Should we care whether the UN Watercourses Convention enters into force? – Part I

July 22nd, 2012

The following post (Part I of II), by Dr. Alistair Rieu-Clarke (a.rieuclarke [at] dundee.ac.uk), IHP-HELP Centre for Water Law, Policy & Science (under the auspices of UNESCO) and Ms. Flavia Loures (flavia.loures [at] wwfus.org), WWF, is based on experiences gained through a range of activities conducted as part of the UN Watercourses Convention Global Initiative.

During Rio+20, UK and Irish representatives announced that their respective Governments would accede to the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC) to ensure that the world’s 276 international watercourses were governed in an equitable and sustainable manner. These announcements follow a growing wave of support for the Convention’s entry into force, which has recently seen Luxembourg become the 26th contracting state, followed by Benin only a few weeks ago. Moreover, various global and regional institutions have urged States to accede to the Convention, including the European Commission (see Resolution 2012/2552(RSP)), the Niger Basin Authority  (see 2011 Bamako Declaration) and African Basin Organisations (see 2011 Bangkok Declaration).

Anticipation of the Convention’s imminent entry into force has also prompted the question, ‘what next’? In this regard, at the 6th World Water Forum (Marseille, March 2012), France offered to host the 1st meeting of the parties, and UN organisations, including the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), UNESCO and UNEP, were identified as potential candidates for ‘housing’ the Convention – whatever form that might take.

As momentum finally gathers around the UNWC – a keystone global legal instrument adopted over 15 years ago – the question at the forefront of discussions is, ‘why should we care’? Would entry into force of a global framework instrument on the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses really make a difference?

From the legal standpoint, a primary driver behind the UNWC was the codification and progressive development of international water law, which, in 1970, was recognised by the UN General Assembly as, ‘still based in part on general principles and rules of customary law’ (see  UN General Assembly Resolution 2669(XXV)). The value of the Convention was, therefore, to provide greater detail, clarity and certainty as to what was, and what should be, the applicable international law pertaining to the non-navigational uses of international watercourses.

Simply through its adoption by an overwhelming majority of UN Member States – after an extensive process of treaty drafting and negotiation – the Convention presents an authoritative statement of customary international law. In the Gabĉíkovo-Nagymaros case, for instance, the International Court of Justice made explicit reference to the UNWC only months after its adoption by the General Assembly. Additionally, numerous basin and sub-basin agreements adopted after 1997 have been influenced by the Convention: in the case of the SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourses, many of the key provisions were taken from the Convention almost verbatim.

Although the UNWC already enjoys an influential role, its current status leaves open to debate which of its provisions reflect existing or emerging customary law, as well as the content of those principles widely accepted as custom. If the Convention were to enter into force, it is likely to trigger a snowball effect, leading to wider ratification by a representative body of states. At that point, all its provisions would be considered as reflecting customary international law and thus become potentially binding even on non-parties.  Entry into force would also consolidate the content of the principles of equitable and reasonable use and harm prevention, as well as their relationship, as codified under the UNWC.

In this sense, entry into force and widespread ratification are necessary to ensure the successful completion of the task entrusted to the International Law Commission: that of codifying, clarifying and progressively developing the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses, with a view to offering a clearer, more stable framework for transboundary water cooperation at the global level.

It was for this reason that, during the Convention’s drafting process, the Nordic Countries cautioned that, ‘this [framework] approach should not lead solely to producing recommendations’ (see replies of Governments to the Commission’s questionnaire at A/CN.4/447, 1993). The statement alludes to the importance of a legally binding framework instrument. A legally binding text holds greater potential for shaping state practice at the basin level. The ratification process itself normally requires the government to conduct an extensive consultation process with a wide range of national stakeholders. Ratification also tends to provide a stronger assurance that the rules and principles contained within that instrument will be adhered to not only by the government in power, but also by its successors.

That said, an effective and widely endorsed UNWC, on its own, might have limited impact. For the Convention to fully meet its potential in supporting and facilitating transboundary water cooperation at all levels, the appropriate institutional arrangements must be in place by which to deepen knowledge and understanding of the Convention and its inherent rules, principles and aspirations. Evidence of the need and value of such arrangements can be seen in the case of the UNECE Water Convention. Through its meeting of the parties, secretariat, work programmes, implementation projects and so forth, the UNECE Water Convention has played an effective role across Europe and neighbouring regions in supporting implementation of basin and sub-basin arrangements. Exploring synergies between the UNECE Water Convention and the UNWC, therefore, provides considerable promise in ascertaining how ‘multi-basin’ treaty regimes can make a difference at the basin, sub-basin and national levels. In addition to global institutional mechanisms supporting the convention, such discussions should include the role of river basin and regional integration organizations as hubs for coordinating and monitoring the UNWC’s future implementation.

See Part II of this post here.

Convention Watch – Benin Becomes 27th Party to the UN Watercourse Convention

July 6th, 2012

Benin became the 27th Party to the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention when it submitted its instrument of accession to the Secretary-General of the United Nations on 5 July 2012. Benin is the third country to join the Convention this year following Luxembourg ratification on 8 June 2012 and Denmark accession on 30 April 2012. According to recent press reports (here), the UK will soon join their ranks. The Convention will enter into force 90 days after the 35th nation submits its instrument of ratification, accession, acceptance, or approval to the UN Secretary-General.

