Francesca Bernardini is the Secretary to the UNECE Water Convention. We ask her about some of the achievements and activities of the Convention:
The UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (UNECE Water Convention) is a landmark legal framework for cooperation on transboundary water resources. The Convention entered into force in 1996 and applies to both surface water and groundwater in the pan-European region, which includes Europe, North America, Caucasus, Central Asia and Israel. In 2003, an amendment was adopted to allow accession by countries outside the UNECE region. Once into force, the amendment will extend the Convention influence further afield.
How has the UNECE Water Convention impacted cooperation over transboundary waters?
The UNECE Water Convention was negotiated and adopted in the early 90’s. It came therefore very timely, just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when new borders cut through the pan-European region and a number of basins which were managed at the national level during Soviet times became transboundary. Newly independent States had to establish cooperation frameworks to manage these basins.
The Water Convention is a framework convention; one of its main obligations is the requirement to Parties sharing transboundary waters to enter into specific agreements on their shared basins. The first example of application of this requirement is the Danube Protection Convention. Furthermore, the Convention has influenced the agreements negotiated by ex-Soviet Union countries in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, for instance the Russian-Estonian, the Russian-Kazakh, the Russian-Ukrainian, the Belarus-Ukrainian and the Belarus-Russian agreements. Also more recent agreements such as the 2002 Framework Agreement on the Sava River Basin or the 2010 agreement between the Republic of Moldova and Romania are based on the Water Convention.
Fourteen years after entering into force, what have emerged as the UNECE Water Convention’s main strengths? Are there any concerns or areas needing improvement?
The main strength of the Water Convention lays in the institutional framework it sets up around the Meeting of the Parties in order to assist Parties in complying with its provisions and in further developing them. Under this framework two legally binding protocols have been adopted, as well as a number of soft rules, guidelines and recommendations which assist in interpreting and implementing the Convention. This framework allows for continuous development and to respond to emerging needs. For example, the Convention has developed specific guidance on monitoring and assessment in the transboundary context, on flood management, on ecosystem services, and, most recently, on how to adapt to climate change in transboundary basins.
Another strength of the Convention lays in its legal obligations and in particular in the obligation for riparian Parties to establish a joint body, for example a river commission, that is responsible for cooperation and management of the transboundary waters. This permanent body is crucial for effective long-term cooperation and to ensure continuous progress towards the sustainable management of water resources.
With regards to problems, a cause of concern is related to the Protocol on Civil Liability which was negotiated between 2002 and 2003, and was the political response to the Baia Mare accident [gold mine spill of cyanide into the Tisza and Danube rivers in 2000]. The Civil Protocol has not yet entered into force and has a very low rate of ratification. In case an accident like Baia Mare happened again, there is still no legal basis for liability and compensation.
Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes