The Geneva List of Principles of the Protection of Water Infrastructure: An Assessment and the Way Forward

August 17th, 2020

The following essay by Dr. Mara Tignino and Ms. Öykü Irmakkesen is a summary of their recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears in Vol. 5(2) 2020, pp. 3-104 of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law.  Dr. Tignino is Lead Legal Specialist at the Platform for International Water Law at the Geneva Water Hub and Reader at the Faculty of Law and the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva. She can be reached at Ms. Irmakkesen is Teaching Assistant at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and former Researcher at the Geneva Water Hub. She can be reached at

Water tower in Vukovar, Croatia, damaged during the Battle of Vukovar in 1991

Water infrastructures have been objects of attacks and weaponized in several armed conflicts throughout history. While such acts are invariably condemned by the international community, a thorough study of the legal framework on the protection of water infrastructure had until now been missing. However, as demonstrated in the monograph, protection of water infrastructure is essential to the protection of the environment and civilians during armed conflicts. Damaging or destroying these infrastructures can lead to the contamination of water resources and a disruption in the vital services they provide including water for personal and domestic uses, water for irrigation, and water for energy supplies.

The monograph starts with an introduction, which outlines the scale of the problems caused by attacks against and the weaponization of water infrastructure. This is followed by sections on the background and methodology of the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure. Lastly, preliminary remarks on the List’s scope and content are provided.

This monograph is based on a project carried out by the Geneva Water Hub and its Platform for International Water Law. The project was triggered by the final report of the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, A Matter of Survival. The report’s second chapter, entitled ‘Into the Abyss: Water in Armed Conflicts’, contained several recommendations, mainly addressed to the UN Security Council, including strengthening the respect for and implementation of international humanitarian law for better protection of water resources.

The main section of the monograph is the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure and its commentary. The Geneva List includes principles applicable in peacetime, during armed conflicts and in post-conflict situations. These principles bring together rules regulating the protection of water infrastructure under international humanitarian law, international human rights law, international environmental law and international water law. Moreover, some principles also reflect recommendations that go beyond the existing law, which are largely built upon the practice of parties to past and current conflicts and well-recognized soft law documents, such as the Berlin and Madrid Rules of the International Law Association.

Certain types of water infrastructure are specially protected under international humanitarian law. For example, drinking water installations and irrigation works are protected under a special regime as objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (Article 54 of the First Additional Protocol and Article 14 of the Second Additional Protocol to the four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 relating to the protection of victims of international and non-international armed conflicts, respectively). Likewise, dams are also accorded special protection as they are considered to contain dangerous forces (Article 56 of the First Additional Protocol and Article 15 of the Second Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions). Additionally, all water infrastructures are protected by the general rules on the conduct of hostilities as long as they remain civilian objects. For example, the principle of proportionality prohibits launching an attack that may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated (Article 51(5)(b) of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions). This principle is particularly important in urban warfare contexts where the interconnectedness of infrastructure results in knock-on effects of the damaging or destruction of only one component. Such reverberating effects, which may not take place in the immediate aftermath or vicinity of the attacks but are foreseeable, must be taken into account by the parties to conflicts in their proportionality assessments.

Finally, the monograph concludes with a short section that delineates the perspectives of the authors on the possible challenges ahead, for example, due to climate change and proliferation of cyber warfare. This part also sets forth next steps to be taken based on the Geneva List of Principles by the Geneva Water Hub and explores the idea of creating a mechanism to monitor damages to water infrastructure during armed conflicts.

The writing of the Geneva List of Principles coincided with several related projects by different actors. Notably, the International Law Commission has provisionally adopted the draft principles on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict on first reading in 2019. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been updating its 1994 Guidelines for Military Manuals and Instructions on the Protection of the Environment in Times of Armed Conflict and is expected the publish the new guidelines by the end of 2020. During the drafting and publication process of the Geneva List of Principles, the Geneva Water Hub also cooperated with UNICEF, which launched its Water Under Fire campaign in March 2019. These initiatives highlight the increasing interest in revisiting rules and issues relating to the protection of water and the environment, also with the aim of enhancing the protection of civilians from the effects of armed conflicts.

You can access the monograph here.

Democratic water governance to achieve a human right to water

July 28th, 2020

This essay is written by Gabriel Eckstein, Professor of Law at Texas A&M University, director of the TAMU Law Program in Energy, Environmental, and Natural Resources Systems, and director of the International Water Law Project. He can be reached at gabrieleckstein [at]

Ten years ago, the global community formally recognized a universal human right to water in a United Nations resolution. While a major milestone in the effort to secure adequate freshwater for all people globally, much remains to be done.

The unravelling COVID-19 pandemic underscores the inequities and gaps in access to clean water that continue to plague communities worldwide. More importantly, it highlights the reality that while articulation and even codification of the right to water is crucial for ensuring human health and life, fulfillment of that right requires a foundation of strong democratic governance.

Pronouncing the right

The call for formal recognition of a human right to water can be traced back, at least, to 1977 and the UN Water Conference held in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The Action Plan from that event declared that “All peoples, whatever their stage of development and social and economic conditions, have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic needs.” Building on that foundation, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child were the first global treaties to formally and explicitly recognize a right to water in their text.

Over the next few decades, various UN and other conferences and pronouncements expanded on the right and its scope and application. Most notable was the 2002 General Comment No. 15 issued by the UN Economic and Social Council, which provided guidelines for interpreting the right to water, framing it within the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to the highest attainable standard of health. In its opening article, the Comment provides that “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”

Finally, the 2010 UN Resolution, as well as the 2015 UN Resolution that explicitly recognized the human right to sanitation as a distinct right, capped the series of formal recognitions and gave official notice that, moving forward, the global community acknowledges and intends to respect the existence of these critical human rights.

