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 [@] gmail.com.

Background

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.

The STAS MCCM

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 in the following Dropbox link:https://www.dropbox.com/sh/nkfp07me0u7pynd/AACVFKTR9-mY5RkMDz_ShUPfa?dl=0


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] unige.ch. 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] strath.ac.uk.

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) – https://es.unesco.org/news/avance-historico-gestion-conjunta-recursos-hidricos-compartidos-salvador-y-honduras

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] gmail.com.

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.

Adapting Watercourse Agreements to Developments in International Law: The Case of the Itaipu Treaty

April 16th, 2019

The following essay by Dr. Maria A. Gwynn is a summary of her recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears in Vol. 4(1) 2019, of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law.  Dr. Maria A. Gwynn is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Public International Law of the University of Bonn, and conducted most of the research contained in this monograph while she was an Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellow at Princeton University and at the University of Oxford. She can be reached at maria.gwynn [at] uni-bonn.de.

 

The UN Convention on the non-navigational uses of international watercourses recommends that states adapt their existing bilateral and regional agreements to the provisions of the Convention to promote equitable and reasonable uses of watercourses. This monograph assesses the practical consequences of this provision, and the prospects for achieving sustainable development with such action, and uses the Itaipu Treaty as a case study.

The Parana River

The Itaipu Treaty, which was signed and ratified by Brazil and Paraguay in 1973 and continues to be in force today, was established so that these two countries would jointly pursue the advantages that could be obtained from the exploitation of the Parana River to

The former Guaira Falls

produce hydropower through the construction of a dam. The Parana River is an international watercourse on the South American continent sourced by the La Plata basin. The dam was constructed at the river’s most powerful point, the Guaira Falls, formerly the greatest set of waterfalls on the South American continent, which disappeared after the construction of the dam.

The river’s great resources were not underestimated. Today, the sheer amount of energy that the Itaipu Dam produces has placed both countries among the largest producers of clean and renewable energy in the world. However, while Brazil consumes its entire share of the energy produced, Paraguay (whose available share of energy from the hydropower facilities far exceeds its own domestic energy demands) only consumes a small part of this clean and renewable energy source. Paraguay, instead, continues to use biomass sources (burning of coal and wood) to satisfy most of its energy needs. Under the Itaipu Treaty, Paraguay sells its unused allotment of energy to Brazil.In general, the Itaipu Treaty regulates the use and consumption of hydropower produced by the dam, making the provisions of the treaty very pertinent to understanding the two countries’ energy policies.

The Itaipu Dam and Reservoir

The Itaipu Treaty entered into force before the United Nations International Law Commission had finished its task of evaluating the international law and customs on the non-navigational uses of international watercourses, embodied in the UN Watercourses Convention, and before some of the major developments concerning international environmental law came about. However, the Itaipu

Treaty contains a renegotiation provision, according to which the two states must renegotiate some of its provisions 50 years following the conclusion of the treaty, i.e. in the upcoming year 2023. The monograph argues that this is a great opportunity for both countries to adapt their watercourse agreements to the current standard and principles of international law.

The monograph provides a detailed assessment of the advantages of adapting watercourse agreements to the standard and principles of all pertinent areas of international law, such as international water law, international environmental law, and climate change law. The first part of the monograph begins with an analysis of the initial approaches to the law of international watercourses in the first half of the twentieth century. It discusses some of the main principles of the law governing international watercourses and the work of pertinent institutions concerned with this area. In this sense, the first part of the monograph describes the status of the law on international watercourses at the time when the Itaipu project was first pursued.

Signing the Acta de Yguazu Agreement in 1966

The second part of the monograph discusses the Itaipu project in its legal and historical context. An analysis of the principles of consultation and notification for projects on international watercourses are particularly instructive. The monograph describes the relevance of the role of Paraguay, which despite being a main treaty party, has often been neglected in the scholarship.  The monograph shows how escalation of disputes to an international conflict regarding sovereignty was eased by benefit sharing agreements and inter-state cooperation of the countries of the La Plata basin. The monograph also offers a comparative analysis to similar cooperation and benefit sharing agreements signed at about the same time in other parts of the world.

