During the last decade, with increase of general awareness about the importance of groundwater, an issue of Transboundary Aquifers (TBAs) has also started to receive more attention from international community. In meantime, various TBA inventories and assessments have been conducted worldwide, producing valuable information and knowledge about this complex issue.
Collaboration, transboundary aquifers, groundwater, mapping, assessment
social (information & knowledge management)
During the last decade, with increase of general awareness about the importance of groundwater, an issue of Transboundary Aquifers (TBAs) has also started to receive more attention from international community. Very instrumental for this process were initiatives of UNECE (to conduct a first inventory of TBAs in Europe), of UNESCO & IAH (to set up an international program – ISARM), and of GEF (to include groundwater in its International Waters projects). In meantime, various TBA inventories and assessments have been conducted worldwide, producing valuable information and knowledge about this complex issue.
On the other hand, there are very few places in the world where joint management of shared groundwater resources is already established. Using various international incentives and mechanisms, countries and international organisations are rather making steps towards common management by:
- Improving a common understanding of shared resource
- building a trust
In the cases of project based activities (e.g. GEF projects), some further steps are made, such as:
- establishing collaboration mechanism
- proposing harmonisation of policies
- targeted public participation
The projects are almost exclusively dedicated to a single aquifer (or aquifer system). The regional studies involve more aquifers and produce less detailed assessments that still can be very comprehensive (e.g. hydrogeological, socio-economical, legal and institutional assessment of ISARM Americas).
On the global level, the draft articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers, prepared by UNILC with support of UNESCO will play an important guiding role in development of regional of bilateral cooperation mechanisms for assessment and management of shared groundwater resources.
IGRAC (International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre) has been involved in most of regional TBA inventories and assessments, including the ISARM programme, the UNECE inventories and assessments and the GEF projects. Our brief impression on various approaches to TBA issues (and related solutions) are given below.
In general, the countries in Europe and Asia have a strong political commitment to the UNECE led inventories and assessments. The attendance of the meetings is high and the country representatives often bring along in advance requested and prepared TBA information. In the assessments, a DPSIR framework is used, providing rather reliable overview at the very regional level. Yet, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure a structural improvement of collaboration on groundwater resources among the (individual) countries.
ISARM (International Shared Aquifer Resources Management) operates as an umbrella programme, (co)organising various TBA-related activities all over the world (www.isarm.org). The regional UNESCO representatives have a leading role in bringing together regional groundwater experts and making TBA inventories. Comparing with UNECE led assessments, meetings are less formal and the commitment is primarily individual. Again, there are no prescribed mechanisms for sustainable TBA collaboration among the countries.
GEF projects do contain clear mechanisms for establishing & improving cooperation and a commitment of the parties is substantial. However, the efficiency of mechanisms often rapidly decreases after completion of the project.
All the accounted activities facilitate and promote international groundwater collaboration and can be notified as existing solutions. However, a general mechanism that would ensure long-lasting cooperation is missing. The UNILC groundwater articles can be seen as a basis (or a part) of such mechanism.
UNECE conducted a pan-European inventory of transboundary groundwaters, and subsequently two assessments of transboundary rivers, lakes and groundwaters in Europe and Central Asia. The second assessment included a range of regional meetings held in Sarajevo, Kiev, Tbilisi, Budapest and Almaty.
ISARM is active in Africa, Americas, Asia and South-East Europe. Overview of ISARM regional activities can be found at www.isarm.org.
Most of the large GEF groundwater projects are located in Africa (NW Sahara Aquifer System, Nubian Aquifer System, Limpopo-SADC and Iullemeden) with one prominent groundwater project in South America (Guarani) and one in Europe (DIKTAS).
Certainly, there is a groundwater cooperation carried out in context of other (than mentioned) programmes/projects, for instance in the framework of international river basin management or simply as a part of bilateral cooperation of two neighbouring countries.
The main actors in the process are national groundwater specialists, usually positioned in the governmental organisations. The UNECE led assessments include a number of country officials too. The ISARM programme assembles diverse specialists, diverse both with respect to affiliation (governmental, scientific, NGO, international organisations, etc.) and discipline (hydrogeology, socio-economics, environment, policy, etc.). Similar diversity is also noticeable in GEF project teams, being sometimes challenging, but very much needed.
On the global scene UNESCO has a leading role in promotion of TBA collaboration, and it is supported by International Association of Hydrologists and various global and regional organisations and centres (such as IGRAC).
In practice, cooperation mechanisms on joint management of internationally shared groundwaters are rarely in place. Cooperation established during execution of various project- and/or program activities usually significantly diminishes or even ceases after termination of activity.
UN watercourses convention (1997) and Helsinki water convention (1992) provide a general basis for water cooperation, whereas the UNILC Groundwater Articles contain clear guidance to the aquifer countries. Nevertheless, the cooperation mechanisms still need to be defined and established.
Added value of existing solutions is raising a general awareness about transboundary groundwaters and establishing steps towards sustainable management of these resources. The cooperation (i.e. the incentive of involved aquifer countries to engage in the process) in the main precondition for a proper assessment, monitoring and management of TBAs.
Setting up permanent common secretariats or other types of information exchange and consultation bodies is a proven way to ensure continuous monitoring of international groundwater cooperation. However, only proper and permanent monitoring of the groundwater system will ensure necessary input for mentioned cooperation mechanisms. Hence, both the monitoring of the aquifer system and of the collaboration process is required. The monitoring would be very much simplified if the countries would form joint groundwater management mechanisms; however, this is hardly a case in practice.
Cooperation mechanisms as introduced by the ISARM, UNECE and GEF are replicated on regular basis in various new initiatives and regions. Nevertheless, in most cases these mechanisms are still insufficient to provide continuity in cooperation after the termination of the activities.
A sound management is not possible without the proper knowledge of the groundwater system and its state. Hence, joint groundwater assessment and monitoring is required to provide conditions for joint management. Regional assessments, as carried out in the framework of UNECE and ISARM initiatives are not detailed enough to provide sufficient input for the management of a single aquifer. Nevertheless, regional assessments could be an instrumental step towards more elaborate detailed assessments, because of some common approaches adopted and some trust built among the countries. ISARM Americas is an excellent example, where the comprehensive regional assessment is nowadays followed by elaborated individual aquifers studies.
The exact form of a cooperation mechanism that countries would agree upon is less important and should reflect organisational and cultural specifics of aquifer countries. Nevertheless, some simple mechanisms such as setting up consultative and information exchange bodies (as prescribed in GEF projects) seem to have general applicability.
Commitment of aquifer (riparian) countries is the most difficult part of the process, starting from a simple recognition of aquifer’s presence and extent. While the presence and extent of surface water is usually a given fact, in the case of (invisible) groundwater is certainly not. The same holds for the status of the system, monitoring, predictions and finally measures to be taken (i.e. the management). Despite this, a tremendous progess has been made in the last decade, thanks to above described initiatives/ programmes but also due to inevitable global information flow, increasing visibility of invisible groundwater.
Dr Neno Kukurić
IGRAC – International Groundwater Centre
Westvest 7, 2611AX Delft, The Netherlands
T: +31 (0)15 215 2325; M: +31 (0)6 1265 6183
Skype: nenoonline; www.un-igrac.org