Implementing International Watercourses Law through the WEF Nexus and SDGs: an Integrated Approach Illustrated in the Zambezi River Basin

The following essay by Dr. Zeray Yihdego and Julie Gibson is a summary of their recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears in Vol. 5(3) 2020, pp. 3-90 of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law.  Dr. Yihdego is Professor and Chair of Public International Law at the School of Law, University of Aberdeen. He can be reached at zeray.yihdego@abdn.ac.uk. Ms. Gibson is a Doctoral Researcher with the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance, Strathclyde School of Law. She can be reached at julie.gibson@abdn.ac.uk.

Over the past few decades, in an attempt to balance the competing uses and trade-offs on international watercourses, a number of water resources management paradigms have been developed. From Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and water security to nature-based solutions and the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus, each framework has applied a new lens through which to view the governance of transboundary resources. These frameworks have undoubtedly proved useful, each approaching water governance from a different perspective allowing both synergies and gaps across multiple sectors and uses.  However, in many cases, each of these frameworks function within their own body of research and fail to identify overlaps and duplication of efforts. And each one attempts to ‘reinvent the wheel’ rather than focussing on long-term solutions and taking a holistic perspective of the frameworks already in existence.

Existing largely separated from these policy sphere frameworks is International Watercourses Law (IWL). IWL provides a number of key principles including equitable and reasonable use and the duty to prevent significant harm, which have become the foundation of many water governance regimes. Yet, in many ways, IWL provides only a broad framework for States to follow and is not sufficient to systematically consider the trade-offs of water use across multiple sectors such as energy and food.

Both areas – of policy and of law – bring clear benefits. Policy frameworks often provide more ambitious targets, which may be more tangible than IWL, as can be seen within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They may also be more industry/business focused, as is the case with the WEF nexus and can look for more scientific solutions to transboundary water governance. In this sense, policy frameworks can, therefore, fill some of the gaps which exist within the body of IWL. But the use of certain policy frameworks may be fleeting. Development agendas expire and notions of water security or nature-based solutions fall in and out of fashion. Thus, by linking to IWL, the temporal scope of these agendas can also be lengthened, underpinned by a legal framework, thereby demonstrates only one of the benefits of integration.

This monograph tests this theory of integration by viewing IWL, the WEF Nexus and the Sustainable Development Goals in an integrated manner termed the Law, Nexus Goals (LNG) approach. It explores the extent to which the WEF Nexus and the SDGs can support a progressive, realistic and balanced interpretation of the core principles of IWL and the cardinal rule of equitable and reasonable use in particular. Specifically, it asks and demonstrates how the SDGs and WEF Nexus could be mutually supportive in tackling the tension between competing uses and trade-offs between sectors.

This LNG approach is applied to the case study of the Zambezi River Basin, an extremely complex and fast-developing watercourse with a strong history of cooperation. Our findings demonstrate that even where sound IWL frameworks and cooperative processes exist, this does not guarantee a focused, measurable and sustainable outcome that is capable of addressing tensions among riparian and competing water uses in all cases. A more integrated and holistic framework could go some way to developing a more comprehensive and progressive water governance approach within transboundary river basins.

Zambezi River (courtesy of Sean Peter)

The monograph presents a perspective of integrated governance, bridging both law and policy. It illustrates the complexities of managing shared water resources that are subject to multiple uses – as illustrated through the Zambezi – and demonstrates how making the most of existing frameworks, rather than forming new ones, could be a positive driver for strengthened IWL implementation.

The monograph is derived from research conducted under the €5.5M four-year EU Horizon 2020 funded DAFNE project, which concerns the promotion of integrated and adaptive water resources management. The project explicitly addresses the WEF Nexus and aims to promote a sustainable economy in regions where new infrastructure and expanding agriculture has to be balanced with social, economic and environmental needs. The project takes a multi- and interdisciplinary approach to the formation of a decision analytical framework for participatory and integrated planning to allow the evaluation of decisions based on social, economic and environmental needs, thereby reflecting sustainable development. The monograph, therefore, derives its perspectives from the interdisciplinarity within the project.

You can access the monograph here.

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