The Itaipu Agreement

The third part of the monograph describes the advances in the law of international watercourses and of environmental law since the 1970s, and places the implementation of the Itaipu Treaty, which in turn is analyzed in the fourth part of the monograph, within this context. The fifth part of the monograph describes recent disputes concerning the non-navigational uses of international watercourses decided by the International Court of Justice in an analysis that connects the decisions of such judgments with the monograph’s object of study.

The monograph concludes by highlighting how the treaty provisions and their implementation could be affected by the developments in international law and the UN Watercourses Convention in particular. It argues that adapting watercourses agreements like the Itaipu Treaty to the provisions of the Convention is a way to foster

The UN Sustainable Development Goals

sustainable development. Doing so would be advantageous not only to the treaty parties, but also to the other countries in the water basin and to the international community as a whole.

The monograph is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Dr. Efrain Cardozo (1906-1973) and to Prof. Dr. Ruben Ramirez Pane (1920-2004).

The entire article is available here.

 

The International Law Association Helsinki Rules: Contribution to International Water Law

February 7th, 2019

The following essay by Professor Slavko Bogdanović is a summary of his recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears in Vol. 3(4) 2018 of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law.  Professor Bogdanović was on the Law Faculty of the University Business Academy in Novi Sada in Serbia and now is a consultant on water law and policy. He can be reached at nsslavko@gmail.com.

 

The International Law Association (ILA) started in 1954 its study of the principles and rules of international law applicable to the rivers making or being intersected by state boundaries. It was a moment after WWII when the enhanced harnessing of hydropower potential of international rivers was seen as a necessity. The rising development needs of nations in parallel with growth of populations resulted in enlarging demand for electric energy production. Engineering aspects of harnessing rivers were not the problem; the challenge was the applicable law. The lack of accepted and pertinent international law rules was a major obstacle not only for the economic development of nations, but also to the economy of the world in general.

Early in the last century, the Geneva Convention relating to Development of Hydraulic Power affecting more than one State (1923) and other (scarce) sources of international water law had shown their limits and inadequacy not only for resolving pending developmental problems, but also for addressing serious interstate disputes concerning the rights of upstream and downstream states to the waters of international rivers (some of the more well-known disputes included the Helmand, Indus, Nile, Jordan and Yarmouk, and Columbia rivers). At the time, the U.N. International Law Commission was not willing to deal with the issue of codification of the applicable law considering it to be premature.

In the United Nations system, the problem was identified and investigated beginning in the late 1940s, and addressed continually through the 1990s when long-lasting efforts by different bodies and agencies finally resulted in the adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses in 1997.

This monograph is the result of research aimed at highlighting the details of the initial period of the ILA’s efforts to respond to the situation. Its Rivers Committee was assigned in 1954 “to study the various legal, economic and technical aspects of rights and obligations between states as to the inland waters, […] with the purpose of elaborating practical recommendations for international arrangement”. Besides a review of the broader context in which the ILA efforts and activities were situated, the monograph is focused on detailed elaboration and analysis of the documents drafted by the Rivers Committee, which, under the strong supervision and precise guidelines of the management bodies of the ILA, led step-by-step to the approval of the famous Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers in 1966. This is followed by a discussion about the Helsinki Conference and its resolution, and then a detailed analysis of each chapter of the Helsinki Rules. The concluding part of the monograph highlights the global acceptance and wide influence exerted by the Helsinki Rules on shared water resources and related disputes, in particular the UN Watercourses Convention.

