International Water Law

In recent years, as communities and nations realized the significance of these shared freshwater resources, transboundary aquifers have become the subject of growing attention among aquifer riparians and the international community. Questions are now being raised with regard to the mechanisms for governing shared groundwater resources, the rights that aquifer riparians enjoy from a transboundary aquifer and the reponsibilities that these nations might owe to other aquifer riparians. As a result, in 2002, building on its prior work that led to the formulation of the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, the United Nations International Law Commission (UNILC) decided to continue its work on “shared natural resources” focusing on transboundary aquifers. As part of that effort, UNESCO-IHP, through its ISARM initiative, mobilized hydrogeologists, water resources managers, water law experts and groundwater administrators to provide advisory support to the UNILC. Within a relatively short period of six years, the UNILC completed 19 draft articles, which it submitted in 2008 to the 63rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Thereafter, the UNGA adopted the Resolution on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers (A/RES/63/124) in December 2008, which included in its annex the 19 draft articles.

UNESCO-IHP has intensified the study of groundwater resources on a global scale and has devoted particular attention to the development of guidelines and frameworks for the protection and wise use of aquifers around the world. This has led UNESCO-IHP to be directly or indirectly involved in almost all the six existing agreements over transboundary aquifers:

  • North-Western Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS): The NWSAS is the most important water resource in the desert and semi-desert area of North Western Sahara. UNESCO-IHP studies were the bases to set up a plan to establish a “Consultation Mechanism” to “coordinate, promote and facilitate the rational management of the aquifer water resources.” UNESCO-IHP is currently member of the Steering Committee.
  • Iullumeden-Taoudeni/Tanezrouft Aquifer System (ITTAS): The ITTAS is one of the most important water resources in the Sahel. UNESCO-IHP contributed to establish the capacity to identify risks and uncertainty in groundwater use (e.g. hydrological model), develop a mechanism to formulate policy towards sustainable management, and create a legal cooperative framework to manage the aquifer. These efforts led to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and road map adopted by the Ministers for the establishment of a Consultation mechanism.
  • Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS)  : The NSAS is one of the largest aquifers in the world and spans approximately 2 million square kilometers across Libya, Egypt, Chad and Sudan. UNESCO-IHP contributed to enhancing the existing framework of legal and institutional mechanism for the joint four-partite management and use of the shared NSAS, and identifying and drafting of policy, legislative and institutional actions (Strategic Action Programme – SAP) in line with the principles of the Law of Transboundary Aquifers
  • Guarani Aquifer System: In 2010, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay signed an Agreement on the Guarani Aquifer System. This was the first agreement taking explicitly into account the Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers prepared by the United Nations International Law Commission with support of UNESCO-IHP.