Archive for March, 2020

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

Monday, 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.