The monograph points out that the Helsinki Rules were neither ideal nor complete. As a “delicate balance between widely divergent views”, the Helsinki Rules were subject to the scrutiny of two subsequent ILA committees, which were active until 2004. Those committees studied various topics and formulated a series of articles supplementary and complementary to the Helsinki Rules with the aim of updating, upgrading and revising certain details. In that way, the Helsinki Rules served as reliable ground for further exhaustive study in this field, what eventually resulted in the comprehensive and consistent set of ILA rules compiled in the Campione Consolidation of the Rules on International Water Resources, 1996 – 1999 (2000).

The monograph also briefly indicated the attempt of the ILA to revise its entire body of international water law compiled in the Campione Consolidation, through approval of the Berlin Rules on Water Resources (2004), which diverge substantially from the key principles as set out in the Helsinki Rules and all other ILA rules subsequently approved, and from the final output of the International Law Commission on the law of non-navigational uses of international watercourses (1996), the UN Watercourses Convention (1997), and from the ICJ judgment in the Case concerning the Gabčikovo – Nagymaros Project (1997) (see Berlin Rules Dissenting Opinion).

Finally, the monograph calls for further investigation and critical analysis and evaluation of the entire body of work by the ILA in the field of international water law, including the outputs of two later ILA committees and the background leading to the approval of the Berlin Rules. The author argued that such research might show that the Helsinki Rules, in the advanced, revised and enriched form, expressed in the Campione Consolidation, are a safe pivot, marking the way out from the confusion caused by emerging proliferation of wishful concepts and ideas in this still young branch of international law.

The monograph is dedicated to the memory of Dr Dante Caponera (1921-2003), and the other members and officers of the ILA Rivers Committee.

The entire article is available here.

 

Legal rights for rivers: new book explores the implications of these groundbreaking laws for water governance

December 3rd, 2018

The following essay by Erin O’Donnell provides an overview of her new book: Legal Rights for Rivers: Competition, Collaboration, and Water Governance. The book is now available for purchase here.

In 2017 four rivers in Aotearoa New Zealand, India, and Colombia were given the status of legal persons, and there was a recent attempt to extend these rights to the Colorado River in the USA. Understanding the implications of creating legal rights for rivers is an urgent challenge for both water resource management and environmental law. Giving rivers legal rights means the law can see rivers as legal persons, thus creating new legal rights which can then be enforced. When rivers are legally people, does that encourage collaboration and partnership between humans and rivers, or establish rivers as another competitor for scarce resources?

But legal rights for rivers are very new. To really understand what it means to give rivers legal rights and legal personality, we need evidence of what happens over a longer period. This book uses the example of the environmental water managers (EWMs) in Australia and the USA as a way to understand the implications of giving legal rights to rivers.

As individual organisations, EWMs have legal personality, and have been active in water resource management for over two decades. EWMs operate by acquiring water rights from irrigators in rivers where there is insufficient water to maintain ecological health. EWMs can compete with farmers for access to water, but they can also strengthen collaboration between traditionally divergent users of the aquatic environment, such as environmentalists, recreational fishers, hunters, farmers, and hydropower.

Figure 1: the paradox of legal rights: as legal protection goes up, this can lead to increasing complacency and an abdication of our responsibilities to look after the environment

This book explores how EWMs use the opportunities created by giving nature legal rights, such as the ability to participate in markets, enter into contracts, hold property, and enforce those rights in court. However, examination of the EWMs unearths a crucial and unexpected paradox: giving legal rights to nature may increase its legal power, but in doing so it can weaken community support for protecting the environment in the first place (Figure 1).

Understanding this paradox requires going back to basics, and considering how the environment has been constructed in law over time. The book develops a new conceptual framework to identify the multiple constructions of the environment in law, and how these constructions can interact to generate these unexpected outcomes. Although there are myriad and widely different definitions of the environment in law, there are three main constructions of the environment in law: (1) a socio-ecological concept, (2) a legal object, and, most recently, (3) a legal subject (Figure 2).

