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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 81 - Thursday, 26 November 2009
The Meeting of the Parties to the UNECE Water Convention ushers in a new era for the 1992 agreement
By Sonja Koeppel and Francesca Bernardini, Water Convention Secretariat, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe
From 10-12 November 2009 in Geneva, the Meeting of the Parties to the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) tackled a number of challenges in transboundary water cooperation and ushered in a new era for the Convention. The event was held at the invitation of the Government of Switzerland and chaired by Germany.

Focus on implementation
The Meeting took an historic step forward by adopting the Guide to Implementing the Convention – a strategic document that will be an important impetus for future work under the Convention. The Guide is a comprehensive commentary that provides explanations of the Convention’s legal, administrative, technical and practical requirements as well as examples illustrating good practices in the UNECE region. The Guideis already an important reference for the 36 Parties to the Convention, as well as non-Parties, partners and stakeholders. A second important breakthrough with much potential for improving transboundary water cooperation was the mandate given to the Convention’s Legal Board to explore options for a mechanism to support implementation and compliance. Such a mechanism is expected to help Parties prevent or settle differences in interpretation and application of the Convention, taking into account countries’ needs and the Convention’s distinctive spirit of cooperation. It will provide Parties with a clear and permanent forum to resort to for advice and support. A proposal for such a mechanism will be considered by the sixth session of the Meeting of the Parties in 2012.

Fostering cooperation on climate change adaptation
Another unique and very much needed instrument adopted by the Meeting is the Guidance on Water and Adaptation to Climate Change – a pioneering effort to address joint climate change adaptation in transboundary basins. The Guidance gives advice to countries on how to cope with the uncertainties of climate change together and to effectively tackle its impacts in a concerted way. The Guidance sends a strong message that adaptation must start now. Countries must work together in developing adaptation strategies and avoid unilateral measures that could inflict significant damage on other riparian countries. Cooperation on adaptation can benefit all riparian Parties, for example by sharing the costs and benefits of adaptation measures and by reducing uncertainty through the exchange of information. The Guidance is considered to be an important contribution to the upcoming COP 15 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It will be launched during a side event in the Dutch Pavilion on 16 December.

The Meeting of the Parties decided to foster the implementation of the Guidance through pilot projects and a platform for exchanging experience. Projects on the ground will be developed to strengthen capacity to adapt in different transboundary basins, particularly in South-Eastern Europe, and in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia. Preliminary plans include projects for the Dniester River basin, shared by Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, and for the Chu and Talas basins, shared by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Strengthening integrated water resources management
The session welcomed the progress achieved under the National Policy Dialogues in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asiaunder the EU Water Initiative, carried out since 2007 by UNECE in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. New Dialogues will start in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkmenistan in 2010. The Dialogues are a useful means to help countries to develop integrated water resource management (IWRM) plans, analyze water reform needs, identify priorities and define action plans to attain the agreed targets.

Focus on Central Asia
The Meeting’s first ever high-level segment focused on Central Asia, as this subregion is one of the priority areas of work for the Convention. Currently, only Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are Parties to the Water Convention, but the other Central Asian States have shown an increasing interest in the Convention. The Central Asian countries, Parties to the Convention from elsewhere in the UNECE region, and stakeholders shared experiences and lessons learned that could be useful for Central Asian countries. The importance of transboundary water cooperation was recognized by all participants. The panelists stressed the significant contribution of various projects and initiatives such as the EU Strategy for Central Asia, including the Berlin Water Process, and the Wider Europe Initiative of Finland, as well the need for further coordination.

The high-level segment also concluded that water quality aspects and links to environmental protection, which have been neglected in the past, are increasingly relevant for sub-regional cooperation in Central Asia. The unique ecosystems of Lake Balkhash and Aral Sea are still endangered and require increased cooperation that shall bring together not only Central Asian countries, but also the Russian Federation, China and Afghanistan, sharing these basins. In addition, Central Asia is one of the sub-regions most vulnerable to climate change. Only united efforts of all countries in this sub-region and effective transboundary water cooperation can make adaptation effective and eventually beneficial for environment and social-economic development.

Preventive action to protect water resources
The risks of environmental damage to transboundary rivers, lakes and groundwaters caused by failures of and accidents at tailings management facilities are high. The Meeting of the Parties endorsed the Safety guidelines and good practices for tailing management facilities, which should help Governments to provide leadership and create administrative frameworks for the safer development, operation and decommissioning of tailing management facilities.

Preparing the Second Assessment
A road map to develop the Second Assessment of transboundary rivers, lakes and groundwaters in UNECE region, to be issued at the Seventh Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe” (Astana, Kazakhstan, 2011), was agreed by the Meeting. The Second Assessment will help to evaluate how the Convention is put into practice and what progress has been achieved to sustainably manage and protect our region’s transboundary waters.

Pilot projects

The Parties also agreed on the workplan for 2010-2012 and decided to establish a programme of pilot projects to assist Parties with implementing the Convention and making use of the guidance documents developed under the Convention. The projects will focus on climate change adaptation in transboundary basins, joint monitoring and assessment, and payments for ecosystem services to support IWRM. Although the programme will concentrate on Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Central Asia and South-Eastern Europe, it is expected that pilot projects will also be set up in EU countries and in basins shared by EU and non-EU countries.

Opening the Convention beyond the region
Meeting participants recognized that the rest of the world should be able to benefit from the experience accumulated under the Water Convention. Parties showed a firm intention to make the 2003 amendments enter into force by 2012 so that the Water Convention would be open to accession by any member of the United Nations. Mongolia and Afghanistan, which are not UNECE States, attended this Meeting of the Parties – a clear indication of their interest in transboundary water cooperation and in benefiting from the experience gained under the Convention.

For more information, please visit: http://www.unece.org/env/water/mop5.htm
Press release on the Guidance: http://www.unece.org/press/pr2009/09env_p27e.htm
or contact: Francesca Bernardini, Secretary to the UNECE Water Convention - francesca.bernardini@unece.org
Participants during the opening of the meeting.
Participants during the second day of the meeting.
The dais during the meeting
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