You can find the updated status of the Convention here. Also, the IWLP has added a “Convention Watch” news box on its homepage here.

You can find a prior post on the status of the Convention here.

Luxembourg Ratifies 1997 Watercourses Convention

June 12th, 2012

On 8 June 2012, Luxembourg became the 26th nation to ratify or otherwise become a full party to the 1997 UN Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The other 25 states include: Burkina Faso, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guinea-Bissau, Hungary, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Namibia, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Portugal, Qatar, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan.  In addition four nations have signed the treaty but have yet to become full ratifying members: Côte d’Ivoire, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Yemen. You can find the updated status of the Convention here.

Of the 26 ratifications, two occured in 2012 (so far), three in 2011, three in 2010, and two in 2009. If the present rate of ratifications continue, the Convention could come into force within three or so years. The Convention requires 35 parties for it to achieve that status.

While it is probably still too early to identify any definitive trends, it is at least curious that of the 26 states that have ratified the Convention, twenty are either from Africa (8) or Europe (12). Five others are from the non-African Middle East region, albeit its also true that eight are MENA nations. Only one ratifying state is found in Asia (Central Asia to be precise) and none come from the American hemisphere.

What this might mean is still unclear. But the geographic distribution of the ratifications could suggest a geographic bias or disfavor for the Convention. As nations continue to ratify the instrument (and I do expect more nations to do so), it will be interesting to see whether this trend continues. Moreover, it will be interesting to see what this might mean if and when the Convention comes into force.

The Future of Africa’s Water Security

May 27th, 2012

Special thanks to Kavitha Pramod for co-authoring this essay

This map, published with the original MacDonald, et.al., study, depicts potential ground water resources on the African continent. Areas in blue represent the most water-abundant areas.

Not long ago, the BBC reported (here) on vast reservoirs of ground water resources underlying the African continent and the critical use that this water could have for populations now and in the future. While the so-called “discovery” of this water wealth may be questionable (see WaterWired’s Michael Campana explaining what we already knew here), the resurgence in interest in fresh water for Africa is a critical development in itself. The MacDonald, et.al., study that started this latest brouhaha can be found here.

Africa remains one of the poorest regions in the world in terms of access to fresh water resources. A recent report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (here) indicates that approximately 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are without access to safe and clean drinking water. Of the countries reported to have less than fifty-percent coverage in water supply, almost all are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, only some thirty-percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is blessed with improved sanitation coverage, making the region one of the most underserved in the world.

In the year 2000, the world’s major leaders came together at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration (here). The Declaration was intended to create a global partnership aimed at reducing extreme poverty throughout the world. Targets, known as the Millennium Development Goals, were set to achieve the Declaration’s aim, with a deadline for the year 2015 (see here). In sub-Saharan Africa, where some of the worst poverty and water scarcity conditions exist, only nineteen of the fifty existing countries are expected to meet the Goals’ drinking water targets by the year 2015.

This UNECA chart compares water availability for countries throughout Africa from 1990 to 2025. By 2025, all countries in the region are expected to be in a state of water vulnerability, with most being in states of water stress or water scarcity.

Of further concern for the sub-Saharan African region is that according to the United Nations, over the next ten to fifteen years, as populations continue to expand, per capita water supplies will diminish significantly to the point where available supplies will no longer be able to meet the water needs of many of the region’s nations.

Given the troubled state of Africa’s water circumstances, a renewed focus on the significant sources of ground water underlying much of the continent comes at a very important time. In addition to concentrating attention on a dire situation, it provides opportunities for the region and the global community to explore means of overcoming the water challenges facing Africa and for sustainably developing and managing these underground resources. One of these opportunities is directly tied to the fact that many of Africa’s aquifers are transboundary, underlying two or more nations. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, for example, is situated below Chad, Egypt, Libya, and Sudan; the Iullemeden Aquifer System underlays Mali, Niger and Nigeria; and the Baggara Basin aquifer is underneath Central African Republic, Sudan, and South Sudan, including the parched and war-ravaged Darfur region.

As the availability of fresh water decreases across the continent, competition and tensions over transboundary resources are likely to rise. To date, however, none of the transboundary aquifer countries in Africa have entered into an aquifer sharing or management arrangement. The only transboundary aquifer-related arrangements on the continent are two rudimentary consultative and data-sharing agreements formulated for the Nubian Sandstone and Northwestern Sahara aquifers in North Africa (you can find the texts for these arrangements here and here).

More than seventy aquifers and aquifer systems in Africa have been identified as “transboundary” by the United Nations’ International Groundwater Resources Assessment Center. IGRAC’s Transboundary Aquifers of the World 2012 map is available here.

An attempt also was made to develop an extensive consultative and management regime for the Iullemeden Aquifer System. In 2009, the overlying nations (Mali, Niger and Nigeria) signed the Declaration of Bamako (here) and an accompanying Memorandum of Understanding for the establishment of a consultative mechanism for the management of the Iullemeden Aquifer System (here) whose goals were to: (1) identifying transboundary risks and uncertainties, (2) formulate joint risk mitigation and sharing policies, and (3) facilitate the sustainable development of the Iullemeden Aquifer System’s resources. While the arrangement contained rather progressive and thoughtful approaches and mechanisms, the effort appear to have stalled.