Ongoing shortfall

Despite these noble and meaningful achievements, progress in attaining the goals that these rights envision has been challenging. In 2019, the World Health Organization reported that 785 million people around the world continue to lack even the most basic drinking-water services, and at least 2 billion people still use a drinking water source contaminated with feces.

Of particular relevance to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the chief executive of the NGO WaterAid recently noted that three quarters of households in developing countries worldwide did not have access to infrastructure or facilities where handwashing was available, and that one third of healthcare facilities in these countries lacked access to clean water on site.

While poorer nations tend to bear the brunt of inadequate access to freshwater, these shortfalls also plague the developed world. A 2020 report by the US Water Alliance asserted that in the United States, more than two million people lack running water and basic indoor plumbing; a 2018 report by Food and Water Watch found that 15 million Americans experienced a water shutoff in 2016. Similarly, the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe reported that 16 million people across the region have no access to clean drinking-water, and more than 31 million lack adequate sanitation services.

Clearly, we are not living up to the promises and expectations of a universal human right to water. Even when recognizing that such a right can be functionally implemented only at the domestic level, and on a country-by-country basis, the gaps in fulfilling the human right to water across the globe remain vast.

Democracy is key

The main challenge to realizing any human right is in its implementation at the domestic and local levels. The human right to water (as is the right to sanitation) is particularly susceptible to the vagaries of national and local politics, as well as the injustices and disparities that result from classism, racism, sexism, religious prejudice, and other forms of discrimination and oppression. Moreover, while the 2002 General Comment No. 15 asserted that the human right to water “is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights,” that right itself is highly dependent on the fulfillment of other rights and a functioning government with strong democratic ideals.

Ensuring access to water to all people necessarily implicates investments in infrastructure, tariffs or other resources to cover costs, allocation determinations, and ultimately prioritization decisions. As a result, the right to water functions at the domestic level as a social justice issue, and more precisely, a water justice issue. It is built on notions of fairness (acting without bias), equity (acting to meet needs), accessibility (ensuring the ability to acquire), and participation (involvement in decision-making). Without a strong water justice foundation, the right to water remains aspirational.

Furthermore, the right to water is highly dependent on a regime that ensures and enforces other fundamental human rights, most notably, expression, assembly, non-discrimination, and dignity. As a matter of history, this occurs where governance regimes respect the democratic process. Together, water justice and basic human rights serve as prerequisites and actually constitute the necessary tools for the realization of a viable and enforceable human right to water.

Beyond a paper right

While the phrase “water is life” may have become a cliché, it remains a truism. Yet, the fulfilment of its logical conclusion – that all people must have access to freshwater – remains far from reality. This has become brutally evident in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic where millions of people worldwide cannot even wash their hands to maintain their health, let alone drink potable water to maintain their lives.

The right to water, however, is intertwined with and dependent on democratic governance. Without a foundation that recognizes water as a justice issue and ensures other basic human rights, the right to water will simply remain a paper right.

This essay was written by Gabriel Eckstein for the Global Water Forum to celebrate the adoption of “the human right to water and sanitation” by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 28 July 2010. In addition to appearing here on the International Water Law Project, you can also find the essay on the Water Justice Hub website.

Main image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

African Basin Management Organizations: Contribution to Pollution Prevention of Transboundary Water Resources

July 20th, 2020

The following essay by Dr. Komlan Sangbana is a summary of his recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears in Vol. 5 (1) 2020, pp. 1-76, of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law.  Dr. Sangbana is a Legal Officer at the Secretariat of the Convention on Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (UNECE) and a Research Fellow at the Platform for International Water Law housed by the Faculty of Law at the University of Geneva. He can be reached at

Shortly after their emergence as independent states, African countries established basin organizations and commissions. Some basin organizations, such as the Inter-State Committee established by states sharing the Senegal River basin, namely Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal, were already established in the 1960’s. The Lake Chad Basin Commission and the River Niger Commission were both established in 1964. While economic integration justified this initial impetus of African countries towards the establishment of basin organizations, several challenges, such as transboundary freshwater pollution and low water quality due to the multiplication of development projects, have become a growing concern in the recent decade. The chief concerns of African countries in this respect were to avoid the dramatic consequences of water pollution for the quality of life of populations, the aquatic ecosystems, and biological diversity. Poor or unilateral management of transboundary water basins may cause these negative consequences for local communities living near international watercourses.

This monograph examines the important role that basin organizations play in the protection of water resources in Africa and offers suggestions to enhance their efficiency by looking at their normative and institutional frameworks. It is divided in four sections.

The first part is an introduction that provides an overview of the existing basin organizations in Africa, their different goals and multiple objectives. It offers an analytical framework for understanding the proliferation of basin organizations in Africa, as well as their legal typology.

The second part of the monograph discusses the contribution of basin organizations in the elaboration of pollution control standards. Focusing on the standard-setting role of these bodies, it unveils how basin organizations foster cooperation among member states and assists them in preventing transboundary pollution. In that respect, it reviews the processes and norm-based arrangements that inform the adoption of pollution control standards. Furthermore, it explores the various normative tools used by African basin organizations to regulate the conduct of their member states and their nationals, while taking into account the increasing involvement of non-state actors in the exploitation and management of transboundary water resources.

The third part of the monograph examines the contribution of African basin organizations to the implementation of pollution control standards. In this regard, it critically analyses the procedural and institutional tools that African basin organizations use to ensure the respect for the rule of law. Noting that the support that African basin organizations provide to their member states is as diverse as the organizations themselves, this study chooses to focus on the most analytical relevant aspects of their mandates. Thus, it addresses the scope and features of their control and monitoring activities and their mandates as far as the settlement of dispute is concerned.

