How I Learned to Love the UNECE Water Convention

Eugene Simonov
Alkhanai National Park in the headwaters of the transboundary Amur River
Alkhanai National Park in the headwaters of the transboundary Amur River
Oleg Korsun

I hate bureaucracies, even those with which I cooperate most of my life. I do not believe that the IMF, UNESCO, USSR, USA and many other abbreviations make this world better. Probably, I am an anarchist at heart. But two years ago I encountered an exception and have since then sincerely liked one bureaucratic body. Let me tell you about our experience with a European water convention – a tool which is stronger than any other water conventions, offers great opportunities for NGO involvement, and will soon be opened for accession by countries around the world.

Water Convention 101

The Convention of the UN Economic Commission for Europe on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Helsinki Convention, UNECE Water Convention) is the most efficient UN mechanism I have seen in my life.  This legal document was created when the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia posed new challenges to regional cooperation, particularly on environment and security. New frontiers cut through Europe, and the Water Convention helped protect and manage waters which had suddenly become transboundary.

The Water Convention is intended to strengthen national measures for the protection and sound management of transboundary surface waters and groundwaters. It obliges Parties to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impact, use transboundary waters in a reasonable and equitable way, and ensure their sustainable management and ecosystem preservation. Parties bordering the same transboundary waters shall cooperate by entering into specific agreements and establishing joint bodies. The Convention includes provisions on monitoring, research and development, consultations, warning and alarm systems, mutual assistance, and exchange of information, as well as public access to information.

The Argun River on the Chinese-Russian border
The Argun River on the Chinese-Russian border
Oleg Goroshko

The Convention has supported the development and implementation of river and lake agreements  such as those on Lake Peipsi (Russia-Estonia), the Danube, Sava, and Rhine River Basins, the bilateral agreements between Central and Eastern European countries, and the agreements between Russia and former members of the Soviet Union. Thanks to guidance and support provided under  the Convention, cooperation in joint monitoring and assessment has increased throughout the region, dam safety has improved in Central Asia, and experience has accumulated on topics such as the prevention of industrial accidents, flood management and adaptation to climate change in transboundary basins. A substantial body of experience has accumulated during the 20 years of work under the Convention, summarized in various published guidelines and model agreements.

How the Convention Works

The Convention has been in force since 6 October 1996. By now, it has been signed by 38 countries of the pan-European region and the EU itself. The Bureau, with very small Secretariat, the Working Group on Integrated Water Resources Management and the Working Group on Monitoring and Assessment are the main bodies of the Convention.

The Working Group on Integrated Water Resources supports the development and implementation of IWRM in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia from the local to the transboundary level. This will help develop capacity in the region through a dialogue process involving public authorities and civil society. Right now the Aral Sea Basin is the focus of most efforts of the Convention bodies, since it is highly prone to international water conflicts and mismanagement of water.

The Task Force on Water and Climate is responsible for activities related to adaptation to climate change, including flood and drought management, for example through a program of pilot projects. It provides a global platform for exchanging experiences and lessons learned regarding adaptation to climate change in transboundary basins. 

The Rivers without Boundaries coalition engaged in Convention matters through one of the coalition’s projects on transboundary rivers of the Dauria region (east of Lake Baikal), joining the ranks of its pilot projects on climate adaptation with our own funding. The Convention helped us analyze, summarize and publish results of 20 years of research in headwaters of  Amur River in the Dauria International Protected Area in Russia-China-Mongolia and come up with an assessment of interactions between climate cycles, ecosystem dynamics and human activities

Delegates at the November 2012 meting of the UNECE Water Convention
Attending the November 2012 meting of the UNECE Water Convention

All this mature bureaucracy is run by five enthusiastic women at the Environmental Division of UNECE, who are supported by a limited number of consultants and some dedicated officials from national water agencies. When I think of the Convention’s global expansion I first of all wish them courage and additional staff support…

The Convention Goes Global

The UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses of 1997 has never entered into force. Yet the European Convention will soon be opened for signatures by countries from around the world. The last Meeting of Parties in Rome in November 2012 was attended by delegations from at least 18 non-ECE countries. Iraq and Tunisia already officially declared that they will join the Convention as soon as possible, probably before the end of 2013.

Among other benefits, the Convention will offer non-European countries

  • A ready, efficient institutional framework;
  • The long-term continuity of efforts essential for transboundary work;
  • Effective partnerships established with an ever-increasing number of intergovernmental organizations;
  • A rich and innovative toolkit supported by European regional expertise.

For civil society, another great value of the Convention is that it expressly recognizes the importance of civil society to assist with monitoring and compliance. Surprisingly, the big conservation NGOs have so far not participated in the process. In some meetings the River without Borders representative was the only voice asking questions from a conservation perspective. With globalization this must change, because the Convention will now become a model of international mechanisms for transboundary waters. Without civil society participation there is a threat that ecosystem-centered approach will be gradually phased out from the Conventions agenda by other pressing concerns.

It is planned to present the experience collected under the Water Convention at special workshops in Latin America, Asia and Africa in the coming years. Hopefully countries from each continent will join the UNECE convention in the near future, triggering enthusiasm among neighbors. It is also important that environmental NGOs in those countries take part in accession consultations as early as possible, to help steer the implementation of a globalized convention to a greener future.

Eugene Simonov is the coordinator of the international coalition Rivers without Boundaries. An expanded version of this text is available here. In May 2013, Eugene Simonov received the prestigious Whitley Award for his work to protect the Amur River.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013