Given the levels of water stress and scarcity that African countries are currently experiencing, and which are predicted to increase rapidly, the need for action is immediate. Although ground water resources in Africa are vast and provide great opportunities for overcoming the continent’s water scarcity problems, the lack of information, technical capacity, adequate funding, and cooperation prevents many African nations from overcoming the water challenges facing them. Accordingly, it is crucial that all of Africa – from the national level to the most local community – develop programs that will expand the exploration of water resources, push for data-generation and sharing, and encourage cross-border cooperative and sustainable management initiatives. It is also critical that the United Nations, as well as the developed world, offer their assistance for this worthwhile effort.

The mere discovery of a new source of fresh water underlying one of another nation will not ensure it a future free of water scarcity. Only by cooperating and carefully and sustainably managing such resources will Africa’s nations be able to secure the much needed water for its communities and environment.

 

25 and Counting: Another Ratification for the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention

May 3rd, 2012

For those of you keeping a count, the 1997 Watercourses Convention now enjoys 25 parties [see Status of the Convention here]. On 30 April 2012, Denmark submitted its notice of accession to the Convention.  This comes on the heels of 6 other ratifications over the past 2 years: Burkina Faso, France, and Morocco in 2011; and Greece, Guinea-Bissau, and Nigeria in 2010. The other parties to the Convention include:  Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Namibia, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Qatar, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan. In addition, five nations have signed but not yet ratified the Convention: Côte d’Ivoire, Luxembourg, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Yemen.

Denmark is the first nation in 2012 to ratify the instrument. But it may not be the last. In 2011, Benin’s parliament authorized its government to ratify the treaty. Other countries also are considering ratification. If this rate continues, the treaty may enter in force in the next few years. Under Article 36(1) of the Convention, the treaty will become binding on all ratifying parties ninety days following the 35th ratification. That day may be coming soon.

Incidentally, it is interesting (but not surprising) that when it filed its notice of accession, Denmark also submitted a notice excluding from its accession application of the Convention to the Faroe Islands and Greenland [see notice here].

Outcome of the Nairobi Nile Council of Ministers Meeting – An Inevitable Consequence of a level-playing field?

February 14th, 2012

The following post is by Dr. Salman M.A. Salman, an academic researcher and consultant on water law and policy and former water law advisor to The World Bank. He can be reached at Salmanmasalman [at] gmail.com.

The Ministers of Water Resources of the Nile Basin countries (Nile Council of Ministers, or Nile COM) were supposed to hold an extra-ordinary meeting on January 27, 2012, in Nairobi, Kenya. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the legal and institutional ramifications of the entry into force of the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). That meeting was requested by Egypt and Sudan, following signing of the CFA by six of the upper riparians, namely Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda Tanzania and Uganda. Coincidentally, the CFA needs six ratifications to enter into force.

The Nile Basin Countries

In fact Egypt and Sudan had asked for that meeting back in July 2010, during the eighteenth annual meeting of the Nile COM in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They had wanted to reopen discussion on the CFA, but the upper riparians objected. Egypt and Sudan renewed their demand for the meeting during the nineteenth annual Nile COM meeting in Nairobi in July 2011. As a compromise, it was agreed that an extra-ordinary meeting would be held in Kigali, Rwanda, on October 27, 2011, in connection with the 3rd Nile Basin Development Forum.

About a week before the meeting was to take place, Egypt and Sudan asked for a postponement. The parties then agreed to hold the meeting in Nairobi on December 27, 2011. Yet again Egypt and Sudan asked for a postponement, to which the others reluctantly agreed. That meeting was to take place on January 27, 2012 in Nairobi.

On Thursday January 26, 2012, all of the Nile ministers of water resources arrived in Nairobi except those from Egypt and Sudan. And the two nations did not ask for another postponement. Angered and frustrated, the ministers of Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, in addition to the representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo (which has not yet signed the CFA), decided to hold their own meeting, but under a different umbrella. They decided to meet as the Nile Equatorial Lakes Council of Ministers (NEL COM), one of the institutions established under the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) with its head office in Kigali. Although Egypt and Sudan are also members of the NEL COM, it seems that the upper riparian ministers decided they have the authority to hold the NEL COM meeting, and not the extra-ordinary Nile COM meeting requested by Egypt and Sudan who were absent.

The second decision taken by the NEL COM was to upgrade the observer status of Ethiopia in the NEL COM to full member. No doubt, this upgrade solidified the NEL COM and strengthened it as a coalition force against the alliance established by Egypt and Sudan under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement. That alliance was epitomized by the establishment of the Permanent Joint Technical Committee by the two countries under the 1959 Agreement, headquartered in Khartoum.

The NEL COM discussed and approved a series of measures regarding the NEL investment program, including the strategic plan 2012 – 2016; financing from the World Bank Cooperation for International Waters in Africa (CIWA); and the investment conference to be held with the development partners in June 2012 for hydropower and water storage facilities in the NEL countries.

NEL COM Ministers

The NEL COM then turned to the CFA and took three bold decisions which can be expected to have major ramifications on the relationship between the Nile River’s upper and lower riparians.