Figure 2: understanding the paradox of legal rights for nature requires an understanding of how the environment is constructed in law

 

By focusing on the way the environment is constructed in law, we can also start to identify the underlying cultural narratives, and the way those narratives can shape our legal response and drive legal reform. The legal object has no rights of its own, and links the concepts of legal weakness with the idea of being worthy of protection. The legal subject, on the other hand, does have legal rights, which generates an alternative narrative, where the environment can, and thus should, look after itself. These tensions have specific consequences for the environment, because of the initial construction as a highly flexible socio-ecological concept: the environment can be whatever it is defined to be in specific legislation, but it is also only ever what law articulates it to be. As a result, the overarching concept of what the environment is, and why it matters, is highly vulnerable to shifting social values (Figure 3).

Figure 3: tensions between the different constructions of the environment in law can lead to significant shifts in the broader socio-ecological concept

 

By examining the form and function of the EWMs in the USA and Australia, this book shows that changing cultural narratives about what the environment is, and why it does (or does not) deserve protection, can lead to large shifts in water law and governance.

This paradox is not, of course, a foregone conclusion of granting legal rights to rivers. The book draws on lessons from the EWMs, as well as early lessons from the new ‘river persons’, to show how to use the law to improve river protection and how to begin to mitigate the problems of the paradox.

The book is now available for purchase here.  To request a review copy, please complete the form here. Lecturers and instructors can request an e-book inspection copy here.

 

Of Rivers, Deities, and Legal Persons – A New Approach to Managing Freshwater Resources?

September 3rd, 2018

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

Today, at least five rivers around the world – Whanganui in New Zealand, Yarra in Australia, Atrato in Colombia, Narmada in India, and Vilcabamba in Ecuador – enjoy some measure of independent legal recognition under national law.  Efforts to afford similar legal respect to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India (here and here) and the Colorado River in the United States (here and here) have also been sought.  The following is the last in a series of essays exploring this unique phenomenon (see first essay / second essay / third essay / fourth essay / fifth essay / sixth essay).  The purpose of the series was to engage in a dialogue and assess the merits and extent of such recognition, and to consider the possible ramifications for people and communities, and of course, the rivers protected under such actions.  What emerged is an insightful and diverse conversation that offered critical and constructive analyses, and which furthered the conversation over this novel legal approach to the management of critical freshwater resources.

Ganga - Hindu river Goddess of the Ganges River

Ganga – Hindu river goddess of the Ganges River

Questions Abound

As a foundational issue, Erin O’Donnell asked the quite fundamental question of why a river might need to protect itself.  In modern societies, people and communities have traditionally sought to protect natural resources through environmental laws and regulation, with varying results.  As such, it is unclear whether affording legal personality to rivers is intended to plug gaps that environmental regulations have failed to fill, is an evolutionary step in environmental protection, or possibly, is some more fundamentally progressive approach to relating people with their surroundings.  Notwithstanding, O’Donnell noted that affording a river a legal right to protect itself creates a paradox whereby the human obligation and burden to ensure that protection is lessened and possibly expunged.

Further scrutinizing such legal recognition, Ariela D’Andrea asserted in her essay that the diversity of mechanisms and components used to afford such legal recognition leaves much unclear in terms of the practicalities, implementation, efficacy, and enforcement of these actions.  Given the novelty of this approach for the management of rivers, D’Andrea raised a host of queries ranging from whether the recognition applies to the river, its basin, or even the aquatic and surrounding biodiversity, to whether a river, recognized as a legal person (possibly like a corporation), can now be liable for taxes, harm from flooding, and ensuring its own water quality and quantity.  In her essay, Julia Talbot-Jones further critiqued the phenomenon and questioned the mechanics of how the granting of legal personality for rivers could be operationalized.  She also highlighted the reality that the new rights of these water bodies could only be protected through institutional mechanisms acting on their behalf, as well as adequate resources to support such responsibilities.  As Talbot-Jones rightly suggested, legal rights without the means to protect them could simply become irrelevant.

