UNEP effort to strengthen transboundary freshwater governance

I recently attended a UNEP conference – Strengthening Transboundary Freshwater Governance: The Environmental Sustainability Challenge – in Bangkok, Thailand. The program was aimed at identifying challenges and opportunities in transboundary freshwater governance as well as formulating responsive priority actions. While I don’t have an electronic copy of the agenda, you can find the conference Executive Brief here, and a UNEP press release here. Sessions topics included:

· Transboundary Freshwater Governance and the Environment in the Context of Sustainable Development

· Environmental Dimension of Transboundary Freshwater Governance

· Transboundary Freshwater Governance and IWRM

· Climate Change and Transboundary Freshwater Governance

While the program was billed as an “international high level ministerial conference,” there were few in attendance – rather disappointing given UNEP’s intent in organizing the event (to develop a productive plan of action) as well as the importance of the topics addressed. This is one of the shortcomings of so many of these meetings – the absence of high-level decision-makers, many of whom lack the information necessary to make sound policy decisions. Whether it is a UNEP program or one organized by other sectors of civil society, greater effort has to be made to ensure that the people who need to attend such meetings actually appear. Where information is available, it is no excuse that the right person was unavailable to receive it.

Nonetheless, the participants who did attend (representatives of a number of IGOs and international river basin commissions, government officials, NGOs, and various advisors and experts) made the event quite successful and informative. The main outcome of the conference was the Bangkok Plan of Action, which recommended actions to improve governance of cross-border freshwater resources. Among other points, the Plan of Action proposed that:

· Governments “seriously review and consider” the UN Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses and the Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers

· UNEP provide a regular forum and assistance for basin organizations with the first forum to be convened in Thailand in 2011

· UNEP promote the awareness and recognition of the environmental dimension of water law/regulatory frameworks at all levels of governance

The most significant work product of the program, however, was the “recommendations for action to the High-Level Ministerial Segment” formulated collectively by all who attended and endorsed in the Bangkok Plan of Action. Especially noteworthy are the recommendations calling for:

· Governments to recognize and take into account the environment as a natural infrastructure for climate change adaptation when formulating transboundary water governance policies

· Government, UN Agencies and other relevant bodies to promote IWRM as a bridge between national and transboundary water management policies

· UNEP to advocate the role of freshwater governance in climate chance adaptation in relevant UN and other fora

· UNEP-UNESCO-IHP to provide technical and administrative support to AMCOW’s African Groundwater Commission

UNEP has promised to post these recommendations, as well as the ministerial Bangkok Plan of Action, shortly, and I will update this post as soon as that occurs.

According to the Bangkok Post, 25 nations so far have endorsed the Bangkok Plan of Action. Nonetheless, neither the Plan of Action nor the recommendations can be interpreted as binding on UNEP or nations. The aspirational language of the documents (e.g., Governments “should”), coupled with the relatively small turnout of high-level government officials at the conference, effectively proscribes such construction. Moreover, such Plans tend to highlight needs and goals generically rather than actual, substantive programs describing how the needs will be addressed and the goals met. Unless elevated to the UN General Assembly or, better yet, in the context of an international convention, the normative value of these documents is merely instructive.

Notwithstanding, there is value in the Plan and recommendations to the extent that they provide decent guidelines for IGOs, NGOs, water commissions, and others by which to structure water management programs. Additionally, the formulation of the recommendations served as a wonderful basis for stimulating dialogue and exchange, as well as strengthening existing ties and establishing new connections. While this is probably most true among the NGO representatives in attendance (who tend to have a refreshing idealism), there seemed to be considerable interaction among all of the participants. While UNEP programs have not always served as models of success, and while this particular meeting could be critiqued for what it was not, there is much about which to be optimist.

One other noteworthy outcome of the conference is the public release of UNEPs third report on Freshwater Under Threat in Asia, which focused on South Asia and highlights three major river basins in the region: the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, the Indus and the Helmand. The prior two reports focused on South East Asia, and North East Asia.

As for my presence at the conference, I attended as a representative of UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme to help represent its ongoing efforts on transboundary aquifers. In particular, UNESCO-IHP has been instrumental to the UN International Law Commission in its work articulating and developing international law for transboundary ground water resources. That effort recently culminated in the UN General Assembly commending the work product of the UNILC – the Law of Transboundary Aquifers – to the Member States and the addition of the topic to the its agenda in 2011. I had the honor of serving on the experts group organized by UNESCO-IHP that assisted the UNILC Special Rapporteur, Ambassador Chusei Yamada, in this effort. I have highlighted above some important language related to transboundary aquifers, as well as UNESCO’s efforts, that appear in the Plan of Action and recommendations.

2 Responses to “UNEP effort to strengthen transboundary freshwater governance”

  1. Mizanur says:

    Dear Professor Gabriel:

    I would like to hear your thought on the following question:

    Is there any potential conflict or overlap between the UN Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses and the Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers?

    Thank you.

  2. Gabriel Eckstein (IWLP blogger) says:

    Thanks for your question Mizanur. Briefly, yes, there is overlap between the Watercourse Convention and the Draft Articles. It largely relates to the situation of a transboundary watercourse that is hydraulically linked to a transboundary aquifer (although there are other scenarios where overlap exists) and the question of which instrument would apply. I will try to post on this interesting topic in a few weeks, though I certainly welcome your thoughts.