First, the NEL COM decided to go ahead with ratification of the CFA with the view of having it enter into force and effect, and thereafter to establish the Nile Basin Commission as prescribed in the CFA. This means that the ministers have reversed their earlier decision to delay the ratification of the CFA, in light of the Egyptian revolution of January 2011, so as to give Egypt and Sudan time to reconsider their position. The ministers also agreed that they would keep each other updated on the ratification process in their respective countries.

Second, the NEL COM instructed the Chair of the Nile COM (Ms. Charity Ngilu, Kenya Minister of Water Resources) to continue discussions with the three countries that have not signed the CFA (Egypt, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo) with the view of bringing them to ratify the Agreement; such discussions are to be concluded within sixty days.

Third, the ministers indicated their frustrations with the indecisiveness of Egypt and Sudan regarding the extraordinary meeting that the two nations requested but failed to attend, and which the ministers believed would have been an opportunity for dialogue and cooperation. The ministers instructed Mr. Stanislas Kamanzi, the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources of Rwanda and the current chair of NEL COM, to communicate these decisions to the members of the NBI (see story from The New Times here). The outcome of the meeting was included in the Nairobi Statement.

These are no doubt major decisions that will have far reaching consequences. Thus far, Sudan and Egypt have refrained from making any comments or issuing any statements. Perhaps the two lower riparian countries realize that the idea of the extra-ordinary meeting was not a good one, because the discussion would address the ramifications of the entry into force of the CFA, and not the areas of differences between the upper and lower riparians. Those differences concern the demand of Egypt and Sudan that the CFA include explicit reference to their existing uses and rights; clear provisions on prior notification; and that the CFA should be amendable either by a consensus or majority that includes both Egypt and Sudan. The upper riparians had rejected those demands. Now, they have decided to go ahead with ratification of the CFA.

It should be added that ratification of the CFA and its entry into force will create some legal problems related to the status of the NBI Secretariat after it is replaced by the Nile Basin Commission. This is because the programs, assets, and liabilities of the NBI will be inherited by a Commission that would not include Egypt and Sudan, both of whom are active members of the NBI.

The Nile Basin is clearly going through critical and uncertain times. The emergence of the upper riparians as a power to reckon with is, in my view, an inevitable consequence of a level playing field resulting from the NBI itself.

Will the Nile countries manage to resolve their differences in the next sixty days, or is the Nile heading towards more polarization and conflicts? This is what the next few weeks will tell.

You can find prior IWLP Blog posts on the CFA and NBI here, here, and here.

Nicaragua and Costa Rica Return to the ICJ for 3rd Case over the San Juan River

February 12th, 2012

On December 22, 2011, Nicaragua instituted proceedings in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Costa Rica for “violations of Nicaraguan sovereignty and major environmental damages to its territory” (see Nicaragua’s Application and  ICJ Press Release). This is the latest dispute in a string of conflicts between the two nations that has spanned more than a century, and the third presented to the ICJ in the past few years (see prior post briefly discussing this history).

The first case heard by the ICJ—Dispute Regarding Navigational and Related Rights—instituted by Costa Rica in 2005 concerned Costa Rica’s right to freely (without obstacles or taxation) navigate the San Juan River. The Court held that, while the River is Nicaraguan territory and Nicaragua can regulate the River traffic for national security, Costa Rica has the right of navigation for the “purposes of commerce” (see pleadings and related material here). In the second ICJ dispute—Certain Activities carried out by Nicaragua in the Border Area—which was instituted in 2010 and is still pending before the ICJ, Costa Rica contested Nicaraguan military presence at Isla Calero, territory that Costa Rica claims as its own, in connection with the construction of a canal (see prior post discussing this case; see pleadings and related material here).

This latest ICJ dispute between the countries concerns a road constructed by Costa Rica parallel to the San Juan River between Los Chiles and the Delta region. According to some accounts, the road was constructed as a defensive measure against the possibility of an incursion by Nicaraguan troops (see story here). While the road runs solely on Costa Rican territory, Nicaragua contends that its construction resulted in harmful environmental effects on Nicaraguan territory—specifically silting of the San Juan River, erosion of the River banks, and harm to the surrounding ecosystem of wetlands and the Indio Maiz Biosphere Reserve.

In its complaint, Nicaragua asserts that the construction of the road, which began in July 2011, has already “resulted in dumping in the River of substantial volumes of sediments—soil, uprooted vegetation and felled trees.” It also argues that “the felling of trees and the removal of topsoil and vegetation close to the River bank facilitate erosion, and the leeching of even greater amounts of sediments into the river.” Ultimately, Nicaragua alleges that Costa Rica breached its international obligations by infringing on Nicaragua’s territorial integrity, damaging Nicaraguan territory, and violating general obligations in international law and relevant environmental conventions. In its request for relief, Nicaragua seeks restoration to the status quo ante, damages, and preparation and transmission of an appropriate transboundary environmental impact assessment (EIA).

