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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 77 - Thursday, 1 October 2009
UNECE Water Convention Parties to Consider Implementation and Compliance
By Francesca Bernardini and Sonja Koeppel, UNECE, Secretariat of the Water Convention
Transboundary water relations in the Pan-European region are expected to take a significant step forward at the fifth session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention), to be held in Geneva from 10-12 November 2009, at the invitation of the Government of Switzerland.

Since its entry into force in 1996, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s (UNECE) Water Convention has provided an important legal framework and contributed to improving transboundary water management in the pan-European region. Currently, the Convention has 36 Parties ranging from Portugal to Uzbekistan, including almost all EU countries and the European Community. The Water Convention has served as a model for transboundary cooperation arrangements throughout the UNECE region. Examples of agreements based on the Convention include the Danube River Protection Convention (1994), the agreements on Lake Peipsi and on the rivers Sava, Bug, Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt. In particular, the Convention played an important role after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia and the emergence of new countries, and has been the reference for new agreements on waters that were previously managed as national ones.

The Convention could provide a model at the global level for peaceful, cooperative and integrated water resources management. To this end, it was amended in 2003 to allow States situated outside the UNECE region to become Parties.

The fifth session of the Meeting of the Parties will offer an important step to review progress achieved in implementation and to reflect on and plan for the challenges that lie ahead. The meeting programme is dense, focusing on the areas of work in the past three years as well as on new ideas and mechanisms that can further strengthen the Convention’s impact.

A theme that will be at the centre of the discussions will be implementation and compliance. The Guide to Implementing the Convention, which was developed in the past two years and is expected to be adopted by the Meeting of the Parties, will offer a practical tool to current Parties and to countries that are considering accession. The Guide offers a comprehensive commentary on the Convention’s provisions, providing explanations of the procedural, legal, administrative, technical and practical aspects of the Convention’s requirements. These explanations are coupled with illustrative examples of good practices in the UNECE region.

It is also expected that Parties will decide to further work on the issue of implementation, in particular to address concrete implementation problems and to prevent or settle differences on the interpretation and application of the Convention, including in cases of non-compliance. This will be a major step in the evolution of the Convention.

Data-sharing and joint monitoring are essential for transboundary water cooperation and informed decision-making and therefore one of the core obligations of the Convention. For this reason, periodic assessments are developed under the Convention as a tool for monitoring the Convention’s effectiveness and the progress achieved. The first ever in-depth assessment of transboundary waters in the UNECE region was completed in 2007. The second issue should be submitted to the Seventh Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe,” scheduled to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2011. The Meeting of the Parties will review the preliminary findings of the assessment of transboundary waters in South-Eastern Europe.

The Convention has been working on water and adaptation to climate change since 2006, following its Parties’ recognition that work on adaptation to climate would become one of the main challenges for transboundary water cooperation. As both water and climate change do not respect borders, this adds an international dimension to climate change adaptation that can have obvious security implications: namely, a growing potential for conflict arising from competition over dwindling water resources and the risk of countries taking unilateral measures with possible negative effects on riparian countries. Transboundary cooperation is therefore necessary to prevent negative impacts of unilateral measures and to support the coordination of adaptation measures at the river-basin level. Past work under the Convention should culminate with the adoption of the Guidance on Water and Adaptation to Climate Change by the Meeting of the Parties. The Guidance is the first document of its kind to focus on the transboundary setting. Based on the concept of integrated water resources management, the Guidance provides advice to decision makers and water managers on how to assess impacts of climate change on water quantity and quality, how to perform risk assessment, including health risk assessment, how to gauge vulnerability, and how to design and implement appropriate adaptation strategies. The Meeting of the Parties will also discuss further work in this area to support implementation of the Guidance and to increase adaptive capacity in transboundary basins, in particular through projects on the ground.

For the first time, the Meeting of the Parties will include a High-Level Segment focusing on transboundary water cooperation in Central Asia and the role of the Convention. Efficient and sustainable management of water resources and related energy issues in Central Asian countries are highly important for political, economic and environmental cooperation in this sub-region. However, the institutional and legal frameworks for water resources management established in the early nineties face difficulties in addressing the growing differences over water release regimes and water distribution. The High-Level segment will allow participants to discuss the needs of Central Asian countries with regard to transboundary water cooperation and sustainable management of water resources and discuss the role that the permanent cooperation under the Convention can play in meeting those needs. Parties to the Convention and other participants will share their knowledge in implementing the Convention and demonstrate how the Convention serves as a valuable instrument for both upstream and downstream riparians.

A number of side events will also be organized allowing an in-depth discussion on important experiences and tools in Convention implementation, such as the experience gained by European river commissions, the EU Water Initiative National Policy Dialogues in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, the Environment and Security Initiative and the Petersberg II/ Athens Declaration Process.

The meeting is open to country representatives from the UNECE region and from the rest of the world, representatives of NGOs and international organizations. For more information visit: http://www.unece.org/env/water/mop5.htm
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