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Special Session: Ensuring benefit sharing and joint management of dams: the role of international water law

IWRA 2021 World Water Congress in Daegu, Korea (29 November - 3 December 2021)
E. Development Pathways
Author(s): Host : International Association for Water Law/Geneva Water Hub/University of Geneva/IUCN

Host : International Association for Water Law/Geneva Water Hub/University of Geneva/IUCN *


  • Alejandro Iza(IUCN, Germany)
  • Diego Jarra(IUCN, Germany)
  • Mara Tignino(Geneva Water Hub/University of Geneva, Switzerland)



Dams are built for multiple purposes, including agricultural uses, production of energy, protection from floods. Many thousands of dams are planned around the world across different regions: South East Asia, South America, Africa and Balkans. The construction of dams may affect the flows of rivers and the quality of its waters. They have impacts on the rights of the riparian States and often on those of the local communities.

Many of the existing agreements governing dams in transboundary watercourses do not reflect current environmental concerns such as the impacts of climate change and environmental flows. The consequences on biodiversity or wetlands are also often not considered in these treaties. Moreover, social aspects such as those related to the access to water for irrigation purposes or domestic supplies can also be excluded from these instruments. There is therefore a need to develop agreements that regulate dams in an integrated manner considering benefit sharing both at the inter-State level and with local communities as well as joint management.

Dams on international watercourses are often at the center of disputes between States. Some of them have been resolved through the resort to international courts and tribunals. Examples include the Lake Lanoux case between France and Spain brought before an arbitral tribunal in 1957, the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros case between Slovakia and Hungary brought before the International Court of Justice in 1993 and the Kishenganga case between India and Pakistan brought before an arbitral tribunal in 2010. These case-law help to clarify existing principles and rules included in freshwater agreements which regulate the planning, building and management of dams.

The current legal regime governing dams is scattered in various international agreements, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and a number of agreements at the basin level. The principle of equitable and reasonable use, the central pillar of international water law in the sharing of transboundary waters, may ensure the implementation of the concept of benefit sharing between riparian countries. However, the interpretation and application of these instruments of international water law should not be isolated from other areas of international law, including the agreements of international environmental law and human rights law. For example, the Convention on Biodiversity or the Convention on the Protection of Wetlands have to be taken into account when planning and building dams so that aquatic ecosystems are not affected by these water infrastructures. At the same time, the rights of consultation and participation of local communities in decision-making processes enshrined in human rights instruments such as the ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples as well as the right to water, must be respected in the planning of dams.

Given this background, this special session aims at presenting the current state of the international regime on dams and the concept of benefit sharing in international water law.

This proposal is part of a series of special sessions that AIDA would like to organize within the structure of the IWRA Congress.

This special session is co-organized with the Geneva Water Hub/University of Geneva and the Environmental Law Center of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

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