Seminar reports on UNECE Water Convention progress

05/07/2004

Berlin seminar on the UNECE Water Convention, June 2004

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), one of the five UN regional commissions, provides a regional forum for governments from Europe, North America, Central Asia and Israel to study the economic, environmental and technological problems of the region and recommend action (www.unece.org ). Shortly before the Rio Conference, UNECE adopted in Helsinki in 1992 a "Convention on the protection and use of transboundary watercourses and international lakes" (UNECE Water Convention).

Water problems in the UNECE region, some facts

Some 31% of Europe's population lives in countries already suffering from high water stress, particularly during drought and periods of low river flow. At the same time some UNECE countries are suffering from more floods than ever before, with severe economic and social impacts. Many countries depend upon groundwater to meet the demand for drinking water and are quickly depleting precious aquifers, especially around cities, affecting some 140 million European city dwellers. Most countries lose an astounding 30% of clean drinking water in their supply networks. Attempts at solving these complex problems in Europe are further complicated by the essentially transboundary nature of water resources. More than 150 major rivers and 50 large lakes in the UNECE region run along or straddle the border between two or more countries. Over 100 transboundary groundwater aquifers have been identified. Twenty European countries depend for more than 10% of their water resources on neighbouring countries, and five countries draw 75% of their resources from upstream countries.

The UNECE Water Convention (www.unece.org/env/water/welcome.html)

The Convention is intended to strengthen national measures for the protection and ecologically sound management of transboundary surface waters and groundwaters. It obliges parties to prevent, control and reduce water pollution from point and non-point sources. The Convention also includes provisions for monitoring, research and development, consultations, warning and alarm systems, mutual assistance, institutional arrangement, and the exchange and protection of information, as well as public access to information. In 1999, a specific Protocol on Water and Health was adopted, followed in 2003 (after the major pollution spill in Baja Mare) by the Protocol on Civil Liability and Compensation for Damage Caused by the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents on Transboundary Waters. The Convention is part of a larger environmental legal framework set up in the UNECE region to address the most important issues of transboundary cooperation, including air pollution, industrial accidents, environmental impact assessment, and access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice. In 2003, the success of the Convention led its Parties to amend it, opening accession to countries outside the UNECE region, thus enabling the rest of the world (and particularly countries bordering the UNECE region) to use the Convention's legal framework and benefit from the experience in transboundary water cooperation gained under it.

Flood Prevention

The second meeting of the Parties of the UNECE Water Convention in 2000 adopted strategic "Guidelines on Sustainable Flood Prevention" that were endorsed by other UN bodies, such as the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction and the World Health and Meteorological Organisations. The guidelines state that flood events are part of nature and that flood protection measures can have negative effects both downstream and upstream. Therefore, a holistic approach is necessary that takes into account the whole river basin. Human use of floodplains should be adapted to the existing hazards. Priority should be given to integrated water management measures for the whole catchment area rather than to the management of floods as such. Appendix I specifically states that natural wetlands, forested marshlands and retention areas in the river basin should be conserved, and where possible restored or expanded. Former floodplains and lakes, when possible, should be reclaimed, for example by relocating dykes to reincorporate these areas as natural retention areas into the discharge dynamic.

Berlin seminar, 21-22 June 2004

The third meeting of the Parties of the UNECE Water Convention in 2003 reiterated the need for transboundary cooperation in the field of flood prevention and protection. It welcomed the fact that the guidelines have been incorporated into the work of the European Union and served as a basis for the best practice document on flood prevention and protection. A task force was set up by Germany to review the experiences gained in applying the guidelines. During an international seminar on 21-22 June 2004 in Berlin, several countries reported on how the guidelines have been incorporated into national legislative acts, programmes or internal agreements. International river basin commissions have been established in virtually all large river basin districts in Europe and in some cases flood action plans have been adopted or are in the preparation or planning stages.

In this context, Ramsar's guidance on integrating wetland conservation and wise use into river basin management (Handbook 4) and on water allocation and management (Handbook 12) are the most relevant tools to make sure that the hydrological functions that wetlands can perform can be taken adequately into account when planning flood retention areas that incorporate wetland ecosystems.

The experts concluded during the seminar that the UNECE Guidelines for Sustainable Flood Prevention are an effective instrument, and that there was at present no need for a substantial revision. They proposed some additions on particular issues, notably that the solidarity principle should be applied across the entire UNECE region; that existing financial mechanisms should be used for non-EU Member States sharing rivers with the EU and supporting initiatives, particularly the EU Water Initiative component for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as the Balkans countries; and that the contact of flood management should be broadened by applying the principles of the UNECE Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context and its recent Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessments in order to better integrate environmental and health considerations.

The participants welcomed the offer of Hungary to build upon the Budapest Initiative on "Strengthening International Cooperation on Sustainable Flood Management", adopted in late 2002 after the extreme floods in Central Europe, calling for concerted actions, taking into account existing networks, programmes and achievements, and asking for coordinated development, management and conservation actions regarding water, land and related resources.

Ramsar national focal points and administrative authorities are encouraged to cooperate closely, on a river basin level, with their colleagues in charge of implementing the UNECE Water Convention, in order to make best use of the remaining wetland resources and outline the best possible restoration plans for aquatic ecosystems in river floodplains prone to floods. The programme of the seminar and the documents supporting the technical presentations during the seminar can be accessed easily at www.unece.org/env/water/meetings/flood/seminar.htm, soon to be completed by the final report of the seminar.

-- reported by Tobias Salathé, Ramsar

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