The fourth part, which is a general conclusion, provides concrete suggestions derived from African practices of transboundary water management for the prevention of the pollution of transboundary water resources, as well as for enhancing cooperation and strengthening the role of basin management organizations.

From this study, it is clear that over time, the protection of water resources and their ecosystems has become a key focus of basin organizations in Africa. The development, adoption and implementation of pollution control standards by basin organizations have widened the remit and greatly strengthened the role of these institutions. As such, basin organizations have become central actors in the domain of African regional law for the protection of freshwater resources and the environment more generally.

The monograph is dedicated to the memory of Professor Kader Asmal (1934–2011) for his steadfast intellectual efforts to promote environmental protection in water governance.

The full article can be accessed here.

Swimming Against the Current: Revisiting the Principles of International Water Law in the Resolution of Fresh Water Disputes

April 22nd, 2020

The following essay by Tamar Meshel, of the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, summarizes her recently published article in the Harvard International Law Journal under the same title. She can be reached at meshel [@]

Dr. Tamar Meshel

There are currently two dominant views in the international water law (IWL) literature on the relationship between the customary international law principles of ‘equitable and reasonable utilization’ (ERU) and ‘no significant harm’ (NSH). The first view considers ERU to be the guiding principle of IWL and subordinates NSH to it, while the second view posits that the two principles are equal, and neither prevails over the other. Both views may be fit for purpose in the daily management of interstate fresh water resources and the prevention of disputes. In the context of resolving ever-increasing transboundary fresh water disputes (TFDs), however, the practical application of the two principles remains unclear, casting doubt on their ability to effectively guide states. This is evident, for instance, in the ongoing dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt concerning the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. While Ethiopia claims an equitable and reasonable right to build the dam, Egypt maintains its historic right to be free from significant harm that it claims the dam will cause it. The unclear relationship between the two principles thus enables states to cling to contradictory interpretations that suit their unilateral interests, thereby aggravating the dispute rather than resolving it.

In my article, I explore the potential for NSH to operate as the guiding principle of IWL and promote the resolution of TFDs. The strengths and weaknesses of ERU, as well as the historical evolution of both ERU and NSH, have been discussed in detail elsewhere. The article therefore largely takes the status quo described above as its starting point, and focuses on how the role that the two principles have played in the resolution of TFDs could be strengthened. Its contribution is not in arguing that ERU is an irrelevant principle to TFD resolution. Rather, while ERU remains the end goal of such resolution, the article posits that, both conceptually and practically, the means to this end is the NSH principle.  

The article discusses two qualities of NSH that make it an appropriate guiding principle in the resolution of TFDs: First, its due diligence standard of conduct and second, its ability to balance states’ competing interests.

The due diligence standard of the NSH principle guides states on how to prevent or minimize the risk of significant harm. This standard can facilitate the resolution of TFDs since it does not simply impose an “amorphous negative duty” to avoid harm, but rather a “positive duty to take concrete steps” to prevent harm. It therefore makes such harm not only more easily attributable to a particular state, but also less likely to occur if diligence is exercised. The due diligence nature of NSH also clarifies that this principle does not constitute a rigid blanket prohibition of all harm, but rather a more flexible rule that enables states to prevent significant harm by requiring them to observe a basic and uniform standard of conduct.

In addition, the NSH principle can be used to objectively evaluate states’ competing water uses by way of a balance-of-harms analysis. This analysis weighs the overall detrimental effects of a particular water use against its overall benefits—or, in other words, the harm caused by prohibiting it. It achieves a balanced outcome by focusing on the relevant states’ mutual goal of avoiding the greater harm to each other, the environment, and the shared fresh water resource. The question guiding this analysis, moreover, is not whether a particular use is “equitable and reasonable” and should therefore be allowed regardless of the resulting harm, but rather what is the greater harm to be avoided—that caused by the particular use or that resulting from the loss of its benefits. This ensures that even where “equities presumptively [support] protection” of a particular use, “the balance of benefit and harm” is maintained.

The due diligence nature of NSH and its balance-of-harms analysis also operate to reduce the incredibly high transaction costs involved in the resolution of TFDs. Due diligence obligations contribute to the reduction of these transaction costs since they equip states with the common goal of preventing the greater harm, as well as with the tools to achieve it. The balance-of-harms exercise provides states with reciprocal protection as well as an objective yardstick with which they can evaluate each other’s behavior. NSH can therefore serve to reduce transaction costs arising from contradictory positions and the absence of a unifying, objectively assessable, guiding principle.

The article also evaluates the use of NSH and ERU in the resolution of TFDs in practice by analyzing six such disputes submitted to arbitration and judicial settlement. This analysis reveals that where only the ERU principle was applied by the court or arbitral tribunal, namely in the Danube River decision, the dispute was not successfully resolved. The absence of both principles in the Meuse River decision also did not lead to a successful resolution. In contrast, in the four disputes that were successfully resolved—Lake Lanoux, Indus River, San Juan River, and Uruguay River—the NSH principle was applied either alone (in the first three cases) or together with the ERU principle (in the latter case). This analysis is not intended to prove that the use of the NSH principle necessarily leads to the successful resolution of all TFDs, as such resolution ultimately depends on states’ political will and good faith. Nevertheless, it lends some empirical support to the conceptual proposition that NSH is well suited to guide states toward successful resolution.

In their current state, the ERU and NSH principles fail to provide effective guidance to states faced with TFDs. At the same time, these disputes are likely to continue arising around the world, making effective international rules even more imperative. This article suggests an alternative to the prevailing views of IWL, which treats the NSH principle as its guiding principle for the purpose of TFD resolution. This approach builds on NSH’s due diligence standard, and proposes a balance-of-harms analysis to assist states such as Egypt and Ethiopia in weighing their competing interests and minimizing or preventing the most significant harm. Using NSH in this way promises to achieve both harm prevention and equitable and reasonable use––the dual goals of IWL.

