5 February 2015
The Quest for Harmonized Implementation: Anticipating a Broader Role for Basin Organizations in the Post-2015 Era
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Basin organizations are emerging as a form of water governance capable of addressing diverse aims in a coherent manner.

The advent of 17 draft sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, in mid-2014, has promoted interest in the “harmonized” implementation of goals, and raises many practical questions. Is it inevitable that some goals and targets will be favored over others? How can governments and other development actors respond to this detailed agenda in an even-handed manner, without collapsing under the weight of competing aims? Which actors are capable of taking them on? Discussions of the water-energy-food nexus, in recent years, have raised similar kinds of concerns. There are some examples of on-the-ground approaches that respond to sustainability concerns across the nexus, but the governance of power generation, agriculture and water management sectors, more often than not, remains fragmented.

Basin organizations are emerging as a form of water governance capable of addressing diverse aims in a coherent manner: while such organizations are not new, the quest for harmonized implementation of sustainable development aims has promoted interest in how basin organizations can play a role in the post-2015 era. In November 2014, after a long incubation period, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) organized the First UNEP International Environment Forum on Basin Organizations, providing a venue for discussion of how basin organizations are taking on the implementation challenge.

The evolving role of basin organizations

WWF estimates that at least 276 transboundary freshwater lake and river basins exist worldwide[i], and around 400 regional and basin agreements deal with international watercourses.[ii] Only around four per cent of these agreements include consideration of environmental quality within their mandate, although this is changing.[iii]

Many basin organizations initially took a utilitarian perspective on water management, focusing on water use, such as irrigation, and issues of access, such as river navigation, dredging and hydrogeomorphic modifications. Towards the end of the 20th century and in the early years of the 21st century, basin organizations and related agencies began to introduce water quality guidelines and related monitoring of environmental conditions.[iv] The Mekong River Commission, for example, conducted bio-assessment of selected sites in the basin to determine indicators of ecological health and measures of ecological processes, including the incidence of fish, algae, invertebrates and river plants, as well as respiration and primary production rates.[v]

Speakers at the UNEP Basin Forum noted an ongoing shift in the principles underlying water sharing arrangements: Owen McIntyre, National University of Ireland, remarked that the principle of ‘reasonable and equitable utilization,’ which includes maintenance of flow regimes and monitoring of ecological health, represents an active management approach to overall environment and development concerns, as compared with the passive ‘peaceful co-existence’ envisaged by the no-harm principle of earlier years. [vi]

Meanwhile, development actors have come to see management of water in the natural environment as critical to achievement of targets related to water and human health. The UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB), established in 2004 to galvanize action on water and sanitation under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), advocates for transboundary water management as a fundamental element of sustainable development. In 2014, UNSGAB Chair Uschi Eid welcomed the entry into force of the UN International Watercourses Convention, anticipating that this new framework for the governance of transboundary water management will further promote peace and development in the context of the post-2015 development agenda.[vii]

The current OWG draft of the water goal, SDG 6, brings together human health concerns with ecosystem preservation and maintenance aims that traditionally fall within the scope of environmental management agencies. The OWG targets under SDG 6 include: improving water quality by reducing pollution, dumping and release of hazardous chemicals; increasing water-use efficiency; implementing integrated water resources management (IWRM) at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation; and protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes.

These changes in the scope and mandate of many basin organizations, in the context of a coming together of environment and development concerns in the international arena, have positioned them to play a potentially expanding role in implementation of the post-2015 development agenda. To do so, however, will involve greater recognition of basin organizations in the international architecture of environmental governance.

Finding a place in the international space

The UNEP Basin Forum aimed to strengthen basin organizations as “key building blocks” of environmental governance, noting their potential role in the implementation of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), in addition to their existing roles in national and basin-wide water management schemes.[viii] In Forum discussions, other metaphors of basin organizations as implementers emerged: they could be the “front-line troops” of river basin management (McIntyre) or “engines for development” (Ibrahim Thiaw, UNEP).[ix]

Participants’ discussions stressed the need for a strong mandate to enable basin organizations to play a broader role in development. They highlighted the need for cooperation across various sectors (such as agriculture, inland fisheries and hydropower), across levels of government (from local to national and regional), and among countries that share a common basin.

In support of basin-focused implementation, they referred to two international frameworks: the UN International Watercourses Convention, and the UNECE Water Convention.

Harmonizing implementation of the water conventions

UN Member States adopted the International Watercourses Convention in May 1997. Another 17 years elapsed before its entry into force in August 2014, with 35 ratifying countries. The convention requires countries to take measures to, inter alia: ensure equitable and reasonable utilization of shared international watercourses, and participate in cooperation on its protection and development; refrain from causing significant harm (Article 5); and protect the related ecosystems (Article 20).

The slow pace of this convention’s entry into force reflects the difficulty of reaching agreement on water sharing and management. This newly-in-force MEA has no secretariat and no Conference of the Parties, and global participation in it is uneven, as most ratifying countries are European or African, with few representatives of the Middle East, Asia and the Americas. Discussion on the sidelines of the Basin Forum seemed to be progressing, however, as several EU countries, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, made arrangements for an informal working session of interested parties, to take place in March 2015.

