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Transboundary Aquifer Management: Does One Size Fit All?

World Water Congress 2015 Edinburgh Scotland
12. Transboundary river basins and shared aquifers
Author(s): Renee Martin-Nagle (Washington DC
Renee Martin-Nagle
Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance Environmental Law Institute
University of Strathclyde

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 12: Transboundary river basins and shared aquifers,



As surface water resources diminish both in quantity and quality, the vast opportunities lying hidden in groundwater reserves will become increasingly attractive. Transboundary aquifers will present particular challenges as nations determine how the shared resources will be utilized. This presentation will explore whether a global approach to governance is preferable to regional solutions that reflect unique cultural practices and policies.

Methods and Materials

The presentation will compare practices and policies for several transboundary aquifers by analyzing and comparing the provisions of the Watercourses Convention and the Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers with regional agreements, such as the Guarani Aquifer Agreement and the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System Regional Strategic Action Plan. Other transboundary aquifers mentioned below will also be studied. The method of research will include both desktop research and interviews with persons involved in following activities with respect to the various aquifers.

Results and Discussion

The research will be conducted over the eight months remaining until the World Water Congress. The following paragraphs explain the proposed approach to the topic and research.

For decades UN-related organizations such as the Global Environmental Facility ("GEF") and UNESCO have been financing studies of water resources, while other UN bodies have produced governance frameworks, such as the Watercourses Convention and the Draft Articles. Has the involvement of these global bodies resulted in adoption of lasting governance structures, or have regional approaches been more effective and enduring? To arrive at an answer, the current and proposed governance of target aquifers would be analyzed to determine whether water- and aquifer-specific instruments and MEAs sponsored by global agencies have exercised greater influence than regional arrangements.

Since 2000, analysis of the semi-confined Guarani aquifer system has received financial support from UN-affiliated global development bodies such as the GEF, as well as the World Bank and the International Atomic Energy Association. The four Guarani nations -- Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay -- were the original members of Mercosur, which provided those nations a regional framework in which to communicate and collaborate. Estimated to have enough reserves to supply the world's needs for 200 years, the Guarani supports domestic, agricultural and industrial uses. The Guarani Aquifer Agreement, signed in 2010 but still not fully ratified, represents the first aquifer treaty to come into force since issuance of the Draft Articles and took the Draft Articles into account. The Guarani Aquifer Agreement also mirrors provisions of the Watercourses Convention, containing obligations to recognize sovereignty, engage in reasonable use, prevent significant harm, share data, and negotiate disputes. However, unlike the Watercourses Convention, the Guarani Aquifer Agreement assigns final resolution of disputes to a commission established under the River Plate Basin Treaty, instead of to the International Court of Justice, thus allowing for regional customary law to develop. Since the Guarani Aquifer Agreement does not provide a management framework, one could argue that that the tepid Guarani Aquifer Agreement resembles the Watercourses Convention more than the more robust Draft Articles, and therefore regional customary practices will have particular importance.

To be complete, the research should include at least one fossil aquifer, and three possibilities come to mind. The most obvious would be the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System and the Northwest Sahara Aquifer System. Has the governance of either of these aquifers followed the plan designed for them by the international agencies, or have regional preferences prevailed?


While research is in preliminary stages, it is expected that the evidence will indicate that regional approaches to aquifer governance are more enduring than a global, one-size-fits-all convention. Global framework agreements may provide valuable guidance, but ultimately, cultural customs and norms, historical patterns of behavior and unique geologic formations that are indigenous to a particular geographic area will probably make regionally- generated solutions to water governance more acceptable to those who must abide by the rules.

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