In addressing this case, the Court is likely to refer to its 2005 decision in which it found that, while Costa Rica has rights to navigate the San Juan River, the river remains Nicaraguan territory (see 2005 decision here). Accordingly, the case could turn on whether Costa Rica’s construction of the river road caused transboundary environmental harm to Nicaragua, including the San Juan River. Based on prior decisions between the two nations, as well as international law, Costa Rica certainly is bound to respect and not harm the territory and environment of its neighbor (see e.g., 1858 Treaty on the Boundaries between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the Cleveland Award of 1888 [English and Spanish], and the five Awards of the Umpire EP Alexander of September 30, 1897, December 20, 1897, March 22, 1898, July 26, 1899, and March 10, 1900).

Establishing a legal cause of action for transboundary harm, however, is typically dependent on showing a minimum level of harm. For example, both the UN Watercourses Convention and the UN International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on Transboundary Aquifers require harm to be substantial before it can be actionable. In the context of a transboundary watercourse, the UN International Law Commission asserted that significant harm occurs where the “harm exceed[ed] the parameters of what was usual in the relationship between the States that relied on the use of the waters for their benefit.” It also suggested that significant harm means “something more than ‘measurable’, but less than ‘serious’ or ‘substantial,’” and that an adverse effect or harm that is “not negligible but which yet did not necessarily rise to the level of ‘substantial’ or ‘important’” is considered “significant” (see footnote 123 and related text in my Article discussing the significant harm threshold). Whether Costa Rica’s actions rise to the level of significant harm remains to be seen.

As to the preparation and transmission of an EIA, the need for an EIA will depend on how the Court rules on the issue of significant harm. In the Case Concerning the Pulp Mills on the River Uruguay, the ICJ recognized that the practice of environmental impact assessment “has gained so much acceptance among States that it may now be considered a requirement under general international law to undertake an environmental impact assessment where there is a risk that the proposed industrial activity may have a significant adverse impact in a transboundary context, in particular, on a shared resource” (see Parag. 204 of the decision in the case). Hence, there first must be a determination that Costa Rica’s road building had the potential to result in a significant transboundary adverse impact before it can be argued that an EIA was required. It is noteworthy that the standard for mandating an EIA is lower than for finding an actionable injury: “may have a significant adverse impact” for the former, and “significant harm” for the latter.

On January 23, 2012, the Court issued time-limits for the two nations to file the initial pleadings in the dispute: December 19, 2012, and December 19, 2013, for Nicaragua and Costa Rica, respectively (see ICJ Press Release). In the interim, a group of environmentalists have challenged the Costa Rican government’s actions before the country’s Supreme Court and are seeking to enjoin the continued construction of the road (see story here).

As is often the case, the ICJ is in a unique position to provide guidance on an important legal matter, as well as a critical “real world” dispute.

Special thanks to law student Elana Katz-Mink, at American University’s Washington College of Law, for her invaluable assistance in developing this post.

What Does Turkey’s Contemplated European Union “Freeze” Have to do with Water?

February 2nd, 2012

The following post is by Rhett Larson, Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Professor Larson specializes on environmental and natural resource law and, in particular, on domestic and international water law and policy. Professor Larson offers the following post as part of his ongoing research.

Turkey plays an increasingly important global role as a cultural and economic bridge between Western nations and Muslim-majority nations. Its role has the potential to grow as it has been in talks to accede to the European Union (“EU”) since 2005. However, Reuters recently reported that Turkish officials have stated that Turkey would “freeze” relations with the EU if the EU were to grant its presidency to Cyprus (see Reuter’s article here). Cyprus is scheduled to take on the six-month rotating EU presidency in July 2012.

Turkey’s opposition to Cyprus’ EU presidency stems from several factors, including the potential conflict over Cyprus’s off-shore oil and gas drilling by Cyprus that is opposed by Turkey. But most fundamentally, Turkey is the only nation that currently recognizes the independent status of Northern Cyprus, with its majority ethnic Turk population, as compared to the rest of the majority ethnic Greek government of Cyprus. Turkey’s 1974 intervention (or invasion, depending on your perspective) in Northern Cyprus, Turkey’s recognition of Northern Cyprus as an independent states, and the EU’s blockade of Northern Cyprus have been the more stubborn obstacles to Turkey’s accession to the EU.

What does all of this have to do with water? The island of Cyprus has been suffering from a prolonged drought, impacting both agricultural and copper production, and further straining relations between North and South (see BBC article here).

Turkey has discussed construction of additional dams and reservoir capacity on the already contentious Euphrates River (which Turkey shares with co-riparians Syria and Iraq, as well as ethnic Kurds in all three countries, with each group suffering from drought as well). The proposed additional storage capacity on the Euphrates would not go to provide water to Turkey or its Euphrates co-riparians, but instead would supply Northern Cyprus via an undersea pipeline (see Global Post article here, and Green Prophet article here).

According to the Famagusta Gazette, Turkey began construction of the new reservoir and the undersea pipeline in March of 2011. The Turkish government contemplates 4 stages of construction for the project, with a projected completion date in March of 2014 (see article here).

Interestingly, this is not Turkey’s first foray into bulk water transports via pipeline into politically-contested territories. Turkey has previously proposed a “peace pipeline” to provide water to states in the Middle East, including Israel (see prior IWLP post on this topic here).This type of bulk water transport has very few precedents in international water policy. Singapore has, since the 1920s, purchased water in bulk from Malaysia (see here). Bulk water transport has been contemplated between the Canada and arid regions of the United States. However, environmental concerns over interbasin transfers and controversy over international trade and investment law, including NAFTA Chapter 11 protection for investors in bulk water transport projects, ended the contemplated transfer.