Concurrent with the progress of the UN International Watercourses Convention, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) is taking steps to open up its 1996 Water Convention for ratification by all UN Member States, making this a global convention. The Water Convention makes more detailed provisions for shared water management than does the International Watercourses Convention, mandating the establishment of joint bodies to manage transboundary resources, and prescribing measures including the prior licensing of wastewater discharges, establishing warning and alarm systems, and applying best available technology and practices to dealing with pollution from industry and municipal sources.[x]

In November 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the two conventions to be implemented in a coherent manner, noting that both instruments are based on the same principles.[xi] At the Basin Forum, UNECE made a similar call, and invited UNEP to support this through initiatives on the ground.

Setting the stage for post-2015 implementation

As the two conventions strengthen international norms around transboundary water management, basin organizations could provide the first examples of “harmonized implementation” on various fronts. Examples presented at the Basin Forum included urgent action to prevent algal blooms on Taihu Lake in China, which restored drinking water quality for nearby communities as well as fish life in the lake, and reuse of wastewater for crop irrigation, which leads to larger crop yields while reducing energy consumption and water pollution.[xii]

On the sidelines of the Forum, it was noted that the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), which met for the first time in June 2014, could provide a venue for further discussions: as this new body maps out its agenda for the coming years, it could be the place where heads of basin organizations find the space to dialogue with environment ministers and other leaders.[xiii] Such a meeting of science, management and politics potentially lays a strong foundation for harmonized implementation.

Conceptually, there has been a gradual coming together of development concerns of safe drinking water and sanitation with broad, long-term environmental concerns of maintaining ecosystem health. Furthermore, it seems likely there will be a concerted effort for harmonized implementation with reference to the frameworks provided by these two important water conventions. Other relevant agreements that may consider joining forces on water governance include the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD): at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, the two secretariats of these conventions announced they are working together on an emerging partnership, with the potential for joint programming.[xiv]

The First Basin Forum in Nairobi considered, in practical terms, how agreements to manage shared water resources might adopt a harmonized approach between traditional water sharing approaches of managing water access and water quantity, with broad concerns for promoting human health, equity, poverty alleviation, as well as environmental quality. A second forum is already being discussed for 2015. If it takes place, this event will be one to watch for progress on the quest for harmonized implementation.

For the fast-approaching post-2015 era, the stage is now set for basin organizations to play a pivotal role in SDG 6, by sparking harmonized implementation across a range of sectors.


[i] WWF, Green Cross and University of Dundee, press release, 8 August 2014, accessed on 7 January 2015, http://www.unwatercoursesconvention.org/news/united-nations-watercourses-convention-enters-into-force/

[ii] UNEP technical background document for the First Environment Forum on Basin Organizations, discussion theme 3 on Environmental Laws and Regulations: ‘Freshwater Law and Governance: Global and Regional Perspectives for Sustainability,’ accessed on 7 January 2015, http://www.unep.org/delc/Portals/119/ForumBasinOrganization/water-law-governance-study.pdf

[iii] Jan Leentvar, UNESCO-IHE, quoted in Basin Organizations Forum Bulletin, accessed on 7 January 2015, http://enb.iisd.org/basin/if/2014/

[iv] UNEP technical background document for the First Environment Forum on Basin Organizations, discussion theme 1 on Water Quality and Ecosystem Health: ‘Review Of Existing Water Quality Guidelines For Freshwater Ecosystems And Application Of Water Quality Guidelines On Basin Level To Protect Ecosystems’

[v] ‘Measuring Ecological Health,’ Mekong River Commission Annual Report 2003, pp. 19-20, accessed on 7 January 2015, http://www.mrcmekong.org/assets/Publications/governance/Annual-Report-2003.pdf

[vi] Owen McIntyre, National University of Ireland, quoted in Basin Organizations Forum Bulletin, accessed on 7 January 2015, http://enb.iisd.org/basin/if/2014/

[vii] UNWC press release, 18 August 2014, accessed on 7 January 2014

[viii] Forum web page, accessed on 7 January 2015, http://www.unep.org/delc/forumbasinorganizations/tabid/102143/Default.aspx

[ix]Basin Organizations Forum Bulletin, accessed on 7 January 2015, http://enb.iisd.org/basin/if/2014/

[x] PowerPoint presentation, UNESCO IHP-HELP Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science, University of Dundee, accessed on 7 January 2015, http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/env/water/Comparison2Conventions_Dundee2014.pdf

[xi] ibid.

[xii] Jonathan Lautze, IWMI, quoted in Basin Organizations Forum Bulletin, accessed on 7 January 2015, http://enb.iisd.org/basin/if/2014/

[xiii] IISD RS sources

[xiv] IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 Bulletin, IISD-RS summary report Vol. 89, No. 16, 22 November 2014, p. 13, accessed on 5 February 2014, http://enb.iisd.org/download/pdf/sd/crsvol89num16e.pdf

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