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Transboundary Water Governance in Europe

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The European continent has the highest number of international river basins in the world and the most complex ones. Nevertheless, it has developed one of the most comprehensive and complex transboundary water governance systems. Europe is the only continent that has developed an inclusive framework of agreements: the UNECE Water Convention and its protocols. It also maintains a highly successful institutional system dedicated to cross-border cooperation. The European countries have to implement the EU’s general and water legislation, which has significant implications for transboundary cooperation.

The relative success of Europe in managing transboundary water relations can be attributed to a number of factors. Outside the Iberian Peninsula, most of Europe’s international rivers, until recently, had a large flow. In addition, Europe is largely independent of the most common human-source pressures that seriously complicate hydro-politics elsewhere: There is no significant population or urbanization pressure in most river basins, and there is a tendency for upstream countries to be rich and environmentally friendly without the unilateral water development agenda. In addition, the environmental protection of many river basins has a long history in the EU, environmental protection is a widely shared political priority.

However, these conditions do not apply to all continent. The rivers of the Balkans Peninsula or the vast eastern river basins of the continent (Dnieper, Dniester, Don, Volga) are much less favorable in terms of ecological status, institutional protection or political interest.

The UNECE Water Convention

The UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Waterways and International Lakes (UNECE Water Convention) was developed under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the regional cooperation body of the European Commission. The Convention was adopted in 1992 and entered into force in 1996. Transboundary water has evolved rapidly into a full-fledged model platform for cooperation.

The Convention provides for the parties to establish agreements and joint organizations for a specific area. At this point, bilateral or multilateral agreements on certain basins or aquifers are not ignored, at which point it is aimed to complete the implementation of these agreements. The Convention was amended in 2003 to allow the participation of member states outside the UNECE region of the United Nations.

The main scope of the Convention is:

  •  to prevent, control and reduce over time the negative transboundary effects on environmental problems, human living standards and socioeconomic conditions. Transboundary impacts have been generally defined to influence human living standards and safety, flora, fauna, soil, air, water, climate, landscape and historical monuments or other physical structures or interactions between these factors. It also includes impacts on cultural factors or socio-economic conditions resulting from changes in these factors.
  • to determine the framework needed to manage shared waters fairly with using the ecosystem approach,
  • to determine the framework needed to protect and restore ecosystems,
  • To conduct environmental impact analyzes, to prepare emergency plans, set water quality targets and minimize the risk of water pollution.

Although focus of the convention is more ecological than the UN International Waterway Convention, purpose of both treaties can be regarded as largely the same. This causes the two conventions to complement each other in a beneficial way and creates a positive synergy between the two legal regimes.

Unlike the UN International Water Convention, UNECE Water Convention is assisted by the parties to conduct their regular meetings in a harmonization mechanism and is supported by an institutional framework with various working and expert groups. The contracting bodies have a wide range of activities, including the status of water bodies, information exchange, and capacity building. The Convention also successfully implemented new areas such as climate change adaptation.

European basin treaties and organisations

When we look at global examples, Europe has the largest number of river basins and also has the largest watershed agreement. The fact that the UNECE Water Convention obliges parties to enter into basin agreements and active assistance by Convention bodies ensures that the agreement is inclusive. This new body of agreements born in the spirit of the UNECE Water Convention includes the basin treaties relating to the Danube, the Oder, the Meuse and Scheldt, the Rhine and a series of bilateral water treaties between Spain and Portugal, several ex-Soviet member states and their EU neighbours.

The European basin agreements have established river basin commissions that provide a platform for overcoming new challenges emerging in the basin as well as implementing agreements. Some river basin commissions, such as the International Danube Commission, carry out a wide range of programs, including the main activities of the basin agreement.

The environmental policy of the European Union

Water issues in the European Union fall into a wider environmental policy category than the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), one of the founding treaties of the EU. It is important that the EU water policy is subject to the general principles and limitations of the environmental policy from the TFEU and the European Union Treaty (TEU). Principles include sustainable development and the preservation of the quality of the environment.

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