Turkey’s storage and pipeline project for the benefit of Turkish Cypriots has several implications for international water law and the hydropolitics of the region. First, other than the issue of Northern Cyprus, one of the other main obstacles to Turkey’s accession to the EU has been its relations with Syria and Iraq with respect to the Euphrates, and its treatment of ethnic Kurds within the Euphrates basin (see BBC article here).

Turkey’s relations with its co-riparians would arguably not comply with the EU Water Framework Directive (“WFD”). The WFD requires that EU member states work with co-riparian states in projects on transboundary rivers, and that requirement is not limited to coordination only with organized states, but also arguably with non-state actors, such as the Kurds. Additional storage on the Euphrates and an international bulk exportation of water from the basin will only further exacerbate relations between Turkey, Iraq, and Kurdistan, and aggravate an already imposing obstacle to Turkey’s accession to the EU.

Turkey’s failure to coordinate with its Euphrates co-riparians with regards to this project raises questions of international law and the widely accepted customary international law principle of “good neighborliness” requiring cooperation and information sharing for projects impacting shared fresh water resources. While there is no current treaty framework governing the Euphrates, the Turkish/Syrian Mixed Economic Commission and the Trilateral Water Institute/Joint Technical Committee can provide a foundation upon which to build a collaborative institution facilitating information sharing and cooperation between Euphrates riparians. Participation of Iraqi, Syrian, and Kurdish riparians in any bulk water export would at least avoid the legal and diplomatic problems arising from the contemplated storage and pipeline project for Northern Cyprus.

Furthermore, Turkey’s contemplated pipeline project raises questions of international trade in bulk water, not dissimilar to the issues that confronted the contemplated bulk water transport from Canada to the Southwestern United States. For example, the Greek Cypriot government could throw up legal trade barriers to prevent Turkey from selling water to Northern Cyprus. Such trade barriers could run afoul of the World Trade Organization laws, such as the 1994 General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, respecting the “equal footing” status of trade partners as compared to domestic vendors. However, the status of bulk water transported via pipeline as a “commodity” subject to WTO regulations is not settled law, and the unique relations of the Greek Cypriot government toward Turkey, as well as the dire drought conditions in Cyprus, make this case more complicated than simply discriminatory tariffs.

Turkey could avoid these issues and facilitate its accession to the EU in several ways. First, Turkey could build upon those existing river basin institutions on the Euphrates by including Iraq and Kurdish representatives in an effort to comply with the WFD in the implementation of the reservoir and pipeline project. Second, Turkey could investigate the potential cost savings and water production capacity of desalination in Northern Cyprus as compared to the reservoir and pipeline project; if cost-feasible, desalination could provide a less controversial alternative to addressing the drought in Northern Cyprus. Third, while Turkey is unlikely to withdraw support in the near future for a Turkish Cypriot state, Turkey could recognize that it would have a great ability to address the interests of Turkish Cypriots as a member of the EU than under the status quo. Turkey’s efforts to alleviate the drought in Cyprus on a nondiscriminatory basis for the benefit of all Cyprus, whether through desalination or the reservoir/pipeline project, could be viewed as an olive branch to Greek Cypriot government. Such a diplomatic gesture could facilitate Turkey joining the EU despite support for an independent Northern Cyprus.

Turkey’s contemplated “freeze” of its relations with the EU fray what had been a strengthening tie between East and West. How Turkey resolves the interrelated water issues toward its Euphrates co-riparians as well as toward Cyprus could go a long way in either restoring or further weakening its role as an important cultural and economic bridge.

UNGA Adopts New Resolution on Transboundary Aquifers

December 17th, 2011

On 9 December 2011 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), at its 66th session, adopted Resolution 66/104 on the “Law of Transboundary Aquifers”:

Resolution on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers

The General Assembly,

   Recalling its resolution 63/124 of 11 December 2008, which took note of the draft articles on the law of transboundary aquifers formulated by the International Law Commission,

   Noting the major importance of the subject of the law of transboundary aquifers in the relations of States, and the need for reasonable and proper management of transboundary aquifers, a vitally important natural resource, through international cooperation,

   Emphasizing the continuing importance of the codification and progressive development of international law, as referred to in Article 13, paragraph 1(a), of the Charter of the United Nations,

   Taking note of the comments of Governments and the discussion in the Sixth Committee at the sixty-third and sixty-sixth sessions of the General Assembly on this topic,1

1.    Further encourages the States concerned to make appropriate bilateral or regional arrangements for the proper management of their transboundary aquifers, taking into account the provisions of the draft articles annexed to its resolution 63/124;

2.    Encourages the International Hydrological Programme of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, whose contribution was noted in its resolution 63/124, to offer further scientific and technical assistance to the States concerned;

3.    Decides to include in the provisional agenda of its sixty-eighth session an item entitled “The law of transboundary aquifers” and, in the light of written comments of Governments, as well as views expressed in the debates held at the sixty-third and sixty-sixth sessions of the General Assembly, to continue to examine, inter alia, the question of the final form that might be given to the draft articles.

