International Law on Transboundary Groundwaters – a Complex Maze

Since the start of 2021, GWP and the International Water Law Academy (IWLA) of Wuhan University have co-organised a series of online events called "Transboundary Freshwater Security Governance Train" - a 'train' of events stopping around the world at different topics related to the main theme. On 15 June, the initial series concluded with its 6th session on international water law and transboundary groundwater. "We are in front of a puzzle, and this can get very frustrating – there are a lot of pieces, and it takes a lot of time,” said Dr. Francesco Sindico when he described what he called a complex maze of international law applicable to transboundary aquifers.

There are approximately 600 transboundary groundwaters in the world, including 366 transboundary aquifers and 226 groundwater bodies. While these are under the surface, they are often connected to the transboundary surface water, explained David Devlaeminck (School of Law, Chongqing University), who co-chaired the event with Otto Spijkers (IWLA).

“International groundwater law has developed slower than international surface water law - some people even refer to it as its "poor cousin." International water law related to transboundary groundwaters is made up of many different layers at global, regional, multilateral, and even bilateral level – from the two global water conventions (1992 Water Convention and 1997 Watercourses Convention) to the 2008 Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers and various other agreements. While these agreements exist, gaps remain and some of the existing conventions apply to groundwater differently,” said Devlaeminck.

Francesco Sindico (School of Law, Strathclyde University) shared an overview of international law applicable to transboundary aquifers, which he referred to as a complex maze – a puzzle: “If somebody asks, "is there a place to go – one stop where I can have everything ready?" – the answer is no. You need to look at at least three key documents: the UN Watercourses Convention, the UNILC Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers, and the UNECE Water Convention and its Model Provisions on Transboundary Groundwater. It is a complex architecture of substantial provisions, institutional-related provisions, and procedural provisions.”

This is a topic that Sindico has written a book about, trying to untangle the different elements and giving it a comprehensive overview – the book is available here.

Pilar Carolina Villar (Federal University of São Paulo) discussed the legal and institutional aspects of the Guaraní Aquifer: "In the case of South America, there are 30 transboundary aquifers, including the Guaraní Aquifer, which spans from Argentina to Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Brazil holds most of the area and is the main user of the water in this aquifer. Fortunately, there are no transboundary conflicts - these would be limited to the border areas - and the cases of overexploitation or contamination are few and localised. The Agreement on the Guaraní Aquifer was signed in 2010 and represented a milestone in the establishment of aquifer agreements – it is so far only one of its kind in the region.”

James Sauramba (Executive Director, Southern African Development Community (SADC) Ground Water Management Institute) shared an introduction on SADC and its role in transboundary governance: "There are several enabling instruments for groundwater governance in the region. We have the SADC Regional Water Policy, the SADC Regional Water Strategy, the SADC Revised Protocol on Shared Watercourses, and the SADC Strategic Action Plan, which has gone through various phases of development. We are currently in the 2021-2025 period.”

GWP Senior Network & Transboundary Water Cooperation Specialist Yumiko Yasuda, who moderated the event, shared some positive statistics of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Governance for Transboundary Freshwater Security, which the online series is based on: “Since opening the course in August 2020, the MOOC has attracted over 2,200 participants from 150 countries around the world, confirming the need and interest for learning about this subject.” 

This success has ensured the continuation of the MOOC, which is now extended until August 2022.  The MOOC is available for anyone to take at their own pace. In the autumn, there will be more interactive events, and the course content will also be translated into other languages – details will be announced in August 2021. 

Watch the full recording of the session: