Map of State Parties to the UN Watercourses Convention
May 31 2014
On 19 May 2014, Vietnam became the 35th party to the 1997 UN Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. This means that on 17 August 2014, 90 days after that 35th ratification was deposited, the Convention will come into force.
Long in coming, the Convention’s success was never guaranteed. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1997, the Convention appeared set for ratification as 103 of the UN’s Member States voted in favor of it. Only three countries voted against – Burundi, China, and Turkey – while 27 nations abstained and 33 were absent from the vote. That vote, however, masked long-standing disagreements over how transboundary fresh water resources should be allocated and managed. In particular, upper and lower riparians disagreed between the primacy of the Convention’s cornerstone principles of equitable and reasonable use – favored by most upper riparians – and the doctrine of no significant harm – preferred by most lower riparians (for a more detailed analysis of the UNGA vote on the Convention, as well as the disparate interests, see my article).
Lackluster support in the years following the Convention’s inception suggested to some that the treaty was doomed to failure. More recently, though, the rate of ratifications more than doubled (18 in the first 12 years in comparison to 17 over the past five years). While that resurgence may have been due, in part, to the efforts of World Wildlife Fund (which in around 2009, added implementation of the Convention to its advocacy agenda), it also suggests a broadening recognition that nations have an obligation to cooperate over transboundary freshwater resources. Maybe it’s the threat of climate change, or concerns over dwindling domestic water resources. But, the fact that states are willing to bind themselves to the procedural and substantive norms of the Convention is a promising sign.
Entry into force of the Convention, though, is not the last word on the matter. In fact, this milestone raises as many new questions as existed leading to its implementation. For example, what does the geographic distribution of member states indicate for the global success of the treaty? Of the 35 ratifications, the vast majority are from either Africa (12) or Europe (16); only two ratifying parties are found in Asia and none come from the American hemisphere; five others are from the non-African Middle East region, albeit a total of eight MENA nations are now a party to the Convention. At the very least, this distribution suggests a certain geographic bias toward (and against) the Convention.
In addition, what will implementation of the Convention mean in practice? How will nations implement its mandates within their borders and in relation to riparian neighbors? Why have nations in the Americas and Asia eschewed ratification? What does the entry into force of the Convention mean for the UNECE Water Convention, which is already in force in much of Europe and on 6 February 2013, opened its membership to the rest of the world? And, what will the Convention’s implementation mean for existing regional and local transboundary freshwater agreements?
The entry into force of the Convention is a significant landmark development in the international community’s efforts to better and peacefully manage transboundary fresh water resources. Whether this achievement translates into improved and more peaceful cooperation is a future that has yet to be written.