Archive for the ‘Transboundary Aquifers’ Category

Conference on the Guarani Aquifer Agreement

Monday, February 14th, 2011

The signing of the Agreement on the Guarani Aquifer [Spanish] [Portuguese] on August 2, 2010, evidenced the continued progress being made in the pursuit of greater harmony in global hydro diplomacy (see my review of the agreement). True, South America is not lacking in fresh water resources. Yet, the effort by the overlying nations (Argentine, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) is laudable for its peaceful and cooperative approach. The four countries are now involved in the ratification process and in  negotiations over  institutional aspects, including discussions regarding an annex to the Agreement on arbitration procedures. How will these nations implement this agreement? What additional steps should they take?

Francesco Sindico, currently at the University of Surrey, Guildford, United Kingdom, along with colleagues Ricardo Hirata of the Centro de Pesquisas de Água Subterrânea–Instituto de Geociências da Universidade de São Paulo (CEPAS – IGc/USP) and Geroncio Rocha of the Secretaria do Meio Ambiente do Estado de São Paulo, is organizing a conference – “The Management of the Guarani Aquifer System: An Example of Cooperation” – in São Paulo, Brazil 21-23 September 2011. The deadline for abstract submission is 30 April 2011. Three conference sessions will address:

  1. An assessment of the scientific knowledge on the GAS
  2. Current use and protection of the Guarani Aquifer System
  3. The GAS and regional cooperation

For further information please see the full call for papers at:

Groundwater depletion rate accelerating worldwide

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Here is a connection that may not be so obvious – accelerating ground water depletion worldwide is adding to sea level rise. That is the finding of a forthcoming study – A Worldwide View of Groundwater Depletion by Dr. Marc Bierkens of Utrecht Universityslated for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

How might that be possible? Well, the water has to go somewhere. Once its pumped out of the ground and used for its intended purpose, much of it ends up in the oceans, either through evaporation and precipitation or direct flow into the seas. Yes, some of it does infiltrate back into the soil and recharges underlying aquifers. Yet, according to the study, as much as 25% of annual sea level rise can be attributed to ground water withdrawn by human ingenuity.

Dr. Ramón Llamas, Emeritus Professor of Hydrogeology at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain, has termed the growing global exploitation of ground water resources a silent revolution for its stealthy expansion and the lack of attention in both national and international water law and policy. It is high time that governments and policy-makers begin focusing on both domestic and transboundary aquifers and their sustainable management, not only to protect these dwindling and threatened sources of fresh water, but also to consider the global impact that their utilization is having on communities, dependent ecosystems, and now sea level.

You can read more about this forthcoming study in the press release AGU just issued. Here is an excerpt:

In recent decades, the rate at which humans worldwide are pumping dry the vast underground stores of water that billions depend on has more than doubled, say scientists who have conducted an unusual, global assessment of groundwater use.

These fast-shrinking subterranean reservoirs are essential to daily life and agriculture in many regions, while also sustaining streams, wetlands, and ecosystems and resisting land subsidence and salt water intrusion into fresh water supplies. Today, people are drawing so much water from below that they are adding enough of it to the oceans (mainly by evaporation, then precipitation) to account for about 25 percent of the annual sea level rise across the planet, the researchers find.

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Applying these techniques worldwide to regions ranging from arid areas to those with the wetness of grasslands, the team finds that the rate at which global groundwater stocks are shrinking has more than doubled between 1960 and 2000, increasing the amount lost from 126 to 283 cubic kilometers (30 to 68 cubic miles) of water per year. Because the total amount of groundwater in the world is unknown, it’s hard to say how fast the global supply would vanish at this rate. But, if water was siphoned as rapidly from the Great Lakes, they would go bone-dry in around 80 years.

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The new assessment shows the highest rates of depletion in some of the world’s major agricultural centers, including northwest India, northeastern China, northeast Pakistan, California’s central valley, and the midwestern United States.

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Most water extracted from underground stocks ends up in the ocean, the researchers note. The team estimates the contribution of groundwater depletion to sea level rise to be 0.8 millimeters per year, which is about a quarter of the current total rate of sea level rise of 3.1 millimeters per year. That’s about as much sea-level rise as caused by the melting of glaciers and icecaps outside of Greenland and Antarctica, and it exceeds or falls into the high end of previous estimates of groundwater depletion’s contribution to sea level rise, the researchers add.

Hydraulic Harmony or Water Whimsy? Guarani Aquifer Countries Sign Agreement

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Last week it was the Nile Basin riparians [see here and here]. Now it’s the countries overlying the Guarani Aquifer. On August 2, 2010, the four nations overlaying the massive South American aquifer – Argentine, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – signed the Agreement on the Guarani Aquifer [Spanish] [Portuguese] in San Juan, Argentina (original text can be found on the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Relations website). Has humanity finally reached its senses and decided to pursue global hydraulic harmony?