1 Official Records of the General Assembly, Sixty-third Session, Sixth Committee, 26th meeting (A/C.6/63/SR.26), and corrigendum; and ibid., Sixty-sixth Session, Sixth Committee, 16th and 29th meetings (A/C.6/66/SR.16 and 29), and corrigendum.

 

Transboundary Aquifers in the Americas

Transboundary Aquifers in the Americas

The Resolution, which has yet to be published separately but which is attached to a 9 November report of the UN’s 6th (Legal) Committee, follows up on the UNGA’s December 2008 action in which it welcomed the work of the UN International Law Commission (see Resolution A/res/63/124) [U.N. General Assembly Resolution on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers, A/RES/63/124 (December 2008)] in formulating nineteen draft articles on the law of transboundary aquifers along with detailed commentaries (available in English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish). At the time, the UNGA commended the draft articles to the attention of all UN member-States and placed them on the provisional agenda of the current UNGA session.

To some, adoption of the most recent UNGA resolution may be disheartening since it tables for another day discussion on the merits of the draft articles. Moreover, it postpones consideration of the final form that might be given to the draft articles (e.g., freestanding convention, protocol to the 1997 Watercourses Convention, guidelines, etc.) as well as implementation of a global framework for managing transboundary aquifers.

 

Transboundary Aquifers in Africa

Transboundary Aquifers in Africa

Nonetheless, the fact that transboundary aquifers remain on the UNGA’s agenda is a testament to the importance that countries continue to ascribe to the subject. While there may not yet be a global agreement on how shared ground water resources should be shared, there is broad recognition that transboundary aquifers are a critical and inseparable component of the global water resource system. More than one-half of humanity depends on ground water for their everyday freshwater needs including drinking, cooking, and hygiene. Moreover, in places like North Africa, the Middle East, and the Mexico-US border, transboundary aquifers serve as the primary or sole source of fresh water for human and environmental sustenance. With increasing pressures coming from climate change, population growth, and economic development, the need for a regulatory framework for cooperation and coordination over the world’s fresh water resources, and especially transboundary aquifers, continues to be an imperative.

 

Transboundary Aquifers in Asia

Transboundary Aquifers in Asia

By adopting this recent Resolution and placing the topic on the provisional agenda of its 68th session, the Assembly has emphasized the need to keep the spotlight on transboundary aquifers around the world. Moreover, by encouraging nations to enter into bilateral and regional transboundary aquifer arrangements on the basis of the draft articles, it has recognized the need for the development of norms and frameworks for cooperation over this vital resource.

While the UNGA’s approach in pursuing such a framework may be frustratingly sluggish, it might be intentional. Although the draft articles on the law of transboundary aquifers were composed with lightning speed (in contrast to the 25 years it took to craft the draft articles leading to the 1997 Watercourses Convention, the present draft articles were prepared in less than six years), they were not achieved without controversy. Among the various disputes, many nations continue to advocate that any portion of a transboundary aquifer found within a state’s territory should be subject to the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resource (recall the UNGA’s Resolution 1803 (XVII) of 14 December 1962). This is in stark contrast to the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization, a cornerstone of modern international water law.

 

Transboundary Aquifers in Europe

Transboundary Aquifers in Europe

Accordingly, in order to prevent the wholesale rejection of the draft articles, the Assembly may be taking a soft approach to the development of global standards and norms for managing transboundary ground water resources. This approach effectively allows countries to “test run” the principles and norms proposed in the draft articles without imposing any binding obligations. And given the dearth of experience with managing transboundary aquifers, this organic and measured tactic may be justified as it will allow for the formulation of locally-specific rules and procedures that are tailored to the unique characteristics of individual shared aquifers. Ultimately, as aquifer riparians begin to utilize, abide by, and modify these norms, it is quite possible that their efforts will evolve into demonstrable state practice and, thereby, customary international law.

UPDATE: Resolution 66/104 is now available here.

Sources for Maps:

Transboundary Aquifers of the Americas – UNESCO/OAS, 2007. Sistemas acuíferos transfronterizos en las Américas. Evaluación Preliminar. Programa UNESCO/OEA ISARM Américas, Serie ISARM Américas N◦1. Montevideo/Washington DC: UNESCO-IHP/OAS

Transboundary Aquifers in Africa – UNESCO, 2004. ISARM-Africa. Managing shared aquifer resources in Africa. B. Appelgren, ed. ISARM-Africa. IHP-VI, series on groundwater 8. Paris: UNESCO

Transboundary Aquifers in Asia – UNESCO, 2008. Transboundary aquifers in Asia with special emphasis to China. Han Zaisheng, Wang Hao and Chai Rui associated with R. Jayakumar, Liu Ke and Wang Jin, eds. Report of ISARM Asia pilot case study. Paris: UNESCO

Transboundary Aquifers in Europe – IGRAC, Transboundary Aquifers of the World, map at 1 : 50 000 000, 2009

The Silala Basin: One of the Most Hydropolitically Vulnerable Basins in the World

October 27th, 2011

A few months ago, Brendan Mulligan and I published a paper entitled “The Silala/Siloli Watershed: Dispute over the Most Vulnerable Basin in South America in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Water Resources Development. The dispute, pitting Bolivia and Chile, provides a fascinating case study involving both transboundary surface and ground water resources. Of particular interest, it also involves an artificial watercourse traversing the border that may defy application of international water law to the controversy. In 2007, UNEP named the Silala watershed the only “high risk” basin in South America and “one of the most hydropolitically vulnerable basins in the world.”

