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Water Governance



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International Agreements  

Recognising the benefit of cooperative water management through institution building, the international community has promoted a legal framework for managing international waters. The history of development of global agreements governing transboundary water courses can be traced back to the 1911 Madrid Declaration on the International Regulation regarding the Use of International Watercourses for Purposes other than Navigation. This agreement outlined general principles for cooperative water management, such as establishing joint technical committees and avoiding unilateral developments. In 1966, the Helsinki Rules on the Uses of Waters of International Rivers further elaborated these principles and outlined factors determining what constitutes equitable utilisation of shared water resources.

Rapids on the Kunene - international agreements assure cooperative management of the river.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Stieglitz 2000
( click to enlarge )

UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses

It took over 25 years for the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (Watercourses Convention) to be signed in 1997, making it the only global treaty applicable to international waters (GWP 2009a). The Watercourses Convention provides a framework and principles to guide basin level agreements; however, it is not legally binding as it does not have the minimum signatures required for ratification.

As one of the first African states Namibia signed the Watercourse Convention in the year 2000 and ratified in 2001. Angola voted for the Convention but has yet to sign it (WWF 2009).

The Watercourses Convention stresses principles of:

  • Universal participation
  • Cooperative governance
  • Equity
  • Peaceful dispute resolution
  • Communication and environmental protection

The Watercourses Convention reflects some of the challenges inherent in transboundary water management, that is, the conflicting interests of upstream and downstream users, and the challenges of addressing water allocation limits, which is not addressed in detail within the convention. However, the principles of "equitable use" and "avoiding appreciable harm" are both entrenched within the Watercourses Convention.

The Watercourses Convention resulted in the codification of the rules of customary international law as regards shared watercourses. It established three critical principles in the use of shared watercourses (ORASECOM 2007):

  • The principle of equitable and reasonable utilisation according to a number of environmental and socio-economic factors (Article 6)
  • The principle of obligation not to cause significant harm (Article 7), which protects downstream users of the watercourse from upstream development or utilisation
  • The principle of prior notification in the event of planned measures that may “have a significant adverse effect upon other watercourse states” (Article 12)

The Watercourses Convention attempts to strike a balance between the seemingly contradictory principles of absolute territorial sovereignty (1) and absolute territorial integrity (2). Article 5, equitable and reasonable utilisation, is considered to offer a compromise between the two contradictory principles (Dinar 2006). Article 7,the obligation not to cause significant harm, enshrines the principle that states must take all necessary precautions to ensure that their actions do not harm other riparian states.

The Watercourses Convention is designed to provide general guidelines as an umbrella accord, to allow countries to form basin-specific agreements.  Currently, the Watercourses Convention has not been ratified by the minimum number of states, therefore, it is not in force (GEF 2008).




Explore the sub-basins of the Kunene River

Video Interviews about the integrated and transboundary management of the Kunene River basin

Explore the principles of Integrated Water Resource Management applied to the Kunene