The full article can be accessed here.

Data Innovations for Transboundary Freshwater Resources Management: Are Obligations Related to Information Exchange Still Needed?

March 9th, 2020

The following essay by Dr. Christina Leb is a summary of her recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears in Vol. 4.4, 2019, pp. 3-78, of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law. Dr. Leb is a Senior Counsel at the Environment and International Law Unit of the World Bank and a Research Fellow at the Platform for International Water Law housed by the Faculty of Law at the University of Geneva. She can be reached at cleb[at]

Cross-border data and information exchange is one of the most challenging issues for transboundary water management. Water data is deemed sensitive and subject to restrictions with respect to dissemination and use in many countries. Another key challenge is the steady decline of ground monitoring systems due to ageing equipment, and the limited availability of resources for maintaining and modernizing these systems according to the latest standard of technology. At the same time, data and information availability is key to sustainable water management.

The 1997 United Nations Watercourses Convention (Art. 9) and the 2008 Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers (Art. 8) identify regular exchange of data and information as one of the general principles of international water law. The availability of information with respect to hydrological, meteorological, hydrogeological and ecological nature of transboundary water systems, among other, is required to implement the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization. States need to know about the natural characteristics of as well as the demands and stresses on the cross-border water system they share with their neighbours.

The main difficulty for riparian states is to obtain all the information and data required to prepare a detailed assessment according to the equitable and reasonable use principle. The information needs are wide ranging and often, not all information is available at the national level.

New opportunities for access to water related data have opened up with the availability of technological innovations related to real-time data, space technology, and Earth observation. These technologies have led to a drastic increase in quality and availability of hydrological, meteorological and geo-spatial data. In basins where seasonal flows are largely dependent on snow pack, satellite imagery of snow cover can help identify how much and where water is stored in the upper catchments. Information on lake and river surface elevation can facilitate downstream flow predictions. Field-based data sources can be combined with satellite data to further enhance forecasting and planning systems. With the help of telemetry, data can be collected even at remote, inaccessible places and automatically transmitted to central control points, where this data can be converted for various applications, such as flood forecasting systems, warning systems on toxic water pollution, and others. Hydro-meteorological models based on real-time and historic datasets can be used to shorten lead-time and enhance the accuracy of early warning systems.

The key legal drivers making Earth observation data more available come from outside international water law. Space law and the framework established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have paved the way for comprehensive Earth observation initiatives, and continue to accelerate public accessibility of data and information for the benefit of all. The outer space treaties have opened the skies to freedom of exploration and freedom of data generation. And in line with their UNFCCC commitment to systematic observation, states leading in space technology have made most of their climate relevant datasets available to other nations and, to a significant extent, the public.

Publicly available Earth observation information can be used to assess equitable and reasonable use. These datasets reduce the amount of information that need to be shared directly between riparian states. With the help of Earth observation technologies, water managers can base their decision-making on information that belongs to parts of the basin that lie outside of their own national boundaries. The information can also be used to enhance the lead-time for emergency notification. Additionally, the ever-increasing availability and accessibility of data generated through Earth observation technologies may change due diligence standards for riparian states (with respect to information gathering and sharing) in implementing the equitable and reasonable use principle, as well as other international water law obligations.

The monograph, published in the Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law series, presents an exploratory assessment of the potential impacts of new data technologies on data and information exchange obligations. By highlighting the practical challenges of the use of data generated through Earth observation technologies for water management purposes, the monograph discusses how these technological innovations may, nevertheless, modify the existing contours of the rights and obligations related to data and information exchange in international water law.

New Publication Questions the Status of the UN Watercourses Convention

January 9th, 2020

This essay is written by Gabriel Eckstein, Professor of Law at Texas A&M University, director of the TAMU Law Program in Energy, Environmental, and Natural Resources Systems, and director of the International Water Law Project. He can be reached at gabrieleckstein [at]

When the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 21 May 1997, it was heralded as a major milestone in the evolution of international water law.  In particular, the fact that the Convention was adopted by a significant margin – 103 in favor, three against, and 27 abstentions (UNGA Press Release GA/9248) – indicated broad and robust support for what was then the only global instrument for the management of international watercourses. 

The permanent representative of Mexico to the UN at the time, Ambassador Manuel Tello, asserted that the Watercourses Convention “undoubtedly marks an important step in the progressive development and codification of international law” (U.N. GAOR, 1997, p. 2).  Even China, one of the three members who ultimately opposed the Convention, stated that they believed “the draft articles [on the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses] have laid a fairly good foundation for the formulation of an international convention (U.N. GAOR, 1997, p. 6).

Despite the hopes and promises of the Convention, nearly fifty years after its initial instigation at the United Nations, more than 20 years following its adoption by the UNGA, and over 5 years after it came into force (17 August 2014), enthusiasm for that instrument appears to have waned.  Although the Convention is in force for the states that have ratified it, it only attained that status following seventeen years of relatively slow progress and now has only 36 ratifying parties (Status of the Watercourses Convention).  Moreover, despite continued encouragement by various non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations, few additional states seems poised to accede to the agreement.

A new article – The Status of the UN Watercourses Convention: Does it Still Hold Water?, published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development – examines the extent of support that nations have shown the Watercourses Convention, and assess its continued sustainability.  The article does not reject the normative value of the Convention or its relevance for various nations in their efforts to engage with their neighbors over transboundary freshwater resources.  Rather, the article seeks to ascertain why relatively so few nations have ratified the instrument.