The dispute focuses on water flowing across the Bolivian-Chilean border in the Atacama Desert via a canal constructed in the early 1900s by Antofagasta & Bolivia Railway Company, a Chilean mining operation, per a concession granted by the Bolivian Prefecture of Potosí. Bolivia claims ownership over the Silala River on grounds that the river originates from springs on its side of the border and that the Silala’s waters are transported artificially to Chile; in essence, Bolivia denies the existence of a Silalar river. In 1997, the Bolivian government revoked the concession on grounds that the waters had long been used for purposes that were different than those agreed to in the original agreement. It also sought to awarded a new 40-year concession to the Bolivian firm DUCTEC SRL for $46.8 million, established a military base on the banks of the Silala River, publicly discussed a plan to bottle the river’s water and sell it with the slogan “Drink Silala water for sovereignty,” and conducted a feasibility study for a hydroelectric plant on the Silala just inside Bolivian territory (see Bloomberg article). At one point, Bolivian officials asserted that any negotiations with Chile should guarantee Bolivia access to the Pacific Ocean (see Spanish-language article), a demand suggesting that the issues surrounding the Silala are not entirely water-focused.

In contrast, Chile bases its ownership claims on grounds that the Silala’s waters were never diverted from its original channel, but rather that the canal works merely augment the natural flow of the Silala River. Hence, Chile argues that the Silala is and always has been a transboundary river subject to international water law. Moreover, it contends that it need not pay for the use of the Silala and that Bolivia’s rescission of the original concession, as well as Bolivia’s awarding of the more recent DUCTEC concession, were illegal. It is noteworthy that while Chile voted in favor of the 1997 Watercourses Convention, Bolivia abstained from the vote and neither has signed or ratified it. Although the two governments have attempted to resolve the dispute, including drafting a bilateral agreement on the use of the waters of the Silala (Spanish / English), it remains unresolved.

The applicability of international water law to the Silala scenario depends largely on whether or not the Silala River is described as a natural transboundary watercourse. A manufactured river, in the form of canals or other man-made systems, would not fall within the rubric of international water law since, by definition, such water bodies are proprietary and subject to the agreements that created them. Moreover, international water law does not apply to surface runoff flowing in a marginally defined or in undefined channel (e.g., surface runoff) regardless of whether or not the flow crosses an international boundary.

In the case of the Silala Basin, most of the spring flow is captured by artificial channels, constructed by the mining interests under its 1908 concession from the Bolivian Prefecture of Potosí and that cross into Chile via the principal canal. This would suggest that the water in the canal is subject solely to the terms of the concession agreement rather than to international water law. And when Bolivia rescinded the concession, the waters’ ownership reverted back to Bolivia.

Nevertheless, geological and topographical evidence (including onsite evaluations conducted by my co-author, Brendan Mulligan), as well as certain historical material, indicate that prior to canalization, the Silala springs flowed naturally across the Bolivian-Chilean border in approximately the same path as the principal canal. If this proves true, application of international water law is still unclear since we would have a transboundary river that was captured and canalized for private use.

Chile might argue that the concession trumps international water law since international law allows for the creation of agreements deviating from international standards so long as the deviations do not violate jus cogens (peremptory international norms). On the other hand, Bolivia may contend that the concession was a license revocable at the will of the licensor (Bolivia). If this latter analysis holds, then the rules for the basin reverted back to the default norms of international water law when the Bolivian government revoked the concession in 1997.

Still, to the extent that the flow of the pre-canalized Silala was intermittent rather than perennial, applicability of international norms also may be tenuous. The substantive rules of international water law can be understood, in part, as rules of liability. In other words, violation of the rules mandates the imposition of responsibility and recompense. Violation of the rules, however, can only occur where human actions interfere with the natural flow of the watercourse. Where a river fails to flow for natural reasons, as an intermittent stream is wont to do, no liability may be imposed. Moreover, the absence of state practice or examples in which international water law norms were applied to an intermittent stream suggests that this scenario is, at best, unresolved. Hence, to the extent that prior to canalization water in the Silala flowed across the Bolivian-Chilean border only intermittently, international water law principles may not be applicable to the present dispute.

Further complicating the scenario is the presence of an interrelated transboundary aquifer. As noted above, the Silala River is fed by springs in Bolivia. Those springs, however, emerge from the Silala Aquifer, which is believed to traverse the Bolivian-Chilean border. Unfortunately, as little as is known about the topography and geology of the Silala River Basin, even less information is available about the underlying aquifer. In addition, international law applicable to transboundary ground water resources is still in its infancy and there are only a few examples of state practice from which lessons can be drawn (see my article on Managing Buried Treasure Across Frontiers: The International Law of Transboundary Aquifers).

Whether additional facts and scientific information will be forthcoming from the parties or from independent sources is presently unclear. Moreover, even with such information, international water law, whether for transboundary surface or ground water resources, may not have a ready solution. As is often the case in disputes over shared water resources, negotiations may provide the most optimal solution for this most hydropolitically vulnerable of basins.