Tangaroa - Maori god of rivers, lakes, and the sea and all that live within them

Tangaroa – Maori god of rivers, lakes, and the sea and all that live within them

The practicalities of implementation, however, are only some of the challenges facing the realization and appreciation of such action.  Both Virginia Marshall and Deborah Curran pointed out that while some of these efforts are couched in terms of values ascribed to indigenous communities, the steps taken may not necessarily comport with those values.   Both authors suggested that because of the unique relationship that indigenous communities enjoy with their natural surroundings including rivers and other freshwater resources (Marshall focusing on Australia’s Aboriginal Peoples, and Curran focusing on Canada’s First Nations), indigenous peoples could actually find the notion of a river holding legal personality completely antithetical to their cultural beliefs and norms.

In a similar vein, it may be reasonable to question whether the approach and mechanisms used to install legal personality to a river is actually based on the values of the local indigenous community, or rather on a broader perspective that encompasses the ideals of both indigenous and the broader citizenry’s perspective of sustainability and environmental protection.  While the former could manifest in mechanisms that emphasize individual and communal stewardship, prioritizing of indigenous and environmental concerns, and the installation of decisional authority in the collective citizenry or an appointed public body, the latter could result in regulation-based restrictions, priorities for human health, and decision-making authority assigned to a governmental agency.  Of course, the resulting mechanisms could also be a combination of both.  However, whether a particular approach is appropriate for a distinct locale will likely have to be determined case-by-case since conduct that is justified in one set of natural, cultural, and political circumstances may not be supportable in a different scenario.

Enki - Sumerian god of fresh water, as well as wisdom, intelligence, trickery and mischief

Enki – Sumerian god of fresh water, as well as wisdom, intelligence, trickery and mischief

Commonalities

Despite the distinct differences in approaches taken in the various case examples explored in these essays, it is worth noting that in all of them, one of the chief motivations behind the decisions taken was the sincere desire to ensure the existence and sustainability of an invaluable freshwater resource.  While some may debate the necessity to protect a particular river or watershed, it seems reasonable to acknowledge that such a conservation justification generally is both rational and defensible.  Hence, the resulting question that must be considered is whether the mechanisms used to achieve the particular objectives are appropriate and reasonable.  Again, this can only be understood and undertaken on an ad hoc basis.

Nevertheless, altruistic environmental priorities are not the only or sole influences that have resulted in the recognitions of rivers as legal persons.  In some instances, religious and cultural values may have helped inspire such outcomes.  As Julia Talbot-Jones explained, in the case of the Whanganui River, the justification also included the desire to resolve long-standing ownership claims by the Māori indigenous community.  In contrast, the decision by the High Court of the Indian state of Uttarakhand to recognize the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers as living entities, as well as resolution adopted by the Madhya Pradesh state legislature recognizing the Narmada River as a living entity, appear to be grounded, at least partially, in the Hindu faith.  While such objectives do not negate the sustainability rationale, in the case of the Whanganui River, it injected an additional distinct element that provided a critical impetus for legal recognition of the river, as well as complicated and lengthened the process that resulted in a quite unparalleled institutional and legal framework (the Whanganui River Claims Settlement 2017).  In the case of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers, the religious justification may have actually hastened the courts’ ruling, although questions about implementing that judgment ultimately lead India’s Supreme Court to stay that decision.

Achelous - Hellenistic god of the Achelous River

Achelous – Hellenistic god of the Achelous River

A further common factor that should be considered when examining the various examples is the assignment of guardianship or trusteeship for the river to a body whose responsibility is to represent the interests of the water body.  Such action is clearly based on the need to operationalize the legal standing criteria that applies to all persons under law, whether human, corporate, or otherwise.  However, as Katie O’Bryan indicated, there is a considerable range among the representative bodies discussed in the examples in terms of their structure, authority, and the resources allotted to support their responsibilities.  Nevertheless, similar distinctions and disparities can be identified in terms of representational capacity for corporations, as well as children and the mentally challenged, operating before the law.  Accordingly, the institutional mechanism created to protect the interests of rivers that have been afforded individual legal recognition, and especially legal personality, should serve as a basis for further comparison and analyses.

