• English

High-level dialogue on Water, Peace and Security

New York, 22 March 2010
Statement by Mr. Ján Kubiš
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to participate, as the current coordinator of the UN regional economic commissions and the ES of one of them –the UNECE in this high-level dialogue organized by the General Assembly on the occasion of the World Water Day 2010. The interrelated issues of water, peace and security – and indeed of sustainable development – are among the most crucial from the national, regional and global perspectives and I am grateful to you, the member States for taking up this hot topic, to the PGA for his initiative and to the republic of Tajikistan for its determined efforts to keep it on the international agenda including through the High Level International Conference in Dushanbe 8-10.6. 2010.

Previous speakers and panels dealt with many facets and aspects of the problem and highlighted numerous examples of global and regional and global activities and experiences, including some activities of sister regional commissions. I would thus like to speak about the experiences of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) from practical perspective of our concrete work and action.

First and foremost, the need to foster cooperation and prevent disputes and indeed was at the root of drawing up the UNECE Water Convention. When in the late ‘80s / early ‘90s UNECE countries decided to negotiate and adopt a regional Convention for transboundary water management, they were looking for a set of common rules, a “legal but also ethical and practical” common basis for the use and protection of their shared waters. The result is the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, also known as UNECE Water Convention. The Convention appeared very timely since many new borders emerged in the region following the collapse of the Iron curtain. It was adopted in Helsinki in 1992 and entered into force in 1996. It can be considered a precursor of and a complementary instrument to the United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, adopted in 1997 by the General Assembly, but not yet in force. In fact, many countries are Parties to both Conventions. To date the UNECE Water Convention - the only relevant international legal instrument of this kind in force -has 37 Parties. It was decided to open it for accession to all UN members, also outside of the UNECE region, globally. Its principles have been successfully implemented in a number of cases, also by non-members for the protection and ecologically sound management of transboundary surface waters and groundwaters. It is a living agreement which offers assistance, delivers expertise and advice and monitors the state of the waters, mainly through the Assessment of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Groundwaters.

Perhaps the most important strength of the Convention that makes it an asset for peace and security is its strong focus on cooperation and shared responsibility, requesting Parties to enter into agreements and establish joint institutions for the management of shared resources and on accountability of the parties for fulfilling their legal obligations.

The Convention has significantly contributed to improving water quality in Europe since it requires Parties to prevent, control and reduce water pollution from point and non-point sources, to ensure an equitable and reasonable use of the resources, guaranteeing their sustainability. It also includes provisions for monitoring and exchange of information, for consultations, warning and alarm systems and mutual assistance. The Convention’s Protocol on Water and Health is the first international legal instrument linking water management, and in particular water quality, and human health.

The Water Convention also provides an important framework for cooperation on adaptation to climate change. To help the countries, the Guidance on Water and Adaptation to Climate Change has been developed under the UNECE Water Convention. The Guidance, adopted in 2009 explains step by step how to develop and implement adaptation strategies in transboundary context. Since the beginning of the year, work under the Convention has focused on implementation of projects supporting countries to adapt jointly to climate change in transboundary basins.

In South-Eastern Europe, the UNECE Water Convention supports cooperation on the Drin River bringing together governmental, non-governmental organization from the riparian countries, Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Greece, as well as international organizations and donor countries. The main objective is to bring cooperation on the whole basin to a higher, more organized, formalized and systematic and long-term level.

Another example is the Dniester basin where the Water Convention brought together not only Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, including the separatist Transdniester region of Moldova. This project is implemented with UNECE partners (OSCE and UNEP), in the framework of the Environment and Security Initiative, ENVSEC. ENVSEC is a cooperative initiative between different organizations in the pan-European region (UNEP, OSCE, REC, UNDP, UNECE) that works to assess and address environmental problems, which threaten or are perceived to threaten security, societal stability and peace, human health and/or sustainable livelihoods, within and across national borders in conflict prone regions.