It is unfortunately unlikely that a global era of hydro-cooperation is at hand. Moreover, a review of this new Guarani instrument reveals a bare-bones agreement that contains less than ideal cooperative mechanisms. In particular, the agreement places great emphasis on individual states’ right while limiting obligations to cooperate and jointly management the aquifer. Article 2, for example, affords the parties the right of exclusive dominion over the portions of the aquifer that underlay each nation, while Articles 1 and 3 evince similar notions of sovereign rights. The idea that a state can have sovereign rights over a water body (or a portion of that water body) that flows across an international border harkens back to the long-discredited Harmon Doctrine. As international water law expert and former UN International Law Commission member, Dr. Stephen McCaffrey, modestly stated in a 2009 law review article [The International Law Commission Adopts Draft Articles on Transboundary Aquifers, Amer. J. of Int’l Law, Vol. 103, pp. 272-293 (2009)], where “the subject matter is something that moves from one state to another, from underground to surface, from surface to atmosphere, and so on in the hydrologic cycle, the notion that states have sovereignty over it seems a far from perfect match.”

In contrast, the Guarani Agreement places few limitations on sovereignty in relation to the rights of other parties. While it does contain provisions alluding to well-known international water law principles that could moderate the problems associated with sovereign claims over fresh water resources (e.g., principles of reasonable and equitable use [Arts. 3 & 4] and of no significant harm [Arts. 3, 6, & 7]), it merely references these notions without providing definitions or elaboration. In other words, the Guarani nations agreed mostly to leave each other alone in their respective Guarani-related territories and hydro-activities and only modestly agreed to cooperate.

Yes, the four nations did agree to share information generated about the aquifer (Arts. 9 & 12) as well as to notify each other of planned measures that may result in a transboundary impact (arts. 9, 10, & 11). And there is some language on the conservation and environmental protection of the Guarani (Art. 4) and the need to identify critical areas, especially in border regions, that require special measures (Art. 14). However, the language used in these provisions leaves quite a bit of room for interpretation and suggests that the parties themselves could not agree on the extent to which they want to cooperate. Similarly, the absence of any language describing the responsibilities and authority of the commission that is to be created under Article 15 intimate the creation of a paper tiger.

Notwithstanding its shortcomings, the Guarani Agreement can still be regarded as an important milestone in the world of international water law. Even in its less-than-ideal formulation, it constitutes progress in the effort to have more nations cooperate over shared fresh water resources. At the very least, it is an agreement for some measure of cooperation. If the four Guarani nations actually ratify the instrument (which appears likely), they will join a very small club composed of states who are party to a cross-border ground water treaty. The number of these treaties can be counted on one hand and include the complex management mechanisms governing the use of the Genevese Aquifer [French and unofficial English translation] along the French-Swiss border, and the rudimentary consultative and data-sharing agreements implemented for the Nubian Sandstone and Northwestern Sahara aquifers in North Africa. Given the dearth of treaties over transboundary aquifers (in comparison with the thousands of agreements over transboundary rivers and lakes), and the fact that there are at least 273 transboundary aquifers globally and that millions of people around the world rely on transboundary aquifers for their sustenance and livelihoods, the Agreement on the Guarani Aquifer is still a welcomed development.

Transboundary Aquifers International Conference in Paris 6-8 December 2010

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme just issued an announcement for and call for papers to ISARM2010 International Conference: “Transboundary Aquifers: Challenges and New Directions.” The Conference will take place in Paris on 6-8 December 2010 and will mark the end of the first phase of the ISARM Programme and the start of its second phase. ISARM refers to Internationally Shared Aquifer Resources Management, a joint project of UNESCO-IHP and the International Association of Hydrogeologists. The preliminary conference brochure can be downloaded here. I will be serving on the Scientific Advisory Committee.

Law of Transboundary Aquifers to be discussed at Stockholm World Water Week

Monday, July 6th, 2009

UNESCO-IHP, along with others, is organising a seminar during the upcoming Stockholm World Water Week on Sharing an Invisible Water Resource for the Common Good: How to Make Use of the UN General Assembly Resolution on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers (TBA).” This looks to be a fantastic event and line up of speakers.

 

In preparation for the seminar, the organizers have launched an internet debate to allow contributions from the rest of us. Those contributions will be compiled in a final report and presented during the seminar in Stockholm. Brief comments, thoughts, and case studies can be sent to IHPSeminarWWW2009  “at”  unesco.org.

 

The following is my own initial contribution:

 

One of my concerns related to the Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers pertains to how nations, organizations and others view the articles. To many, I suspect the articles represent the law by which to judge the actions that States may take vis a vis transboundary ground waters (e.g., did the State comply with the legal obligation). And the emphasis is likely to be on the substantive articles of equitable and reasonable utilization (Draft Art. 4); no significant harm (Draft Art. 6); prevention, reduction and control of pollution (Draft Art. 12), etc. In order to employ these principles to their fullest extent, though, they would be applied ex post facto – after a particular action is taken that results in an alleged claim of violation. This is because the objective determination of what use may be equitable and reasonable, or whether a particular project will significantly harm another state, etc., is, at best, a very difficult exercise where the equity and reasonableness of a water use, or the magnitude of the harm, are mere projection.

 

What I hope is not neglected, thought, is the fact that the Draft Articles are also (or, more so) intended as proactive procedures designed to help nations manage their transboundary aquifers in ways that prevent waste and neglect and, especially, avert disputes among aquifer riparians. Some of the more significant include proactive procedural articles that could easily be implemented prior to or during the implementation of an aquifer-related project, including Draft Art. 8 (Regular exchange of data and information); Draft Art. 9 (Bilateral and regional agreements and arrangements); Draft Art. 13 (Monitoring); Draft Art. 14 (Management); and Draft Art. 15 (Planned Activities). Doing so would likely prevent subsequent violations of the substantive rules. Accordingly, I hope that States, IGOs, NGOs and others place greater emphasis and attention on the procedural provisions of the Draft Articles as a means for encouraging cooperation and collaboration, and for preventing dispute over shared waters.

Correction to Last Posting on Ground Water and the US Supreme Court

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

Looks like I jumped the gun. In my last posting, I said that the US Supreme Court has accepted its first dispute between two US States over transboundary ground water resources. In actuality, the case has yet to be filed with that high court. Apparently, in indulging my exuberance, I misread the news story. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans had only affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Mississippi’s 2005 lawsuit against Memphis and its use of water from a aquifer underlying both Mississippi and Tennessee. Because the US Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in the matter (as affirmed by the 5th Circuit), that is the only recourse available to Mississippi. But attorneys for that state have indicated that they are prepared to take the case to the higher court and stated that “Mississippi will get its day in court and Memphis will have to answer and account for its theft of Mississippi’s water.” In short, apologies for misleading anyone, and please stay tuned for updates on this still fascinating and potentially precedential case.

1st Dispute Over a Transboundary Aquifer to go to US Supreme Court

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Michael Campana recently updated his WaterWired blog with the news that the US Supreme Court recently accepted its first dispute between two US States over transboundary ground water resources (see his posting here, which links to his prior postings on the case). As Michael explains in an earlier post:

In a nutshell, the case boils down to Mississippi claiming that Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW), the municipally-owned utility for the Memphis area (Shelby County), is deriving about 30% of the water it pumps from the Memphis Sand aquifer (aka the Sparta aquifer) from beneath Mississippi. This amounts to about 60 mgd (million gallons per day) coming from beneath the Mississipians’ land …

This is no nickel-and-dime lawsuit; the damages sought by Mississippi amount to $1 billion, and if the Memphis utility loses, it would be forced to reduce its pumping and obtain some of its water from the Mississippi River, which would entail the construction of an expensive water treatment plant.

Most of the “harm” to Mississippi occurs in DeSoto County [where] … [w]ell water levels there have been dropping … Mississippi contends that some of the declines are due to Memphis’ pumping and constitute “harm”. Memphis claims that its use is “reasonable” and not reducing the water availability in Mississippi.

The case originally pitted Mississippi against the City of Memphis (located in Tennessee), and Mississippi initially pursued the case in Federal District Court solely against Memphis. That court, however, ruled that the State of Tennessee was an indispensible party to the case and, because the case would involve a dispute between two US States, original jurisdiction rested with the US Supreme Court – the only court in the US permitted to hear disputes between US states (WaterWired also hosts a copy of the Federal District Court’s decision).

For purposes of international law, this case has great significance because of the jurisprudential impact that US Supreme Court principles and doctrines have had on international water law. For example, as Professor Steve McCaffrey explains in his quintessential book on the subject, The Law of International Watercourses, the keystone principle of international water law – equitable and reasonable utilization – is rooted, in part, in the US Supreme Court doctrine of equitable apportionment. Both concepts focus on the notion of equality of states under law, and both advocate equity in the allocation of benefits derived from transboundary waters. While there are important differences between the two doctrines (which would entail a law review article to explain; better yet, read Steve’s book), it suffices to say that US Supreme Court jurisprudence on interstate US water law has greatly influenced international water law.

Will the same occur for the law of transboundary ground waters? There is scant little precedence in US law on which the Court might base its decision other than cases on transboundary surface waters. While the analogy between the two water resources is certainly applicable and appropriate, this is new and unsettled ground for the Court to plow.

