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Interview with Francesca Bernardini, Secretary of the UNECE Water Convention

October 2010


Francesca Bernardini is the Secretary to the UNECE Water Convention. We asked 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.



Effective management of transboundary basins requires the involvement of all riparian countries – what happens when one or more countries are unwilling to cooperate?

What we see in the UNECE region, but is also valid worldwide, is that it is rare that States are unwilling to cooperate on transboundary waters. Rather the lack of cooperation on transboundary water reflects broader political cooperation problems. The consequences are of course a stalled situation with degradation of the resources, and risks for all countries. In such cases, in our work under the Convention, we try to establish cooperation at the technical level to maintain an open channel for dialogue and strive to broker political cooperation when windows of opportunities appear.



How does the UNECE Water Convention provide for transboundary groundwaters?

The Water Convention applies to both surface waters and groundwater and since its entry into force special attention has been devoted to groundwater. However cooperation on transboundary groundwater is generally less advanced than on surface waters. There are currently two main activities under the Convention to address this issue. Firstly, the Second Assessment of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Groundwaters - which is being prepared for the 7th “Environment for Europe” Ministerial Conference in Astana in 2011 - aims to complete the full inventory and characterisation of transboundary groundwaters in the UNECE region. The second area of work is a legal and technical study on what the Convention, existing legal frameworks and established practice offers on transboundary groundwater management, to identify ways and means to further strengthen the existing framework. On the basis of the study, the Meeting of the Parties might decide to develop a set of model articles/rules for transboundary groundwaters to be used in bilateral and multilateral agreements, or a specific protocol on transboundary groundwater, or specific recommendations/guidelines.



What is the current situation on the amendments for extending the Water Convention to non-UNECE countries?

The amendments were adopted in 2003 and so far have been ratified by 15 Parties. It is noteworthy that at the last Meeting of the Parties in November 2009, the entry into force of the amendments by 2012 was set as an objective. This will require 9 more ratifications. As 6 countries are in the process of ratification – Belarus, Italy, Germany, Slovakia, Switzerland and Ukraine – and will do so by the end of 2011, I believe that the target will be reached. Another positive development which came out of the Meeting of the Parties is the plan to develop specific activities to involve non-UNECE countries in the Convention’s work, even before the entry into force of the amendment. This will facilitate understanding and implementation of the Convention outside the region, in particular in countries that share water with UNECE countries, such as Afghanistan, Mongolia, Iran and China. As a first step, a workshop will be organized in 2011.



Will developing countries have the capacity to comply with the requirements of the Convention?

One tends to forget that the pan-European region is very broad and diverse, and includes countries such as Uzbekistan which ranks 132 for its GDP per capita, after Pakistan and Yemen, and just before Cameroon; or the Republic of Moldova which has a Human Development Index of 113, after Bolivia and Mongolia to give two examples. So if Uzbekistan and the Republic of Moldova can implement the Convention, I do not see why other developing countries could not. This is mainly due to the nature of the Convention itself as its obligations are of “due diligence”, not absolute obligations: Parties are required to take all appropriate measures to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impacts. This introduces a certain degree of relativity on both the type and the timeframe of action to be taken that are proportional to the capacity of the Party concerned. Richer and more developed countries therefore have a higher level of obligation than less developed countries.



Is water quality an issue which has been given enough importance in transboundary water management?

I would say that water quality has been neglected in certain regions but has not been neglected worldwide. Europe is in general a good example of attention to quality issues, which were one of the reasons for negotiating the Water Convention. This is so also because transboundary waters are a main source of drinking water. Of course this is not true throughout the region, in particular in Central Asia where the main concern tends to be water allocation between agriculture and hydropower. However, in many cases, even when water quality has a low priority, once countries start cooperating, they tend to integrate it in the scope of their cooperation.


Francesca Bernardini

Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes

Last update:07 Oct 2014