Conclusion

Whether rights of personhood recognized in rivers could lead to cleaner and more bountiful water for people and the nature is still unknown.  The judicial and legislative actions discussed in these essays are both novel and recent, and the complete range of outcomes, implications, and repercussions have yet to be fully ascertained.  One particular question not raised in this series is how this approach, in the face of a serious water deficiency, might balance the rights of people or a community to secure adequate supply of water against the sustainable needs of nature.  Considering the debilitating crisis in Cape Town, South Africa, and ongoing parched conditions in Afghanistan, Australia, Bolivia, Iran, Jordan, Mongolia, Morocco, Uruguay, western Canada, other parts of the world, it may be that recognizing individual rights in rivers may not be appropriate in all corners of the globe.

Nevertheless, the steps taken in Australia, Colombia, India, and New Zealand have not gone unnoticed.  Efforts to duplicate these decisions and outcomes have been explored in Chile, Nigeria, the United States, and other countries.  Moreover, they have become fodder for multiple legal and policy analyses, which are critically necessary to explore the viability and practicalities of such efforts.

The essays involved in this series on legislative and judicial actions taken to recognize some measure of independent legal personality under national law was undertaken precisely with the objective of furthering the assessment and discussion of this distinct new approach for the management of the world’s critical freshwater resources.  With this in mind, we welcome further commentary, analyses, and opinions in response to these essays.

Chalchiuhtlicue - Aztec goddess of water, rivers, seas, streams, and storms

Chalchiuhtlicue – Aztec goddess of water, rivers, seas, streams, and storms

Shared Watercourses and Water Security in South Asia: Challenges of Negotiating and Enforcing Treaties

August 27th, 2018

The following essay by Drs. Salman M. A. Salman and Kishor Uprety is a summary of their recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears in Vol. 3(3) 2018, pp. 1-100, of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law.  Dr. Salman is an academic researcher and consultant on water law and policy and Editor-in-Chief of Brill Research Perspectives, International Water Law. He can be reached at SalmanMASalman [at] gmail.com. Dr. Uprety is Senior Lawyer with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and an Associate Editor of Brill Research Perspectives, International Water Law. He can be reached at Dr.kishoruprety [at] gmail.com.

 

A large number of rivers in the South Asia region are shared across borders. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan share more than two dozen major rivers. Conflicting claims over those transboundary watercourses is a major security challenge in the region. Indeed, shared watercourses have influenced South Asia’s geography and history, as well as riparians’ responses to the challenges of utilizing, managing, and protecting such water bodies. Because of scarcity, population growth, and climate change impacts, national calls for water security have become louder and more intense in each of these countries. Consequently, collaboration among the countries of South Asia for ensuring equitable sharing of such watercourses has not been optimal.

Map of South Asia's shared watercourses

Map of South Asia’s shared watercourses

In addition, other factors such as information sharing and lack of trust has exacerbated the differences. While most countries do not have reliable systems for data generation, those possessing some hydrological data consider them state secrets, restricting their exchange. Even when treaty obligations exist, data-sharing practices are ad hoc, and the range of information shared is limited. Thus, negotiating new transboundary water treaties amongst the South Asia countries has become a daunting task, and enforcing existing ones remains a real challenge.

With the above constraints in the background, the monograph provides an overview of the notion of water security in South Asia, and discusses the challenges as well as the opportunities for establishing governance frameworks for shared watercourses in the region.

The introduction of the monograph begins with an analysis of the concept of water security, and how the concept emerged and spread as a world-wide and complex phenomenon. It also discusses the challenges the concept imposes in designing and implementing governance regimes for shared watercourses. To further set the stage and focus, and to establish a better appreciation of the challenges, the introduction then discusses the geopolitical setting of the region.

The first part of the monograph starts by discussing the treaty practices in South Asia regarding their shared watercourses. Each instrument is presented as a unique document and effort, finalized after lengthy negotiations with each of the riparians’ specific objectives, interests and strategies in mind. In that context, the monograph reviews the regimes for shared watercourses already in force, as well as those that are under discussion and consideration.

The Indus and the Ganges river basins are the two regimes that are currently in force. The discussion of the Indus Basin regime focuses on the historical background and the complexities involved in the unusually long process of the treaty negotiations. The discussion involves the role of the World Bank, which provided its good offices to the parties, and the reasons for success of the Bank’s intervention. This is followed by an analysis of the treaty provisions, particularly its unique dispute resolution mechanisms. In this context, the monograph also discusses the several cases of “differences” and “disputes” that have emerged between the two riparian parties─India and Pakistan─and analyzes how the treaty provisions facilitated their resolution. This part of the monograph also elaborates and critiques the role of the World Bank in the dispute resolution process.

The second regime in force discussed in the monograph relates to the Ganges Basin, including some of its tributaries. Several treaties have been concluded for the governance of the Basin. The monograph reviews and analyzes each of them, including the history of the negotiations and the main provisions of each treaty, with a critical analysis of implementation.

The discussion also covers the efforts in South Asia, which have been ongoing for several decades, to establish regimes to govern some other important shared watercourses. Negotiations amongst the riparian countries on these basins have been difficult and the outcomes have been poor. In this context, the monograph reviews the regimes pertaining to the Teesta and the Brahmaputra basins, and highlights the difficulties that have emerged.

The subsequent part of the monograph deals with the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention. It focuses on the position of each of the South Asian countries vis-a-vis the Convention, which, interestingly, none has become a party to. The monograph discusses the reasons for such positions, and analyzes the countries’ malaise, as well as their specific concerns regarding the Convention.

The conclusion of the monograph recapitulates and highlights the main problematic situations of South Asia’s shared watercourses and analyzes the prospects for addressing them. In so doing, the conclusion provides some concrete suggestions derived from experiences in other countries and shared basins. The conclusion also includes some recommendations that can assist in enhancing cooperation, mutual trust and understanding amongst the South Asia riparians, and strengthening and consolidating of their achievements on their shared watercourses.

The monograph is dedicated “To the memory of Professor Charles B. Bourne (1921 – 2012); one of the pioneers and innovators in the field of international water law.”

The entire article is available here.

 

Countdown to the Guarani Aquifer Agreement coming into force: will it be effective in promoting transboundary groundwater governance?

June 18th, 2018

The following essay is by Pilar Carolina Villar, Professor of Environmental Law at Federal University of São Paulo. She can be reached at pcvillar [at] gmail.com.

The signing of the Guarani Aquifer Agreement (Portuguese / Spanish / English [unofficial]) on August 2, 2010, by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay was received by the water community with excitement due to the few number of treaties dedicated to transboundary aquifer cooperation, the absence of a water conflict, and the short time it took to secure the signatures after the end of the Guarani Aquifer System Project. In 2012, Argentina and Uruguay ratified the treaty with the promulgation of Law n° 26.780/2012 and Law n° 18.913/2012, respectively. Thereafter, the Agreement faced a period of stagnation until May 2017 when Brazil ratified it with Legislative Decree n° 52/2017. Almost a year later, in April 2018, Paraguay ratified the Agreement when it approved Law nº 6037/2018.

After almost 8 years, the Agreement is in the final stage of coming into force, although Paraguay has yet to deposit its instrument of ratification with Brazil, which is the official depository for the Agreement. According to Article 21, the Agreement will officially enter into force on the thirtieth day after that deposit occurs.

