The United Nations Watercourses Convention on the Dawn of Entry Into Force

The following blog post summarizes Professor Ryan Stoa’s The United Nations Watercourses Convention on the Dawn of Entry Into Force (47 Vand. J. Transnat’l L. 1321 (2014)). Read the full article here.

In 1997, the United Nations created a treaty to govern international waters. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (Watercourses Convention) established guiding principles and procedural mechanisms that would allow states to resolve water conflicts and promote cooperation. Initial support for the Watercourses Convention was high (the convention passed by a vote of 106-3), but did not translate into meaningful action. Ratifications trickled in for seventeen years, and entry into force did not occur until August 2014. In the intervening years, other treaties aiming to establish international water laws were developed to fill the perceived gap. Meanwhile, it remains difficult to reconcile the Watercourses Convention’s primary legal principles: a basin state’s right to an equitable use of water resources, juxtaposed with an obligation not to cause harm to other basin states by using said water resources.

The discordant hydropolitics of the Nile River Basin—perhaps the most significant watercourse lacking a cooperative management agreement—best illustrate these limitations. Colonial agreements endowed Egypt and Sudan with a disproportionate share of the Nile River’s flow, and now the upstream states (led by Ethiopia and its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project) are pushing back. Efforts to cooperatively manage the basin have been frustrated by the Watercourses Convention’s ambiguities: Egypt and Sudan favor a “no significant harm” paradigm, while upstream states prefer an “equitable use” approach. Unable to resolve the contradiction, negotiations veered into adoption of a new principle of “water security,” the definition of which is itself unclear.

There is reason to be optimistic about the Watercourses Convention. It is now a treaty in force, and newly relevant. While no country in the Western hemisphere has ratified the convention, there is significant support in Europe and Africa, increasing the likelihood that legal principles and regional agreements take hold in those areas. And when basin states are in a cooperative mood, the treaty has provided a helpful framework basin-specific agreements can flesh out. Limitations remain, however, and current discourse lacks a critical perspective. My hope is that this article will foster a discussion about those limitations and the future of the Watercourses Convention. Ultimately entry into force of the Watercourses Convention is a step in the right direction for sustainable and cooperative management of international waters, but a full appreciation of its shortcomings will better prepare the international community for the potential pitfalls ahead.