Central Asia is also a region where the question of cooperation on water issues is relevant. Competing demands of electricity generation and irrigation result in recurrent disputes. Although the political wisdom of the leaders of the countries of the region as well as the present system for regional water resources management have helped to avoid deeper problems, the existing system has so far repeatedly demonstrated its inability to effectively harmonize the interests of upstream and downstream countries and is likely to be strained further by future challenges such as climate change. Upstream countries plan to build new dams in order to generate electricity both for internal consumption and for export. Downstream countries depend on irrigated agriculture: they are already hard-pressed by soil degradation and inefficient water use and their wish to increase agricultural production to i.a. meet the needs of growing populations. Only their cooperation that will ensure equitable and reasonable use of water resources could bring stable solutions for their sustainable development based on the account or interest of all partners.

UNECE has been working for several years on improving the current system of water management in Central Asia together with national and regional institutions, based i.a. on the approaches of its Water Convention.

For example the bilateral Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan Chu-Talas Rivers Commission was inaugurated in July 2006. The Commission supported by UNECE and other organizations makes it possible for both countries to share the responsibility for water infrastructure used by them. This is, as you can understand, a frequent issue, as the water infrastructure was developed as one system under the Soviet Union. As part of the bilateral agreement, Kazakhstan has agreed to pay part of the operating and maintenance expenses for a number of Kyrgyz dams and reservoirs supplying water to both countries. It is a significant step towards addressing a contentious issue and frequently referred to as a breakthrough in water relations in Central Asia.

The second example that I would like to mention is the work on dam safety in Central Asia. Central Asia has more than 100 major dams and other water control facilities, mostly on rivers shared by different countries. The dams are aging and are not adequately maintained. Meanwhile, the number of people living downstream the dams is growing in all countries. Two important issues to deal with are: national safety legislation and its implementation, and cooperation on dam safety issues including establishment of early warning systems between the countries. This UNECE work has proven important also in terms of confidence building. All five Central Asian countries have a real interest in improved dam safety and cooperation and the project has become a platform for substantive cooperation in the region. 

Probably the most ambitious of UNECE activities in Central Asia is the programme “Regional dialogue and cooperation on water resources management in Central Asia” funded by the Government of Germany through GTZ, as part of the Berlin Water process. The programme aims to strengthen the legal basis for water resources management in Central Asia and the regional institutions responsible for water management, in particular strengthen the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) and its regional institutions. Strong regional institutions and modern legal framework are a key precondition of sustainable progress towards the solution of bitter disputes over the use of shared water resources in Central Asia. They would help gradually strengthen confidence among upstream and downstream countries and elaborate mutually advantageous, cooperative solutions for problems related to the water and energy nexus. Moreover, progress in stabilization and development of Afghanistan, among others, envisages the expansion of irrigated areas (i.a. to replace poppy cultivation), using water from river basins shared with Central Asia. To avoid future problems and disputes on water allocation and to ensure effective joint management of shared water resources, strong regional institutions have a pivotal role to play.

We have no illusions as to the complexity and difficulty of the development of transboundary water cooperation whether it is in our region or anywhere else in the world. Knowing how much time and effort it took to establish well-functioning river-basin commissions in Europe or Asia, we are acutely aware of the need to work hard on the sustainability of the process. This is why and where the framework and the active work under the Water Convention are so important. The UNECE Water Convention provides an inspiration, guidance and legal framework to political decision makers and experts to address the existing and new challenges, a platform to bring together experience of different countries and basins, to foster their cooperation. Also other UNECE Environmental Convention are relevant for this work, such as the Espo or Aarhus Conventions, providing for a.i. active participation of the public, civil society in the process.

Building on the UNECE Water Convention experience and achievements, its Parties decided to amend it in 2003 to allow accession to non-UNECE member states. Once this amendment comes into force the Convention can become a global framework for cooperation on shared watercourses. I would like to encourage the Parties which have not yet done so to ratify the amendment as soon as possible to allow the rest of the world to take advantage of the UNECE Water Convention. I also invite countries outside the UNECE region to get inspired and participate in the work under the Convention and benefit from its experience and tools.