The following post is by Dr. Otto Spijkers, Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Utrecht University. He can be reached at O.Spijkers [at] uu.nl. The essay is based on Dr. Spijkers’ forthcoming article in the Journal of Water Law.
One of the more formidable global challenges today is ensuring the sustainable management of freshwater resources. In many recent speeches and reports, including by Mikhail Gorbachev, one reads that urgent action is necessary to prevent a nightmarish world with polluted lakes and rivers, deadly droughts and floods, water scarcity, and the resulting water wars. This post analyzes how the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) process might guide the evolution of the existing international water law framework toward a structure that is more friendly toward sustainable development, ecosystems, and public participation.
The Role of Water in the SDG Process
The SDG drafting process takes place through two work streams, which will come together in autumn 2015 when the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopts the list of SDGs in the form of a resolution. The first is a work stream led by the UN Secretary-General and supported by many reports and consultations. The second is led by the UNGA Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals (OWG). For an overview of the SDG drafting process, see here and here. After the UNGA adopts the SDGs, the SDG process will focus on implementation, dissemination, monitoring compliance, and creating awareness of the SDGs – a bit like the current status of Millennium Development Goals process.
From the beginning of the SDG drafting process, water has been identified as an important issue. The Future We Want, the outcome document of the 2012 Rio+20 Conference, which set the SDG drafting process in motion, placed water at the heart of sustainable development. Since then, participants in the work streams have struggled to find the proper place for “water” in the SDG process. For example, a proposal for a separate water goal was presented by the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (consortium of scientists) proposed to include in the list of goals a commitment that “water resources are managed sustainably and transparently.” The UN Global Compact (consortium of responsible businesses) suggested calling upon all States to look critically at overconsumption of water resources, especially in the agricultural sector. And the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (group of experts) proposed including a separate SDG on water, but focusing on individual entitlements to water – making it more of a human rights issue than a sustainable transboundary water management issue. Finally, and most importantly, the Outcome Document of the OWG, around which all subsequent discussions on the SDGs will be organized, included an SDG on the sustainable management of water.
All of these efforts do not mean the mission has been accomplished. At the 24th World Water Week in Stockholm, the Executive Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute rightly noted that nothing is certain until the UNGA adopts its resolution at the end of 2015.
All in all, water was – and still is – on the minds of many people involved in the SDG drafting process, but there exist various and widely diverging views on how exactly the reference to water should be phrased: As a human rights issue? As an economic issue? As an environmental concern? Despite these different opinions, there are some views emerging from the SDG process on which there is general agreement.
Three Emerging Views from the SDG Process
The first view suggests that States should be encouraged to interpret and apply international water law as a legal framework for the sustainable development of water resources. Sustainable development requires a development policy that meets the socio-economic needs of the present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (UNECE Convention) notes in its Preamble that “water resources shall be managed so that the needs of the present generation are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourse (Watercourses Convention) refers to the principle of sustainable development in the Preamble and in Article 24. Moreover, Article 5 links the “sustainable utilization” of shared watercourses to water law’s bedrock principle of reasonable and equitable use. Hence, there are plenty of references to sustainability in water law’s most important legal documents. But this says little about the precise balance between the rights of present and future generations to benefit from water resources. Some States still believe that international water law is meant to regulate the economic use of shared watercourses, but not to protect the environment of these watercourses. The SDG process, with its focus on sustainability, provides an ideal opportunity to convince all States to approach the water law framework always wearing spectacles with green glass.
A second view would encourage States to stimulate the further development of the ecosystems approach to international water law. The year 2015 might very well be the year of the ecosystems approach. The Post 2015 Water Thematic Consultation already made many references to the protection of freshwater “ecosystems.” This emphasis on ecosystems is supported by various national consultations. An explicit reference to an obligation to “restore and maintain ecosystems to provide water-related services” in the targets of the SDG on water was proposed by UN-Water. In the OWG’s Outcome Document, the term ecosystem is applied in a broad sense, and with a lot of confidence. Since there is still much uncertainty about the meaning of the term “ecosystem” in international law, the SDG process could seize the moment, and encourage the further development of the ecosystems approach through international water law. We do have a legal basis: Article 20 of the Watercourses Convention and Article 3(1)(i) of the UNECE Convention both include an explicit reference to the ecosystems approach. And if a whole decolonization wave in the 1960s and 1970s could be based on one meagre reference to “self-determination” in the United Nations Charter (Article 1(2)), it is conceivable that two articles could serve as the basis for a legal regime on the protection of freshwater ecosystems. Article 20 of the Watercourses Convention, in particular, may then become a treaty-within-a-treaty, setting up by itself a legal regime on the protection of freshwater ecosystems.
The third view suggests using the legal framework of international water law to facilitate public participation at all levels of water governance. Both the Women’s Major Groups (see here and here) and Business and Industry called for a more “participatory” water governance system. UN-Water suggested that any system of water management should include “participatory decision-making.” In the Outcome Document of the OWG, the importance of public participation, especially by local communities, in water governance is acknowledged. All of this might encourage States to exploit with more confidence the potential of international water law in facilitating public participation in the sustainable management of waters. No general right of the public to participate can be found in the Watercourses Convention or the UNECE Convention. But the Conventions do not oppose it.