With this in mind, the article examines the support provided the Convention’s drafted norms and procedures during its development, at its historic appearance on the global stage during the 1997 vote at the UNGA, and subsequently as nations ratified the instrument and eventually brought it into force.  It also seeks to ascertain patterns in the 1997 vote and subsequent ratifications, and thereby uncover some of the possible reasons for the diminishing appeal of the instrument.  Charts and tables displaying characteristics of the votes, ratifications, riparian status, geography, and other factors are provided to support the analytical objective.

Finally, the article considers other externalities that may have negatively influenced the level of interest in the Convention that has been offered by nations.  Among others, these include divergent interpretations and misunderstanding among the international community of the norms codified in the instrument, and competition from the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes.

The article – The Status of the UN Watercourses Convention: Does it Still Hold Water? – is published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development and is available here.

Botswana, Namibia and South Africa Develop Joint Governance Mechanism for the Stampriet Aquifer System in the Orange-Senqu River Commission

December 9th, 2019

The following essay was prepared by Stefano Burchi, Chairman of the International Association for Water Law (AIDA), and former consultant to the GGRETA project. He can be reached at stefano.burchi [@]


The Stampriet Transboundary Aquifer System (STAS) stretches from Central Namibia into Western Botswana and South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, and lies entirely within the Orange-Senqu River Basin (see map). The STAS is a very large transboundary aquifer system, receiving relatively insignificant recharge, in a semi-arid to arid region without permanent surface water. It covers a total area of around 87 000 km², of which 73% lies in Namibia, 19% in Botswana, and 8% in South Africa. The area is sparsely populated with slightly over 45,000 persons concentrated in communities ranging from small rural settlements to villages and towns. Groundwater is the major source of water in the area and provides potable water to the population and livestock and for irrigation. There currently are no industrial or mining activities taking place in the STAS area. Over 20 million m³/year of groundwater is abstracted from the Aquifer, a considerable majority of which occurs in Namibia (over 95%). The largest consumer of water is agriculture in the form of irrigation, followed by stock watering and domestic use. There is a sizeable amount of water that is lost through evaporation and to invasive plant species and that is difficult to estimate.

With financial assistance from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and with the technical assistance of UNESCO-IHP, the STAS countries have been actively cooperating in assessing the aquifer and its characteristics since 2013, through the Governance of Groundwater Resources in Transboundary Aquifers (GGRETA) project. That project aims to facilitate cooperation among countries sharing select transboundary aquifers (TBAs). In addition to the STAS, the GGRETA project is active in Central America on the Ocotepeque-Citalá Aquifer shared by El Salvador and Honduras (see here), and in Central Asia on the Pre-Tashkent Aquifer System shared by Kazakhstan and Uzberkistan.

Location of the Stampriet Transboundary Aquifer System (in orange) and the Orange-Senqu River Basin (in green) in southern Africa

The first phase of the project (2013-2015) focused on an in-depth assessment of the STAS using existing data and information, which allowed for the establishment of a shared science-based understanding of the aquifer. The activities of the second phase (2016-2018) focused primarily on consolidating the technical results achieved and the tools developed in the first phase. It also addressed strengthening capacity of national water institutions and academia in groundwater governance at the national and transboundary levels in order to support the process of establishing a Multi-Country Cooperation Mechanism (MCCM) for the governance and management of the STAS.

The first phase of the project (2013-2015) focused on an in-depth assessment of the STAS using existing data and information, which allowed for the establishment of a shared science-based understanding of the aquifer. The activities of the second phase (2016-2018) focused primarily on consolidating the technical results achieved and the tools developed in the first phase. It also addressed strengthening capacity of national water institutions and academia in groundwater governance at the national and transboundary levels in order to support the process of establishing a Multi-Country Cooperation Mechanism (MCCM) for the governance and management of the STAS.

The cooperation facilitated by the GGRETA project has yielded an in-depth assessment of aquifer characteristics, including current and projected uses of groundwater and likely future stress conditions under relevant factors.

The assessment also revealed a number of challenges:

  • lack of monitoring data seriously hampers a systematic diagnostic analysis of groundwater quantity-related stress; 
  • pollution by humans and animals, and that caused by poor well construction and lack of protection, is currently localized in the shallower parts of the STAS;
  • although there is no mining or industrial activity in the STAS area at present, unregulated mining activities might lead in the future to pollution of the aquifer system due to its fragility and vulnerability;
  • vertical leakage between superposed aquifers is accelerating due to uncemented borehole casings and metallic corrosion.

In view of the importance of the aquifer’s resources to the future of the local population, the three countries sharing the aquifer concurred in 2016 on the desirability of establishing a Multi-Country Cooperation Mechanism (MCCM) for the joint governance and management of the STAS.


On 17-18 May 2017, delegations from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa attended the 3rd meeting of the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM) Ground Water Hydrology Committee (GWHC) and Technical Task Team (TTT), where they tabled a proposal to establish the STAS MCCM within the ORASECOM structure. The proposal was put before the 34th Ordinary meeting of the ORASECOM Council, held 17-18 August 2017 in Windhoek, Namibia. The Council resolved that the STAS MCCM “be nested/housed” within the ORASECOM GWHC. While it is unclear whether the Council formally resolved to “establish” or “create” the mechanism, its intent to do so is clearly implied by its decision to “nest/house” such mechanism in the ORASECOM structure. Moreover, the Council resolution was subsequently endorsed by the Ordinary meeting of the ORASECOM Forum of the Parties (Ministers responsible for water), held on 16 November 2017 in Kasane, Botswana. Relevant milestones and a schedule of implementation were also approved, with implementation being reportedly in progress.

