Cousteau addresses importance of UN Watercourses Convention Ratification at EU Parliament

The following speech on the current status of the UN Watercourses Convention was given by Green Cross France Chairman Jean-Michel Cousteau at the European Parliament Water Intergroup meeting 30 March. 

Good afternoon,
I am glad and humbled to be here today to address members of parliament, experts and diplomats. I am honored by Mr SEEBER’s invitation to participate in a panel alongside Mr BARANYAI.
I am here to convey the message of several civil society organisations that promote the UN Watercourses Convention. Among these, Green Cross, through the voice of its founder, President Gorbachev, has been advocating for the entry into force of the Convention since its adoption at the UN in 97.
We’ve been partnering with several organisations under the UN Watercourses Convention Global Initiative, such as WWF and the Global and the European Water Partnerships. In addition, UNSGAB, a body of experts that advises the UN Secretary-General on water and sanitation issues, has called on countries to join the Convention.
I’d like to pay tribute to all the organisations and government representatives who have committed to promoting the UN Watercourses Convention.
Unsurprisingly, you have organisations, and States – it’s important to say- promoting the Convention, from a development point of view, or for security and environmental reasons. These reasons converge of course.
I’ll also speak today based on my experience of water systems, of the intertwined ecosystems, of the links between watercourses, estuaries and the seas. My experience helped me understand that many challenges related to freshwater are global. Therefore, improving the way international watercourses are governed at the global level is vital, including for enabling and supporting cooperation at the regional, basin and sub-basin levels.
A few facts now. You are here because you are interested in learning more about the only global Convention that governs the use, management and protection of international watercourses.
For those of you less familiar with the Convention, it was adopted under the auspices of the UN in 1997, with more than 100 countries voting in favor. It establishes basic standards and procedures for cooperation between states sharing watercourses.
More than 3 decades of negotiations at the UN culminated in its adoption and in a first wave of ratifications. Due to various reasons, however, the process for entry into force remained slow for many years.
More recently, with water also rising in the international agenda, the Convention has come back to the spotlight. With France and Burkina Faso’s recent ratifications, the convention counts today 23 contracting States –
9 EU member States are parties: Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. So is Norway.
Spain, Greece and France have just recently joined. Several other governments are seriously assessing it. (slide)
West Africa has shown remarkable leadership in ratifications: Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau acceded over the past two years and numerous other countries in the region are expected to join soon. The Senegal River Organisation is officially promoting ratification among its 4 member States. So things are moving.
Finally, as an oceans’ defender I cannot resist giving credit to the representatives of the Guinea Current Commission, which gathers the 15 countries sharing the Guinea Current Large Marine Ecosystem. In their annual resolution last year, those countries invited their governments to assess ratification of the UN Watercourses Convention.
With ratifications starting to snowball, we’re now short of only 12 accessions for entry into force.
So why did some and why would other EU member States join?
The EU has its own frameworks for transboundary cooperation and sound water management.
The Water Framework Directive binds all Member States, most of which are also parties to the Helsinki Convention – another regional legal framework. At the basin level, there are many agreements and joint management organizations. The EU provides a good example of what experts call the multi-level governance of transboundary waters, with the regional instruments feeding into and strengthening the implementation of multilateral and bilateral agreements.
The UN Watercourses Convention is in harmony with existing European legal instruments. The Directive is actually more stringent and detailed. Ratifying the Convention will not require any legislative reform on the part of EU Member States, but they still have an interest in the strengthening of international law globally, as a means to ensure widespread water, energy and food security, as well as international peace and political stability through the sustainable and cooperative management of international watercourses.
Why is it important?
There are several major reasons, which reflect the motivations that have led several EU contracting states to join and to encourage others to do the same:
1. The stakes are global: poverty, global security, climate change, population growth, and globalization of the economy. A WWF report assessed that the UK is 62% dependent on water from elsewhere.
Meanwhile, cooperative management frameworks exist for only about 40% of the world’s international watercourses. The majority of those don’t involve all the states within the basin and numerous others contain gaps and failings that may hamper cooperation, such as inadequate provisions on floods and droughts, lack of dispute settlement mechanisms, absence of time-bound procedures for interstate consultations, among others.
The inadequacy and insufficiency of agreements at the regional, basin and sub-basin levels are alarming weaknesses in today’s international legal structure governing transboundary waters.
If action is not taken, states are likely to fail to cooperate towards promoting the integrated management of international watercourses.
The result will be conflict over increasingly scarce and polluted supplies, deteriorating biodiversity, and serious threats to economic development, human health and long-term sustainability, especially in poorer countries. These are all significant barriers to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, which the EU member States are all trying to help attain through their external affairs policies and international cooperation.
The Convention will promote the equitable utilization and environmental protection of international watercourses, catalyzing regional integration and sustainable development around the world.
It requires states to use watercourses in an « equitable and reasonable manner » consistent with their protection, while paying special regard to vital human needs and to the interests of the other watercourse states. As a global umbrella, it seeks to supplement, facilitate and sustain transboundary water cooperation at all levels.
  • It will govern interstate relations in the absence of applicable agreements
  • It will provide coherent policy guidance for the adoption and implementation of basin agreements
  • It will facilitate the work of bilateral and multilateral institutions assisting watercourse states in these matters
  • It will preserve political stability and foster consensus-building by providing a globally endorsed platform for transboundary cooperation
  • Support the implementation of other multilateral conventions
  • Establish a fair level playing field
The ultimate goal of international law is to maintain regional peace and security. As a framework UN Convention, this important treaty establishes rules and procedures to prevent and solve disputes and to facilitate the cooperative management of transboundary waters.
In sum, the convention aims to promote the kind of enabling environment that we are lucky to benefit from in Europe.
These are the reasons why we believe all States should ratify it the UN Watercourses Convention. More specifically for the EU:
  1. Again, we have a direct interest in improving transboundary water cooperation globally
  2. We have an obvious interest in promoting a Convention that will apply to neighboring countries
  3. The convention’s entry into force and implementation will advance EU water and development cooperation policies, including with regard to transboundary climate change adaptation.
  4. Demonstrate global leadership in leaving a lasting legacy of sound legal governance of the world’s precious water supplies within basins shared by two or more States

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