AIDA chairman S. Burchi reports on the International Conference on Transboundary Aquifers – Challenges and New Directions, Paris, 6-8 December 2010

The international conference on “Transboundary aquifers – Challenges and new directions” was convened jointly by UNESCO, UNEP and the International Association of Hydro-geologists (IAH) at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, 6-8 December 2010. AIDA featured as a cooperating institution, and was officially represented by the chair of the Executive Council. A number of AIDA members were also in attendance including, in particular, lead international water law experts professors Eckstein, McCaffrey, McIntyre, Del Castillo, Smets and Tanzi. The conference was set against the background of the UN General Assembly Resolution No. 63/124 of December 2008 on the “Law of transboundary aquifers”, and sought to pave the way for its dissemination and eventual uptake by States. The conference also marked the conclusion of the first phase of the ISARM (for Internationally Shared Aquifer Resources Management) programme, and the dawning of its second phase. In this capacity, the conference sought to map out the challenges ahead and new directions required for the sustainable management and development of transboundary aquifers around the globe.

The conference was attended by some three-hundred participants in representation mostly of international inter-governmental organizations, professional NGOs, and academia. The programme included plenary sessions, and four thematic technical sessions running in parallel. The programme is available at .

A number of technical presentations covered the legal aspects of transboundary aquifers. They were clustered under three separate consecutive topics in the Conference programme. In particular, AIDA members del Castillo (Argentina), Eckstein (USA), McCaffrey (USA), Stephan (France), Tanzi (Italy), and AIDA chair Burchi (Italy), all gave presentations. The principle of State sovereignty in particular, which features among the basic legal principles posited by the draft Articles on the “Law of transboundary aquifers” prepared by the UN International Law Commission, and appended to the UN General Assembly Resolution above-mentioned, tended to polarize the sometimes very heated debates. Some participants supported the draft Articles’ language as a correct reflection of customary international law, whereas others read it as a step backwards compared to the 1997 (draft) UN Convention on the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses, which is predicated on the community of interests of watercourse States. The more ardent advocates in the former group in effect tended to discount the real impact of the sovereignty principle, as this is strongly qualified in the language of the draft Articles. Another issue which came up in the discussions was the relationship of the draft Articles and the Convention above-mentioned, which is not addressed in the former. Burchi drew attention to the role of domestic groundwater legislation in effecting compliance with the international obligations which may stem in future from the draft Articles, if these become a binding instrument eventually. In addition, AIDA member Smets (France) presented in the concluding plenary session on the most recent developments of the human right to water and sanitation.

Raising awareness of the inspirational and guidance value of the draft Articles for States, the dissemination of relevant inter-State best practices, and the compatibility of domestic legal frameworks with the principles set out in the draft Articles, were singled out from the relevant presentations and debates as the challenges and new directions ahead. These, alongside other pointers distilled from the presentations and debates on the other conference topics, will inform the second phase of the ISARM programme, to be spearheaded as in past by UNESCO, with the assistance of IAH. AIDA has already signalled its readiness to assist with the wealth of legal expertise it can muster from its membership, as proven by the valuable intellectual contribution a number of prominent AIDA members in attendance made at the conference.

All presentations, abstracts and papers will be available eventually on the Conference website