The STAS MCCM aims at integrating the GGRETA project support structure in the GWHC. The GGRETA project hydrogeology/model, legal and institutional, and gender National Focal Points (NFP) in the three countries will assist and report to the GWHC Officials on data collection, which will serve as a basis for the development of scenarios and project activities. In the short term, GWHC Officials will be in charge of updating the STAS joint borehole database during GWHC meetings, and reporting to the Technical Task Team (TTT) on the work program according to the planning and annual budget. The TTT will then report to the Council.  Ad hoc Working Groups (AWG) composed of experts nominated by the Council or GWHC will be formed as and when necessary for the evaluation of studies, and to support the design of projects and activities. Other concerned stakeholders (e.g. the SADC Groundwater Management Institute) would be invited to GWHC meetings on a regular basis.

The long term vision is for the STAS MCCM to move from data collection and exchange to joint strategizing and advising STAS countries on the management of the aquifer and its resources.

The decision to “nest/house” a STAS joint governance mechanism in an existing river basin organization can be regarded as a breakthrough in many respects. First, it is the first arrangement for the governance of a transboundary aquifer since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2016. Prior to the STAS cooperative mechanism, only a handful of formal agreements worldwide had been developed for TBAs (see summary at the end of the essay). Second, it is the first governance mechanism to be nested formally in a river basin organization, which attests to the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach with potential for, in particular, the conjunctive management of groundwater and surface water. Third, the fact that activities related to the STAS are now built in ORASECOM’s 10-year IWRM Plan (2015-2024) can be regarded as an indicator of the sustainability of the institutiional arrangement made. As a result, ORASECOM will be responsible for the implementation and reporting on activities related to the STAS. Lastly, the process that led to the decision to institutionalize cooperation on the STAS was remarkably expeditious. The process was expedited by a combination of factors, chief among them a clear perception by the countries concerned of the advantages of cooperation in the face of the challenges looming ahead. The institutional architecture of ORASECOM, structured into a Forum of the Parties, a Council, a Secretariat, four standing Task Teams, and committees operating under the latter (among these, the GWHC operating under the standing Technical Task Team), also helped as the proposal that was initiated by the GWHC could quickly and seamlessly work its way up the institutional ladder to the highest decision-making body of the Commission, for a decision in less than a year.

Information generated by the GGRETA project and STAS databases are currently available at

NOTE: Legally binding agreements are on record for the following TBAs: North-Western Sahara Aquifer System (Algeria, Libya, Tunisia); Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (Chad, Egypt, Libya, Sudan); the Genevese Aquifer (France, Switzerland); and Al Sag/Al Disi Aquifer (Jordan, Saudi Arabia). An agreement on the Guaraní Aquifer (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay) is pending delivery of the final ratification to the agreement’s secretariat, while an agreement on the Iullemeden Aquifer System (Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria) is pending signature by some of the Parties.

Use of Experts in International Freshwater Disputes: A Critical Assessment

November 11th, 2019

The following essay by Dr. Makane Moïse Mbengue and Rukmini Das is a summary of their recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears in Vol. 4.3, 2019, pp. 1-94, of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law. Dr. Mbengue is a Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law of the University of Geneva. He can be reached at makane.mbengue [at] Ms. Das is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Law of the University of Geneva. She can be reached at rukmini.das.

Given the vital importance of water to life on earth, and that only a small fraction of that water is fresh water, disputes over this scarce and valuable resource are inevitable. The nature of disputes ranges from access to water and related issues such as dams and river diversion, to water pollution and environmental harm. Rivers, often forming international boundaries between states, become a subject matter in boundary disputes.

States thus have varied reasons for initiating proceedings before international courts or tribunals, for breach of treaties or international legal norms, all arising out of, or related to, or affecting fresh water. These legal issues often involve complex questions of fact, such as the contours of a river, or the extent of its pollution, which a legal adjudicator alone may not be well-equipped to handle and resolve. Considering the importance of water for survival, effective resolution of such disputes is of paramount importance. With water becoming increasingly a scarce resource, and with the steady growth in population, disputes will continue to erupt and multiply, and the claims will get more complex and novel.

The technical nature of international water disputes has resulted in the rise in the involvement of experts in the resolution of these disputes. Such disputes may arise out of disagreements over installations situated on or near a water body, or their design, impacts on water and its quality, or the natural characteristics of the water body. These may be considered the distinguishing features of an international water dispute. As a tool to assist the adjudicator in decision-making, the need for experts has arguably increased manifold in the recent past, as has its use.

It has been seen mostly in the context of water disputes that the issue of expert use has led to controversies and procedural innovations that have clarified or modified expert use in future disputes, both water-related and otherwise. An examination of water-related disputes before international courts and tribunals, which is the subject of our monograph, demonstrates how experts have been involved in various roles in dispute resolution. We also give attention to those disputes where experts have ostensibly not been involved, but which could have benefited from expert involvement.

In our monograph, we examine these kinds of disputes with the goal of determining the place and importance of experts in water disputes, their increased need (if any) and how best to use them. A useful starting point to this objective of the monograph is an understanding of the recognition of experts and rules governing them in dispute settlement provisions of treaties and rules related to freshwater. Though later we describe the legal provisions on experts in the respective statutes or rules before embarking on an analysis of the cases, we begin with a preliminary section on dispute settlement provisions in select water-related legal instruments (treaties and rules) and whether and how they address the use of experts. An understanding of this textual aspect of the use of experts complements the case law analysis that follows. With this background, it is interesting to see in the subsequent sections how a few major international judicial fora compare to these treaty provisions, and how the use of experts has played out in practice.

For the rest of our monograph, we offer a critical assessment of the involvement of experts in resolving international water disputes. The case analysis, focusing on the role of experts, how they were used, or highlighting their absence, is divided by forum into three categories: first, water disputes before the International Court of Justice (ICJ or ‘the Court’); water disputes resolved through inter-state arbitration under diverse ad hoc and institutional rules; and finally, investor–state disputes involving water resources. Through this examination, we identify the lacunae as well as good practices in expert use in disputes of this nature. This case analysis is followed by a concluding comparative examination of the necessity and importance of experts in resolving water disputes, and how best to use them in such cases. We thus conclude by proposing the best practices with respect to expert involvement and use, for a more efficient and fair resolution of international water disputes.

The full article can be accessed here.

The Ocotepeque – Citalá Statement of Intent: a first step towards transboundary aquifer cooperation in Central America?

November 1st, 2019

The following essay is by Dr. Francesco Sindico, Co-Director of the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance (SCELG). Dr. Sindico collaborated in 2015 and 2016 with the GGRETA project Trifinio Aquifer case study contributing to workshops on the emerging international law of transboundary aquifers in San Salvador, El Salvador. He would like to thank Marina Rubio and Stefano Burchi for comments on this short piece. This blog is also available as a SCELG Policy Brief here. Dr. Sindico can be reached at francesco.sindico [at]

On 22 February 2019 the Ocotepeque – Citalá Statement of Intent (Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI) – was signed (the official title in Spanish is “Carta de Intención entre municipalidades, juntas de agua, instituciones nacionales y regionales para la gobernanza integrada del acuífero Ocotepeque – Citalá compartido por El Salvador y Honduras en la región del Trifinio”). If only for the scarcity of agreements on transboundary aquifers (TBA), the Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI is to be celebrated, although it should not be considered as a formal legal instrument and should not be added to the very short list of TBA agreements in existence globally. Nevertheless, the document is interesting in a number of ways, and not just because it adds to the very scarce state practice in the field of TBA management. This short piece provides a brief overview of the main provisions of the Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI and focuses on a specific aspect: its inclusiveness when it comes to parties participating in the governance of the TBA.

The Ocotepeque – Citalá Statement of Intent and the GGRETA Project

The Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI is one of the results of the Governance of Groundwater Resources in Transboundary Aquifers (GGRETA) project funded by the Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency and implemented by UNESCO-International Hydrological Programme in collaboration with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The project was key in providing clarity as to the nature and extent of aquifers in the Trifinio region, which includes parts of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The project was also essential in bringing together a wide array of stakeholders interested in surface water and groundwater management in the region. Finally, the project also provided local stakeholders with capacity building on the emerging international legal frameworks applicable to transboundary aquifers.

While the GGRETA project is to be celebrated and served as a catalyst for this arrangement, the Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI is the result of the will of people living over the transboundary aquifer and has been shaped by local, national and regional actors.

An overview of the Ocotepeque – Citalá Statement of Intent

The Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI has a preamble, 6 main statements, and a final section that concludes the text. The preamble references sovereignty, a sticking point in the debate over the international law of TBAs, and to water as a vital human need and its importance for indigenous people. The preamble also focuses on climate change and on the need to have a reliable database as a precursor for any solid cooperation. It then makes clear references to the emerging international law of transboundary aquifers and UNGA Resolution 63/124 and to the Sustainable Development Goals, with a specific mention of SDG 6.5.

Moving to the substance of the text, the key intent of the signatories is to establish in future, and when appropriate, a TBA Binational Management Committee, and to nest it in the existing tri-national institutional framework for the implementation of the Plan Trifinio (Guatemala, in addition to El Salvador and Honduras, is also a member of this framework). The Committee would be constituted by:

  • 1 person per municipality in the Ocotepeque – Citalá Aquifer area;
  • 2  persons per country representing the local Water Supply & Sewage Authorities operating in the Ocotepeque – Citalá Aquifer area;
  • 1 representative of the network of municipal commonwealths of the Trifinio region;
  • 1 representative of the Plan Trifinio Executive Secretariat;
  • 1 representative each of the ministries responsible for water resources in El Salvador and in Honduras.

The TBA Binational Management Committee also will ensure adequate gender representation and participation of indigenous people. The activities and tasks of the TBA Binational Management Committee are to consist of:

  • Collection and collation of data necessary for the sound management of the TBA;
  • Exchange of information amongst all TBA stakeholders; and
  • Identification of funding in order to deliver its activities.

The signatories further commit themselves to share information available to them, including socio-economic data that is collected locally on both sides of the border. Signatories also commit to harmonize this data in order to facilitate their processing. All these commitments are qualified, as they will be undertaken based on the signatories’ capacities, competences, and respective authority.

Finally, it is foreseen that the cooperation triggered by the Ocotepeque – Citalá Aquifer Binational Management Committee will lead in the future to an agreed binational strategy for the conservation, protection and sustainable utilisation of Ocotepeque – Citalá Aquifer resources, including an implementation plan. In a bid to achieve the integrated management of the water resources in the region, the strategy will take into account the relationship between the Ocotepeque – Citalá Aquifer and the Ocotepeque – Citalá Valley surface water system.

An open and inclusive list of actors in the governance of the Ocotepeque – Citalá Aquifer

One striking aspect of the Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI is its inclusiveness. The document is not an inter-governmental agreement negotiated and signed by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs. However, it is also not “just” a document signed by two sub-national entities, like the Salto-Concordia agreement related to the Guarani Aquifer System. The list of signatories to the Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI includes the following actors:

  • Municipalities;
  • Local water supply and sewerage authorities;
  • Network of municipal commonwealths of the Trifinio region;
  • Plan Trifinio Trinational Commission; and
  • The ministries responsible for water resources in the two countries sharing the  Ocotepeque – Citalá Aquifer.

The Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI is, hence, truly a document stemming from local, national and regional stakeholders. It includes actors who rely on the aquifer for their daily lives and actors who sit further away in the capitals of El Salvador and Honduras. This combination gives both immediacy and legitimacy to the document. The actors also include the top-level executives of the institutional framework in place for the implementation of the Plan Trifinio. This has operated over the past decades as a strong regional organisation capable of leveraging good practices in the field of natural resources management in the area of the Trifinio mountain range that straddles the borders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Interestingly, in its final section, the Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI opens itself to any public and “private” stakeholder based in the area of the Ocotepeque – Citalá Aquifer that wishes to join the initiative. In order to be added to the list of stakeholders that have subscribed to the common intent recorded in the Statement, the representative of the organisation (public or private) simply needs to sign the document.

