The following post by Dr. Maria Querol is the ninth in the series of essays related to the entering into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (see links to all of the essays here). Dr. Querol is an international law consultant with a vast background in international water law. She can be reached at maria.querol [at] gmail.com.
Although the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC) has finally entered into force, not one South American country is among its State Parties. Whilst Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela voted in favour of its adoption at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru all abstained. Paraguay and Venezuela were the only states from the region to sign the Convention, in 1997 and 1998 respectively. Nevertheless, neither has made any attempt to ratify it.
Many arguments have been presented to justify this flagrant absence, mainly focusing on the concern of South American states regarding challenges to their sovereignty over water resources flowing through their territories. However, this is not the only factor to be considered when analysing the region’s position on this topic.
Multilateral transboundary water treaties of South America
South American states have a history of concluding international treaties to regulate the management of their shared watercourses. This long-standing tradition favors the implementation of specific mechanisms and international water law norms over more general regimes. While most of these agreements are bilateral, there are four exceptions: the 1969 Treaty of the River Plate Basin, the 2010 Guarani Aquifer Agreement, the 1978 Amazon Cooperation Treaty, and the 1995 Agreement constituting the Tri-National Commission of the Pilcomayo River Basin.
The Plate Basin Treaty entered into force for Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay on 14 August 1970. It operates as an umbrella for other more specific agreements, both bilateral and multilateral, that have been concluded with regard to particular transboundary watercourses within the basin. Article VI of this agreement foresees the possibility that its Contracting Parties may conclude specific, partial, bilateral, or multilateral agreements designed to develop the basin. Accordingly, the Guarani Aquifer Agreement was concluded within the framework of the Plate Basin Treaty. Thus, the basin is regulated with an intergrated approach, both from a general and a more specific standpoint.
Transboundary watercourses are regarded in the region as shared natural resources. This view was particulary emphasized by both Argentina and Uruguay in the 1975 River Uruguay Statute and reaffirmed in 2010 in the Pulp Mills case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In this regard, Argentina argued in its memorial to the Court that “[t]he shared nature of the River Uruguay is also apparent from the fact that obligations are imposed on Argentina and Uruguay at an international level. The 1975 River Uruguay Statute is actually a repository for th[ose] international obligations”. Those obligations comprise the rules of no significant harm, equitable and reasonable use, and prior notification. It is important to bear in mind that these general norms are only applicable to the use and protection of shared natural resources as long as the states sharing the resource have not implemented a more specific conventional regime. Accordingly, Argentina also declared that while the River Uruguay Statute had been concluded 22 years before the UNWC was adopted by the UNGA, “the Statute provides for the establishment of a system of co-operation which is far more rigorous than that laid down by the Convention.”
The Amazon Cooperation Treaty was adopted by Bolivia, Brasil, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Suriname and Venenzuela to promote equitable and mutually beneficial results in the Amazon territories under their respective jurisdictions. It entered into force on 12 August 1980. The no harm rule and the reasonable and equitable principle are enshrined in Article I of the agreement. The no harm rule is also implicit in Article XVI as it stipulates that the decisions and commitments adopted by the State Parties to the treaty shall not be to the detriment of projects and undertakings executed within their natural territories, in accordance with international law. In addition, Article V prescribes the rational utilization of the water resources of the Amazon System. Periodic exchange of information among all the State Parties is also provided for in Articles I, VII and XI.
By virtue of an amendment to Article XXII of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty, the Organization of the Treaty of Amazon Cooperation was created with the view of further strengthening and ensuring the more effective implementation of the goals of the Treaty. The existence of an international legal entity directly regulated by public international law no doubt facilitates the realization of projects and can provide guidance for the rational utilization and sustainable management of shared water resources in the Amazon region.
Although the Amazon Cooperation Treaty does not prescribe a dispute resolution mechanism, State Parties can agree to submit their disputes to an arbitral tribunal or a permanent judicial organ such as the ICJ. They can also resort to a political dispute resolution method such as mediation or good offices. In any case, states are always bound by the customary obligation to negotiate a solution to their disputes in good faith.
Transboundary water management in South America
Unlike the practice in other regions of the world, discussions over shared water resources in South America, more often than not, take place under a cordial atmosphere. Although information exchange among states does take place in the region, the necessary data may be scattered around in different institutions, in which case its collection can prove quite burdensome. With reference to dispute resolution, South American states have been resolving their issues through direct negotiations and in some cases, as between Argentina and Uruguay, through the ICJ. Whilst progress has been made in terms of cooperation and knowledge over the management of shared surface water resources, this is not the case with regards to all shared groundwater. A first step forward has indeed been taken with regards to the Guarani Aquifer. But, further in-depth knowledge is necessary to provide a more complete scenario of all the possible consequences of human action related to transboundary groundwater resources.
Currently, South American states do not appear to have an immediate interest in a universal framework treaty to regulate the management of their transboundary water resources. Rather, they would prefer to continue resorting to their existing bilateral and multilateral agreements and to applicable customary norms in the absence of such treaties. They even count on international organizations to help implement their preferred management regime in the case of the Amazon Basin, and through a framework agreement for the Plate Basin.
This does not mean that the UNWC will have no value to South America. To the extent that the Convention codifies general international rules, its norms are binding on all states of the international community, including those of South America. In addition, the entry into force of the UNWC might foster the development of new customary norms in areas not yet covered by the existing regional treaties and could prove very influential in the interpretation of those particular treaties.