinate and collaborate with their neighbors over their shared aquifers (see e.g., Agreement on the Guarani Aquifer [Spanish] [Portuguese]).  Truly, we all owe Ambassador Chusei Yamada our gratitude for laying out such a propitious roadmap.

The Future of Africa’s Water Security

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

Special thanks to Kavitha Pramod for co-authoring this essay

This map, published with the original MacDonald, et.al., study, depicts potential ground water resources on the African continent. Areas in blue represent the most water-abundant areas.

Not long ago, the BBC reported (here) on vast reservoirs of ground water resources underlying the African continent and the critical use that this water could have for populations now and in the future. While the so-called “discovery” of this water wealth may be questionable (see WaterWired’s Michael Campana explaining what we already knew here), the resurgence in interest in fresh water for Africa is a critical development in itself. The MacDonald, et.al., study that started this latest brouhaha can be found here.

Africa remains one of the poorest regions in the world in terms of access to fresh water resources. A recent report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (here) indicates that approximately 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are without access to safe and clean drinking water. Of the countries reported to have less than fifty-percent coverage in water supply, almost all are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, only some thirty-percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is blessed with improved sanitation coverage, making the region one of the most underserved in the world.

In the year 2000, the world’s major leaders came together at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration (here). The Declaration was intended to create a global partnership aimed at reducing extreme poverty throughout the world. Targets, known as the Millennium Development Goals, were set to achieve the Declaration’s aim, with a deadline for the year 2015 (see here). In sub-Saharan Africa, where some of the worst poverty and water scarcity conditions exist, only nineteen of the fifty existing countries are expected to meet the Goals’ drinking water targets by the year 2015.

This UNECA chart compares water availability for countries throughout Africa from 1990 to 2025. By 2025, all countries in the region are expected to be in a state of water vulnerability, with most being in states of water stress or water scarcity.

Of further concern for the sub-Saharan African region is that according to the United Nations, over the next ten to fifteen years, as populations continue to expand, per capita water supplies will diminish significantly to the point where available supplies will no longer be able to meet the water needs of many of the region’s nations.

Given the troubled state of Africa’s water circumstances, a renewed focus on the significant sources of ground water underlying much of the continent comes at a very important time. In addition to concentrating attention on a dire situation, it provides opportunities for the region and the global community to explore means of overcoming the water challenges facing Africa and for sustainably developing and managing these underground resources. One of these opportunities is directly tied to the fact that many of Africa’s aquifers are transboundary, underlying two or more nations. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, for example, is situated below Chad, Egypt, Libya, and Sudan; the Iullemeden Aquifer System underlays Mali, Niger and Nigeria; and the Baggara Basin aquifer is underneath Central African Republic, Sudan, and South Sudan, including the parched and war-ravaged Darfur region.

As the availability of fresh water decreases across the continent, competition and tensions over transboundary resources are likely to rise. To date, however, none of the transboundary aquifer countries in Africa have entered into an aquifer sharing or management arrangement. The only transboundary aquifer-related arrangements on the continent are two rudimentary consultative and data-sharing agreements formulated for the Nubian Sandstone and Northwestern Sahara aquifers in North Africa (you can find the texts for these arrangements here and here).

More than seventy aquifers and aquifer systems in Africa have been identified as “transboundary” by the United Nations’ International Groundwater Resources Assessment Center. IGRAC’s Transboundary Aquifers of the World 2012 map is available here.

An attempt also was made to develop an extensive consultative and management regime for the Iullemeden Aquifer System. In 2009, the overlying nations (Mali, Niger and Nigeria) signed the Declaration of Bamako (here) and an accompanying Memorandum of Understanding for the establishment of a consultative mechanism for the management of the Iullemeden Aquifer System (here) whose goals were to: (1) identifying transboundary risks and uncertainties, (2) formulate joint risk mitigation and sharing policies, and (3) facilitate the sustainable development of the Iullemeden Aquifer System’s resources. While the arrangement contained rather progressive and thoughtful approaches and mechanisms, the effort appear to have stalled.

Given the levels of water stress and scarcity that African countries are currently experiencing, and which are predicted to increase rapidly, the need for action is immediate. Although ground water resources in Africa are vast and provide great opportunities for overcoming the continent’s water scarcity problems, the lack of information, technical capacity, adequate funding, and cooperation prevents many African nations from overcoming the water challenges facing them. Accordingly, it is crucial that all of Africa – from the national level to the most local community – develop programs that will expand the exploration of water resources, push for data-generation and sharing, and encourage cross-border cooperative and sustainable management initiatives. It is also critical that the United Nations, as well as the developed world, offer their assistance for this worthwhile effort.

The mere discovery of a new source of fresh water underlying one of another nation will not ensure it a future free of water scarcity. Only by cooperating and carefully and sustainably managing such resources will Africa’s nations be able to secure the much needed water for its communities and environment.