Might the Justices then turn to the law of other nations or of international law? Given the makeup of the Court, as well as the apparent disdain by some of the Justices for international law in US court decisions (recall Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments chastising the “arrogance” of U.S. judges who look to international law and decisions to support their opinions – see for example this Associated Press article), this is highly unlikely. Nonetheless, the Justices would be well served by reviewing the work of the UN International Law Commission in its work developing the Draft Articles on The law of Transboundary Aquifers. The Commission, lead by Special Rapporteur Chusei Yamada, spent six years researching and drafting principles of law that might be applicable to transboundary aquifers that traverse an international political boundary (Yamada’s reports, as well as those of the Commission’s Working Group on the topic, can be found here). (In the interests of full disclosure, I had the honor of serving on an experts group organized by UNESCO-IHP that assisted the Ambassador Yamada in his work on the Draft Articles.)

Ground water resources, for too many years, have been treated as the neglected stepchild of water law. This is especially true in a transboundary context but also in the domestic laws of many nations, including the US. The adage “out of sight, out of mind” comes to mind. The US Supreme Court has a great opportunity here to develop US jurisprudence and provide guidance for this nascent legal area. It also has a wonderful occasion to influence the evolution of international law in this area.

[See my updated supplementing this post here]

UNEP effort to strengthen transboundary freshwater governance

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

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.

U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Act

Monday, April 13th, 2009

As many of you know, the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act was signed into law by former President George W. Bush in December 2006. It was designed to address the lack of consensus between the two nations on the source and availability of future water supplies along the border specifically focusing on transboundary aquifers. The Act mandates the creation of a scientific program to comprehensively assess the region’s transboundary aquifers, especially those deemed “priority” transboundary aquifers.

 

While the Act is expected to generate important data and information for a region critically dependent on its ground water, it will likely produce charts and maps of the kind some of us may recall from elementary school – with colorful contours and geologic characteristics that stop at the border. Although useful for American school children (and even that is debatable), they may be worthless for more serious purposes. Despite its title, the Act is a one-sided effort. Although it directs the US Department of the Interior “to develop partnerships with, and receive input from, relevant organizations in Mexico to carry out the program,” according to Economic & Political News on Mexico (Vol. 19, No. 34, 9/10/08 – contact me if you want a copy), the Mexicans may have been caught off guard by passage of this unilateral effort. For example, last April (04/28/08), the Mexico City daily newspaper Milenio Diario asserted that “The US is betting on the underground water supplies along the border with our country, which is one of the regions in the US with the highest population growth … The growing scarcity of water in this region has on more than one occasion created tensions between the two governments.”

 

Certainly, the Act was adopted under the oversight of a prior administration. But that doesn’t excuse the great need for cooperation between the two nations. For example, while we may know that aquifers underlay the border region, its seems we still are unsure of how many such treasures may be found there. While Stephen Mumme identified eighteen in his work, others suggest as few as eight (e.g., see UNESO/OAS ISARM Report of 2005) and as many as twenty (see EPA’s 2005 Good Neighbor Environmental Board report to the President). IGRAC’s recently released Transboundary Aquifers of the World Map identifies ten.

 

Of course, this all may be subject to geologic interpretation, but the fact that it hasn’t been fully interpreted (or, at least, comprehensively collected) indicates a lackluster interest by the two governments.

 

Additionally, overexploitation has become a serious concern in the border area as populations on both sides pump water with little regard for the transboundary impacts or sustainability. Moreover, as communities continue to grow, increasing pollution from untreated sewage, agricultural and industrial byproducts, and other sources threaten the aquifers’ water quality. Now, climate change threatens to exacerbate the droughts that have plagued the region in recent decades and further diminish border-area water resources. Despite it all, a dearth of research and funding has left little known about the full extent and consequences of the exploitation and pollution of the region’s aquifers.

 

What is truly needed is a comprehensive and cooperative assessment of ground water resources on both sides of the border. To achieve this objective, both nations must become more engaged in the region’s transboundary aquifers. They must cooperate on and coordinate their research efforts, harmonize methodologies, continuously exchange data and study results, and, ultimately, develop a management scheme that takes into account the needs of both nations, the needs of the environment, and the extent of the fresh water resources available. And, in light of climatic variability, they must monitor all of the variables and periodically review and adapt their efforts so as to ensure that the limited water resources are used wisely and efficiently.

 

With the population along the border expected to balloon to as much as 23 million by 2030, the availability of fresh water in the region must be made a priority. Might the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act serve as a first step in this direction? Certainly a possibility. A second step, though, has yet to appear on the horizon. By itself, the Act is designed to provide only a one-sided glimpse of the needed information, and thus, may be an exercise in futility. Moreover, the fact that the Act is set to expire in 2016, has only received $500,000 of the $50 million authorized, and the current state of the U.S. economy all proffer even less hope that it will produce meaningful information.