Symposium “The 1997 UN Watercourses Convention – What Relevance in the 21st Century?”, Dundee, Scotland, 5-8 June, 2012: Report of the Chairman

The Symposium “The 1997 UN Watercourses Convention – What Relevance in the 21st Century?” was convened by the IHP-HELP Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science, operating under the auspices of UNESCO at the University of Dundee, and by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in Dundee, UK, 5-8 June 2012. The Symposium was part of a wider initiative led by WWF in order to raise awareness, and deepen knowledge and understanding, regarding the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN Watercourses Convention – UNWC). Early on, AIDA had associated itself officially to the Symposium, and it featured among the collaborating institutions alongside UNEP, the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), the Global Water Partnership, the Centre for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE), the Water Research Commission of South Africa, the Nile Basin Discourse, the Xiamen (China) Academy of International Law, and King’s College London.

Some fifty participants were in attendance throughout, drawn from academia, civil society, and also government. A sizeable contingent of AIDA members, including a number of invited speakers, took part in the Symposium. This writer attended on behalf of the Association, and chaired one of the sessions.

AIDA member Prof. S. McCaffrey set the tone of the Symposium with an opening presentation illustrating the history and content of the UNWC. AIDA members Prof. O. McIntyre and C. Leb presented on, respectively, the overlapping conceptions of “equity” as an emanation of the idea of justice, as a substantive rule of resource apportionment, and as a procedural rule of fairness; and the duty of cooperation under general international water law, and in the UNWC in particular. Other presentations on the first day of the Symposium provided, each, a critique of the equitable and reasonable utilization rule in the light of experience from the design and administration of short-term training workshops in the Zambezi river basin; a reconstruction of the interpretation of Article 31(3)(c) of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in an attempt to operationalise the ecosystemic integration potential of Article 20 of UNWC; and Nigeria’s perspective on the UNWC, which includes likely ratification by that country. The following day, the UNWC was contextualized regionally, with presentations providing the perspective of South Asia, Southern Africa (by AIDA member A. Earle), South-East Asia (by AIDA member A. Rieu-Clarke), Latin America, East Africa (by AIDA member M. Musa Abseno), and Central Asia. Other presentations illustrated, respectively, China’s state practice and (negative) perspective on the UNWC; the multi-level governance structure for the Orange-Senqu river basin shared by Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and South Africa; and the synergies springing from the complementary differences between the UNWC and the UNECE Transboundary Waters Convention (Helsinki, 1992) (this last presentation was given by AIDA member Prof. A. Tanzi). A critique of certain perceived shortcomings of the UNWC concluded the presentations of the second day of the Symposium.

On the third day a panel discussion took place offering different but complementary disciplinary perspectives on the UNWC. This was followed by presentations exploring, respectively, the synergies and complementarities between the UNWC and several multi-lateral environmental agreements having clear linkages with water resources; and the relevance of the UNWC in the European context. The Symposium then broke out in three sessions running in parallel. This writer attended, in particular, presentations (a) elaborating on China’s position and reservations on the UNWC; (b) offering a fairly optimistic assessment and outlook of Indo-Pakistan cooperation through the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty and the institutional mechanisms for permanent cooperation set up under it; and (c) a presentation by AIDA member M. Milanes illustrating her research on the limited cooperation between Mexico and the USA on the several groundwater reserves straddling the border between the two countries. Another of the sessions saw presentations (a) reviewing the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization and participation in the aftermath of the UNWC; (b) charting the inclusion of transboundary aquifers, and the challenges that arise therefrom, into the framework of international water law; and (c) evaluating the relevance of the UNWC in the context of Australian federalism, a country that, for obvious reasons, does not itself have any transboundary water resources but that as a federal state can draw for inspiration from the UNWC.

This writer chaired the morning session of the final day of the Symposium, which featured presentations looking at approaches to implementing the UNWC, primarily through international legal instruments like, notably, the 1992 UNECE Transboundary Waters Convention, multi-lateral environmental agreements, and international basin organizations. The role of civil society organizations was also discussed, with specific reference to the Nile Basin Discourse, as well as the role of UNEP through its programmes in support of multi-lateral environmental agreements, of international river basin organizations, and of domestic water institutions.

At a final wrap-up session the several, diverse strands which emerged from the three-plus days of discussion were pulled together by the Symposium hosts. One was the supportive, non-mutually exclusionary nature of the UNWC relative to the existing multi-lateral legal instruments and institutions. Another was the evolutionary stage of non-legal arguments – i.e., from a policy and from a science perspective – in support of the UNWC and its ratification, relative to the more mature state of development of legal arguments. Foremost was a belief that there is value-added from the ratification and coming into force of the UNWC, in terms of clarity and strength of a legal mandate for the Parties to the UNWC, and also as a message to non-Parties. These, at any rate, will still be bound by the rules of customary international law embodied in the UNWC.

This writer was afforded a slot in the Symposium programme to introduce AIDA to the participants. The session was very well attended, and genuine interest in joining AIDA was expressed by several of the participants. Moreover, the Symposium convenors offered to include routinely information about AIDA in the information package for students attending the Centre’s LL.M. programme and courses. It is to be hoped that the exposure of AIDA, and opportunities for expanding its membership, will increase as a result.

In the course of the debates this writer, and AIDA member S. Hendry, drew attention to the importance of a comprehensive, consistent and functioning domestic legal and institutional framework for water resources, as a complement – if not a precursor – to transboundary treaties and agreements, in view of the direct role of such framework in facilitating compliance with international obligations, whether these stem from the UNWC, or from other multi-lateral water treaties operating at a regional scale, or from bi-lateral agreements. 

On a personal note, this writer believes the Symposium was a success in terms of organization, scientific quality of the programme, high calibre of the speakers, and quality of the debates. The last-minute absence of a few featured speakers did not detract from the success of the event. The presentations, and the debates which followed, drew out substantial support for the Symposium’s ostensible goal of making a case for the relevance of the UNWC some fifteen years after its adoption by the UN General Assembly in May 1997, and for its ratification by the required number of States for it to come into force. This writer, however, perceived from the relevant presentations marginal value-added from the UNWC coming into force relative to the well-developed governance structure found in the Mekong river region and in the Southern African region, and considerable potential in regions with a less developed governance structure, notably, South Asia, Central Asia, and Latin America. There, however, the UNWC faces formidable challenges from deeply entrenched perceptions of national sovereignty and interests (Latin America, South Asia), or from competition from the UNECE Transboundary Waters Convention (Central Asia). Moreover, this writer remains sceptical of the value-added of the Convention coming into force, in view of (a) its reflecting already binding principles and rules of customary international water law, and (b) it eventually displaying binding effects only relative to the States which have ratified it, and not erga omnes.

The powerpoint presentations at the Symposium can be found at

The username is unwc2012 and the password is 9fHiq5