Fifteen years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a framework convention for bodies of water shared by two or more countries. The UN Watercourses Convention, as it is called, lays out a set of principles that should be addressed when negotiating international water management agreements.
After a burst of ratifications in the early days, followed by a dead period in the mid-2000s when only three countries adopted it in five years, the convention has recently seen new life.
What Is The UN Watercourses Convention?
The convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1997 by a vote of 103-3, with 27 abstentions. The convention’s history, however, reaches much farther back, to 1970, when the General Assembly told its legal arm to develop draft articles relating to the non-navigational uses of rivers.
The body of the convention has 37 articles, and an annex on arbitration holds another 14. The articles address things like sharing information on planned projects, exchanging data on water resources, preventing pollution, and protecting ecosystems.
Just this year, six countries have jumped on board: Benin, Denmark, and Luxembourg have officially approved the convention; Italy has signed everything except for the paperwork at the UN; Ireland and the United Kingdom said in June that they would ratify it.
In all, 27 countries have completed the process, leaving the convention just eight ratifications short of the 35 necessary for it to come into force. When that happens, the ratifying countries will be obligated to follow the convention’s provisions.
Legal experts told Circle of Blue that the convention is important because it sets a standard. Even now, its principles serve as a model. Two river basin agreements signed since 1997 — for the Nile River and for the Southern African Development Community, a regional group of 15 countries — have referred to and copied language from the convention.
“By itself, it won’t resolve anything,” said Joseph Dellapenna, a Villanova University law professor who has helped summarize international water law. “But it will strengthen the hand of those who are negotiating water agreements.”
Alistair Rieu-Clarke, an expert on transboundary water cooperation at the Centre for Water Law, Policy, and Science at the University of Dundee, Scotland, said that each ratification adds to the convention’s persuasive power.
“If enough countries adopt it, we can say the convention is reflective of customary international law,” Rieu-Clarke told Circle of Blue. “The opposite is also true — if it is not in force, countries can question whether it is really necessary to cooperate with core principles, such as notifying basin partners about water development projects and giving them a chance to respond.”
It Needed A Champion That the convention is even close to 35 signatures is largely due to the work of one organization. In 2006, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a major conservation group, decided to put its weight behind the convention.
“Most of our priority places for conservation are drained by international watercourses,” explained Flavia Loures, WWF’s point person for the watercourses initiative. “A lack of cooperation between countries over water resources was preventing us from achieving our goals.”
“A lack of cooperation between countries over water resources was preventing us from achieving our goals.”
–Flavia Loures, program officer World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
There are 276 international watercourses, or river basins, shared by two or more countries. Roughly 40 percent of the world’s people live in one of these basins.
“We looked at our on-the-ground work,” Loures told Circle of Blue, “and asked, ‘What could we add to that, to strengthen water governance?’”
The answer, it turns out, would be obvious to a political strategist.
The convention needed a lobbyist, someone to cut through the noise and bring the message directly to national governments — after all, they are the ones responsible for ratification and are sometimes oblivious to the sausage being cranked out at UN headquarters in New York.
“The convention never really had a champion for the cause back in 1997,” said Rieu-Clarke, who has helped WWF research why there was widespread support in the UN General Assembly but just a handful of ratifications.
Back then, the convention was lost in the congestion of a few frenetic years of international treaty-making, Rieu-Clarke said. The 1990s saw international treaties on climate change, desertification, and biodiversity, plus the Kyoto Protocol for greenhouse gas emissions and the Rio Declaration on principles of sustainable development.
“Maybe the watercourses convention was one convention too many,” he surmised.
In any case, Loures and Rieu-Clarke did find that many government officials were simply unaware of what the watercourses convention was or did. So WWF began holding workshops with government ministries in places like West Africa and Central America.
Ratification Process “The convention is now in the spotlight,” Loures said. “Countries are talking about it.”
The length of the ratification process varies. Loures said that Nigeria — which marked it a priority — sped through ratification in a matter of months. In Benin, however, almost five years passed before Parliament approved the convention.
Any number of obstacles can disrupt ratification. National elections can distract government officials and internal political chaos, as was the case in Guinea-Bissau in 2010, can push a water treaty far down on the domestic to-do list.
But the convention is now on a relatively clear path. Loures said that at least five more countries–the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Niger and Senegal–appear to be on track to complete the process in the next few months. That would bring the number of parties to 32. Another five countries, she said, are working a bit slower.
In a perfect world, the convetion would come into force next year, which the UN has declared the International Year of Water Cooperation. A nice bit of symmetry for a treaty long in the making.
Correction: This article originally used the Nubian Aquifer System as an example of a confined aquifer. It is not.