The possibility of adding more signatories to the document appears to be a positive step forward in increasing the document’s legitimacy. However, it also begs the question of whether this could open the floodgates and reduce the effectiveness of the Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI. The possibility to have private actors sitting aside public actors is a novelty in the field of TBA management. Again, in principle, the participation of private actors should be commended as a positive step since it includes all stakeholders in the future management of the Ocotepeque – Citalá. However, safeguards should be developed to ensure that private actors involved in any future institution and governance framework developed through the SoI contribute meaningfully and not only as a means to lobby their own commercial interest. A further aspect concerns whether foreign private actors will be allowed to sign the document. As it currently stands, the only requirement is that they “belong” to the area of the Ocotepeque – Citalá.

Final remarks on the legal nature of the Ocotepeque – Citalá Statement of Intent

It is worth reminding that the Ocotepeque – Citalá SoI is not a treaty or a Memorandum of Understanding. The document signed in February 2019 in Esquipulas is a mere statement of admittedly good intentions, and should be considered only as such. It does not impose any legal obligation upon any of the signatories, and definitely not on the two countries that share the Ocotepeque – Citalá Aquifer. Nevertheless, the SoI does signal a first step toward a future bi-national cooperation mechanism, and possibly a legal instrument that would underpin it.

UNESCO press release on the Ocotepeque – Citalá Statement of Intent (in Spanish) –

Notification concerning Planned Measures on Shared Watercourses: Synergies between the Watercourses Convention and the World Bank Policies and Practice

June 17th, 2019

The following essay by Dr. Salman M. A. Salman is a summary of his recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears as Vol. 4(2) 2019 of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law.  Dr. Salman is an academic researcher and consultant on water law and policy, Editor-in-Chief of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law, a Fellow with the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), and the co-recipient of the IWRA Crystal Drop Award in 2017. Until 2009, he served as the World Bank Adviser on Water Law. He can be reached at: salmanmasalman [at]

Notification of co-riparian states of planned measures on shared watercourses that may result in significant adverse effects has been widely accepted as one of the established principles of international water law. This wide acceptance of notification is now codified and elaborated by the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention, which includes one separate part, with nine articles, on notification.

The duty to notify other states of activities that may affect them stems from the international obligations of good faith, good neighbourliness, and reciprocity. It is an extension of the general obligation under international law to cooperate and to exchange data and information on shared watercourses. Such cooperation is no doubt the sine qua non for the equitable, sustainable, and efficient utilization and protection of shared watercourses.

It is worth noting that the notification requirement and its components have recently become the focus of attention and developments in a number of global fora, and have energized the debate on the details of operationalizing the notification obligation. The attention covered a number of issues including the content of the notification letter, and the different types of responses thereto.

One major development in the field of notification is the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2010 in the Pulp Mills case. That decision has gone beyond endorsing the notification requirement under the Statute of the River Uruguay, concluded by Argentina and Uruguay in 1975. The ICJ considered notification as a sine qua non of cooperation, in addition to being a vital method for protecting the shared watercourse.

In that same year, 2010, negotiations over the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) among the Nile Basin countries collapsed after more than ten years of facilitation by the World Bank and some other donors. The impasse resulted from the insistence by Egypt and Sudan on the inclusion of a specific reference in the CFA to what they considered as their ‘acquired rights’ over the Nile waters (which they termed ‘water security’), as well as provisions on notification, similar to those of the UN Watercourses Convention. The CFA includes provisions on exchange of data and information, but none on notification. Because they are inter-related, these demands have been vehemently rejected by the other Nile riparians.

Another development that has highlighted the concept of notification relates to the gradual and wide acknowledgement that harm, under international water law, is actually a two-way matter with regard to the issue of quantitative allocation of the waters of shared rivers. Just as upstream riparians can harm downstream ones through storage, diversion, and use of the waters of shared rivers, downstream riparians can also harm upstream riparians by foreclosing their future uses of the shared waters through the prior use of, and the claiming of rights to such waters, and by invoking the no harm obligation. Based on this concept of foreclosure of future uses, notification has to be from all, and to all, of the riparians of the shared watercourse.

The fourth development in the realm of notification relates to the discussion and attempts of the World Bank, since 2005, to amend the provisions on notification in the Bank Policy for “Projects on International Waterways.” Indeed, the World Bank has one of the pioneering and elaborate policies, and the only practical experience, among international organizations in this field. The Policy does not establish a threshold for notification. Rather, it requires notification, as a general rule, for all projects on international waterways, and sets forth three exceptions to the notification requirement. The purpose of the proposed amendment is to align the Bank Policy with the provisions of the UN Watercourses Convention with regard to the threshold for notification.

The monograph begins with an overview of the historical and legal origins of the notification requirement. It then examines in detail the provisions of the UN Watercourses Convention as well as those of the World Bank policies dealing with notification, including the content of notification and the different types of responses that the notifying state may receive from the notified states. The monograph discusses in detail possible objections to the planed measures from riparian states, and how such objections are addressed under the provisions of the Convention and the Bank Policy and practice.

The monograph concludes by highlighting a number of comparators and synergies between the UN Watercourses Convention and the Bank Policy and practice, including the role of environmental impact assessments, shared groundwater resources, the different responses to notification, and how to handle objections from a notified state. The conclusion also stresses the potential wider positive outcomes of notification when undertaken properly and in good faith.

The full article can be accessed here.