Schematic hydrogeological map of the Guarani Aquifer System. Source: The Guarani Aquifer Initiative – Towards Realistic Groundwater Management in a Transboundary Context, Case Profile Collection Number 9. Sustainable Groundwater Management: Lessons from Practice (Nov. 2009)

The Agreement’s ratification by the four countries represents a new phase in the process of cooperation among the Guarani countries. It allows implementation of the Guarani Aquifer Commission, and the possibility of restarting cooperative projects that will promote the development of knowledge and management of the Guarani Aquifer System. However, considering the long ratification process of the Agreement and the role of other transboundary water organizations in the La Plata Basin, should we be optimistic in the context of transboundary aquifer cooperation?

In view of the lack of international agreements for the joint management of transboundary aquifers, the ratification of the Agreement represents a milestone to encourage more countries in South American to include groundwater cooperation in their practice of international affairs. Moreover, the ratification opens a path for the establishment of a common institutional arrangement dedicated exclusively to groundwater issues among the four countries. The existence of an international agreement could also be used as a positive force for attracting international funds from organizations like the Global Environment Fund, World Bank, Organization of American States, UN Environmental Programme, and UN Development Programme, which may be interested in supporting the operationalization of the only international groundwater cooperative arrangement in South America. Finally, the Guarani Aquifer States could become more interested in promoting cooperative projects and actions regarding the aquifer since the Agreement will soon be binding on all of them.

The future of the Guarani Aquifer Agreement is dependent especially on the will of the countries to enforce the agreement’s institutional framework. On this point, the projections are not necessarily encouraging. While the Guarani Aquifer Commission is the pillar of the Agreement, it is unclear what its powers will be or whether it will have legal personality under international law. Moreover, it is impossible to foresee when the countries will establish the Statute of the Commission. Regardless, it does not seem to be a priority in the short term, especially considering the current political and economic conditions of the Guarani countries.

Even with the Guarani Aquifer Commission, cooperation should not be taken for granted. The La Plata Basin has a complex institutional system made up of fourteen organizations that have legal personality under international law and four technical committees. All of them face difficulties in consolidating themselves as leading players in cooperation over the La Plata basin. In fact, the amount of institutions contrasts with the relatively low number of joint actions and products resulting from their work. Even the Intergovernmental Coordinating Committee of the Countries of the Plata Basin, which is the oldest water-related organization in the La Plata Basin area, still has problems receiving financial support from its member countries, and largely depends on international funds to conduct studies in the basin. As a result, the Guarani Aquifer Commission runs the risk of becoming another water-related organization with very limited influence.

Implementation of the Agreement and creation of the Guarani Aquifer Commission could benefit from the existence of CeReGAS – Centro Regional para la Gestion de Aguas Subterráneas (Regional Center for the Management of Groundwater), an international center located in Montevideo, Uruguay, that is dedicated to promoting groundwater management and cooperation in the regional context. While CeReGAS and the Guarani Aquifer Commission have different mandates, since the first is a regional center supported by UNESCO and the other is an organization established by an international treaty restricted to the Guarani Aquifer countries, they might build an alliance to optimize funding and technical resources. Their scope is closely related since both focus their efforts on the promotion of groundwater cooperation, one in the South American context while the other in the Guarani Aquifer region. CeReGAS has also developed a case study on the Guarani Aquifer, and has produced documents on and disseminated the results of the Guarani Aquifer System Project.

The Agreement soon will come into force and become a binding instrument for the Guarani Aquifer States. However, the questions of when and how it will be implemented remain unanswered. The challenges to applying the Agreement are some of the same facing other water agreements in the region: overcoming the tendency of building fragile water-related institutions, improving cooperation between institutions or between States, expanding transparency in actions of cooperation, and guaranteeing financial support. In this sense, the first step for the countries involved is to establish the Commission and define its capacity, a mission that could be facilitated by the presence of CeReGAS. Then, the States involved must overcome the traditional challenges related to political will, institutional capacity and efficiency, as well as the provision of funds to support the Commission and the execution of cooperative projects. Only time will tell if the Guarani Aquifer States will cooperate successfully over the joint management of the Guarani Aquifer.