Archive for April, 2020

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

Wednesday, 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.