The Cross‐fertilization between the Sustainable Development Goals and International Water Law

Date01 April 2016
AuthorOtto Spijkers
Published date01 April 2016
The Cross-fertilization between the Sustainable
Development Goals and International Water Law
Otto Spijkers*
Are the main principles of international water law, as
ref‌lected in the Watercourses Convention, suff‌iciently
equipped to motivate States to sustainably manage
their freshwater resources? This article suggests that a
more pronounced sustainable approach to these prin-
ciples is desirable. The Sustainable Development Goals
might give this greenevolution of international water
law a further push in the right direction. In this contri-
bution, three elements that could be the focus of this
evolution are identif‌ied: (i) a sustainable interpretation
of the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization
of shared watercourses, the no-harm rule and the duty
of cooperation; (ii) a commitment to the further devel-
opment of the ecosystems approach to international
water law; and (iii) further emphasis on facilitating
public participation in decision making relating to the
utilization of international watercourses.
Some treaties, regulating the utilization and joint man-
agement of a specif‌ic transboundary watercourse, pay
considerable attention to sustainable development.
Some regional legal instruments on water management
do so as well.
And the same is true for some national
water laws
and policies.
We also see that courts both
at the international and domestic level increasingly
adopt a sustainable development-oriented approach to
international water law.
Through this development,
the open and largely procedural norms and principles
of general international water law are interpreted in
such a way as to oblige States to embrace a green
approach to regulating the use of their freshwater
This contribution sets out to examine
whether the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
can also play a modest role in this ongoing develop-
ment. In other words, can the SDGs give a further boost
to the evolution of general international water law
towards a more sustainable development-oriented legal
The underlying idea is that the concrete political com-
mitments relating to water contained in the SDGs and
SDG6 in particular can add substantive f‌lesh to the
otherwise abstract skeleton of general international
water law. At the same time, the SDGs will be elevated
from purely political commitments to legally relevant
obligations when they can be so attachedto the norms
of international water law. In short, there is potential
for true cross-fertilization, with a global legal frame-
work and global environmental policy strengthening
each other.
More specif‌ically, there are three ways in which this
cross-fertilization can be most successful. The SDGs
can be used to motivate States to: (i) interpret and apply
the foundational principles of international water law
in a sustainable manner; (ii) encourage the further
development of the ecosystems approach to interna-
tional water law; and (iii) use the legal framework of
international water law to facilitate public participation
at all levels of water governance.
* Corresponding author.
See, e.g., the Convention on Co-operation for the Protection and
Sustainable Use of the River Danube (Sof‌ia, 29 June 1994; in force 22
October 1998), especially Article 2; International Meuse Treaty
(Ghent, 3 December 2002; in force 1 December 2006); Guarani Aqui-
fer Agreement (San Juan, 2 August 2010; not yet in force); Agreement
between the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Peo-
ple’s Republic of China on Water Quality Protection of Transboundary
Waters (Beijing, 22 February 2011); and the Convention on the Sus-
tainable Management of Lake Tanganyika (Dar es Salaam, 12 June
2003), especially Article 5.2. For more examples, see A. Rieu-Clarke,
‘The Sustainability Principle’, in: A. Tanzi et al. (eds.), The UNECE
Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Water-
courses and International Lakes (Brill, 2015), 195.
See, e.g., European Union Directive 2000/60/EC of the European
Parliament and the Council Establishing a Framework for the Commu-
nity Action in the Field of Water Policy, [2000] OJ L327/1.
See, e.g., Water Law of the Central African Republic, Article 2.
See, e.g., the Ghanaian National Water Policy (2007), found at:
See, e.g., ICJ 25 September 1997, Gab
ıkovo-Nagymaros Project
(Hungary v. Slovakia), [1997] ICJ Rep. 7; ICJ 20 April 2010, Pulp Mills
on the River Uruguay (Argentina v. Uruguay), [2010] ICJ Rep. 14
(‘Pulp Mills’); ICJ 16 December 2015, Construction of a Road in Costa
Rica along the San Juan River (Nicaragua v. Costa Rica), found at:
The ‘green’ metaphor is borrowed from United Nations Environment
Programme (UNEP), The Greening of Water Law: Managing Fresh-
water Resources for People and the Environment (UNEP, 2010).
For an earlier development of these three proposals (published
before the adoption of the SDGs), see O. Spijkers, ‘The Sustainable
Development Goals as Catalyst for the Sustainable Management of
Water Resources’, 24:34Journal of Water Law (2015), 115.
ª2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
RECIEL 25 (1) 2016. ISSN 2050-0386 DOI: 10.1111/reel.12152
Review of European Community & International Environmental Law

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