AIDA member Zaki Shubber reports on a seminar celebrating 40 years of transboundary governance of the Geneva Aquifer

The 40th anniversary of the 1978 Geneva Aquifer agreement between Geneva and France was celebrated on 29 November 2018 in Geneva. The one-day seminar was organised by the Joint Management Committee of the Aquifer in cooperation with the Canton of Geneva, French authorities (AnnemasseAgglo; Communaute de Communes du Genevois, Grand Genève – Agglomeration Franco-Valdo-Genevoise ) and the ‘Services Industriels de Genève’ (SIG).

Four themes were discussed by a large number of distinguished speakers: the governance of the resource; the dynamic protection and management of groundwater; legal aspects and international law; and transboundary water management. The seminar provided a unique opportunity to examine these key aspects of the management of the aquifer, which is an important resource for drinking water for the canton of Geneva, and to hear first hand accounts of those involved in that management and in broader cooperation issues between the Geneva and French authorities. Each session was followed by time for Q&A allowing the audience to interact with the presenters.

Overall, one may say that a particular set of circumstances occurred in Geneva, and neighbouring France, which allowed for the development, and renewal 30 years later, of an agreement around the joint management of the aquifer. Local pragmatism and a drive to find a sound solution to the plummeting levels of recharge of the aquifer allowed the parties to find common ground and a visionary way forward, which has stood the test of time. The ability to share key data and technical information played an important role as well. The extent and nature of this relationship have also empowered both sides to deal with a new, and more recent, set of challenges regarding the quality of the water of the Arve (which provides water for the natural and artificial recharge of the Aquifer) and of the Geneva Aquifer, and the processes and institutions put in place four decades ago have enabled broader discussions around shared waters and around topics beyond water.

Seminar content

Senior representatives from the SIG, and Geneva and French authorities opened the event. All highlighted key elements that have made the joint management a success for the past 40 years and celebrated the courageous and visionary approach taken by local authorities at the time when the need for joint management was identified, as well as the robustness of the processes put in place in light of recent events affecting the water quality of the Aquifer.

The first part, dedicated to the Aquifer, started with a general presentation by Alice Aureli who emphasised the need for knowledge and governance of aquifers for effective water diplomacy and water security. Gabriel de los Cobos, who has been involved in the management of the aquifer for many years, then presented key hydro-geological and practical characteristics of the Geneva Aquifer and explained the history of the development of the 1978 agreement, stressing the fact that the issue, although transboundary, had been dealt with at the local level by the authorities on both sides of the border. Bernard Gaud, a retired former President of the Regional Cooperation Assembly of the French Genevois and of the Genevois Community of Communes, provided the French perspective on the development and joint management of the aquifer. Finally, one of the current co-presidents of the Joint Management Committee, Jean-Marc Bassaget, talked about current challenges the aquifer is facing. These have mainly to do with the quality of its water, which is a new issue for the management team to have to deal with, and the processes and measures put in place were also described.

The seminar then moved on to discuss the qualitative and quantitative protection of the Aquifer and of the Arve, the river from which it recharges. Jacques Martelain, Director of the Service of Geology, Soil and Waste, State of Geneva, described the practical tools used to manage the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the Aquifer, including at the recharge station. Gerard Luyet, Head of drinking water at SIG, described hydrological and pollution aspects of the operational recharge of the aquifer. The impact on the Arve of the turning industry and its activities on the French side of the Arve watershed were discussed by the following speaker, Robert Burgniard, delegate of the Syndicat Mixte d’Aménagement de l’Arve et de ses Affluents (SM3A), who also described some of the institutional tools in place to deal with these challenges. Finally micro-pollutants affecting the aquifer (and other water resources) and the challenges of treating them were explained by Francois Pasquini, Director of the Water Ecology Service of Geneva.

Professor Laurence Boisson de Chazournes opened the afternoon session with a broad overview of key legal instruments for transboundary groundwater management in international water law. She also reminded the audience that in fact there was no international law regarding shared groundwater in place in 1978 when the agreement was signed and that as such it was ahead of its time. Raya Stephan, a legal specialist (and AIDA member), then focused on the operational aspects of transboundary management of shared groundwater and presented the limited number of examples of existing agreements for the joint management of such resources worldwide. Finally, Francesca Bernardini, Secretary of the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of International Watercourses and Transboundary Lakes, highlighted the role of the Convention in the promotion of cooperation around transboundary aquifers and mentioned examples of agreements that included aspects of groundwater management. She also made reference to SDG indicator 6.5.2 in relation to groundwater and noted the limited cooperation reported in that regard.

The final session of the day was about the broader cooperation that has been occurring between local authorities on both sides of the border on issues related to water and beyond. Gilles Mulhauser, Director of the Geneva cantonal office for water (OCEAU), and Sebastien Javogues, Deputy Director of the ‘Communauté de Communes du Genevois’, discussed other areas of cooperation over water between the neighbouring localities in Geneva and in France. Indeed cooperation regarding water extends to issues beyond the Geneva Aquifer to also include surface water (quantity and quality) and beyond that the entire hydrological cycle, in light of the impact of climate change on regional water resources. Instruments such as the ‘river contracts’ that have been agreed were presented. Regional authorities have a number of challenges to deal such as urban development or other environmental concerns, all of which are connected through water.

A panel discussion, with speakers from earlier sessions and additional panellists, concluded the session. Each shared a few viewpoints, whether the need for education about groundwater, the need to manage increasingly competing interests for water, the need for a global vision to address current and future challenges and so forth.

Representatives from Brazil, Mauritania and Senegal involved in transboundary groundwater projects then joined the panel and offered insights from their experience of dealing with transboundary groundwater.

Link to the programme in English: