Promoting transboundary water cooperation
A workshop to promote transboundary water cooperation in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region took place in Budapest, Hungary on November 16, 2015. Organised with the financial and technical backing of the Italian Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea in cooperation with the REC and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), and with the support of the Government of Hungary, the event brought together 56 participants from Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Tunisia, as well as civil society representatives from UNECE countries and international experts.
The workshop, broken down into four sessions, focused on the following: 1) current progress in the MENA region towards accession to the Water Convention; 2) common issues related to the UNECE Water Convention (or, Convention) interpretation, accession and implementation; 3) preparing MENA region countries’ contribution to the Seventh Session of the Meeting of Parties; and 4) ongoing initiatives, needed actions and next steps.
The following provides a brief outline of what was discussed and which conclusions were reached during each phase of the Budapest workshop.
The opening session presented successes and challenges to the region, while posing important questions pertaining to, among others, bilateral agreements on water quality, river basin management planning, technical support from the UNECE Convention, and access to financial support for development and support of initiatives.
In the course of discussion, four countries requested support and initiated a national ‘reflection process’ for accession to the Water Convention: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. It is widely acknowledged that the Convention can offer many benefits in terms of management of shared surface water and ground water in the MENA region. It also provides many tools that riparian countries can use to tackle issues together, including a platform for negotiation and conflict resolution. A positive note moving forward is that the region is already the most advanced outside the UNECE region.
A major emphasis of this session was on the Convention’s vital role in preventing conflict and promoting negotiation and cooperation between multiple parties and stakeholders. It was established that non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society organisations (CSOs) and international organisations (IOs) each play crucial roles as well in supporting and implementing the Water Convention. One of the keys to cooperation is to be as inclusive as possible and to avoid leaving countries out of the process.
Regarding Convention implementation, participants requested support for bringing the discussion to national, basin and regional levels. While it was mentioned that gaps between different levels of water governance may pose difficulties for implementation, there was also an expressed need for more capacity building and support from UNECE to promote inter-country meetings and enhanced dialogue. Furthermore, while there are differences between the UN Watercourse and UNECE Convention, together they can provide a full package of norms related to transboundary water cooperation.
Now that a draft work programme (PoW) has been worked out for 2016-2018, the strategy can be tailored further to meet specific needs of the MENA region. Participants from some of the international organisations at the workshop suggested crosscutting their own activities with the PoW, and expressed an interest in future collaborations and partnerships.
Meanwhile, an Implementation Committee has been established that is neutral and non-confrontational by nature. Its general aim is to promote cooperation and dialogue while preventing conflict, while at the same time involving multiple partners, experts and stakeholders to provide technical assistance with activities related to Convention implementation.
The third session also focused on decisions to be taken at the Meeting of Parties their implications for MENA countries. One consideration was that guidance on accessing grants and financial support for implementation projects should be further elaborated in any future strategy. Another was that there is a need for transboundary indicators to be included in the new system of sustainable development goals. Finally, it was argued that issues should follow a regional approach, while others are more appropriately addressed at a basin-wide level.
IOs, NGOs and CSOs are leading several ongoing projects throughout the MENA region having to do with water governance, and there are many possibilities for orienting these projects into narrower alignment with Convention-related activities. And while water quantity is a deep concern throughout the region, participants noted also the importance of focusing on water quality.
Related to Convention membership, Egypt expressed its willingness to accede if the Convention meets its specific interests, while Massimo Cozzone said that the Convention Secretariat will follow up on the issue of Palestine not being able at present to join.
Conclusions and outcomes of the workshop
In the interests of moving forward on this important issue, workshop participants put forward seven key conclusions at the close of the workshop:
- MENA countries understand the added value of the UNECE Water Convention and are seriously considering the possibilities of adopting it.
- Four countries (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia) confirmed that they are already started the process of accession to the Convention, and expressed interest in receiving further support for carrying out technical, institutional and capacity building.
- MENA countries acknowledge the Convention as a useful tool for strengthening regional cooperation, and expressed an interest in receiving support to combat several challenges.
- The main challenges at national level are interpretation and implementation of the Convention, while the greatest challenges at international level are related to cooperation and coordination of activities between riparian countries.
- MENA countries need capacity building, institutional strengthening and more regular exchange of experiences.
- International organisations are playing an important role and can continue to provide valuable support.
At the international level, there is a need for coordination with donors acting in the region in order to maximise the use of limited resources.