McGeorge School of Law

UN Water Convention Takes Effect

August 26, 2014

Distinguished Professor Stephen McCaffrey

Distinguished Professor Stephen McCaffrey

A groundbreaking multilateral treaty on international water cooperation, the culmination of a decade's work by McGeorge Professor Stephen McCaffrey, entered into force on Aug. 17, 2014.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses obliges each nation to consider the impact of its actions on others with a shared interest in a water resource such as a river, a lake, or groundwater. The convention was adopted in 1997 following a 103-3 vote in the UN General Assembly. A lengthy ratification process began thereafter, and the treaty officially took legal effect 90 days after a 35th country — Vietnam — approved the treaty this year.

"The entry into force of the UN Watercourses Convention is an important step on the road toward global fresh water governance according to the rule of law," McCaffrey said. "Much like the U.S. law of interstate apportionment, the convention is built on the foundation of equitable and reasonable utilization of shared water resources. It also contains detailed provisions on prior notification of planned projects as well as strong protection of aquatic ecosystems."

As a member of the UN International Law Commission (ILC) from 1982-1991, McCaffrey served as the ILC's "special rapporteur" on international watercourses from 1985-1991, when the Commission adopted a full set of draft articles on the topic, based on his proposals. The draft then received a mandatory second reading in the ILC before being sent to the UN General Assembly for consideration. The Assembly convened diplomatic negotiations open to all UN member states which led to the adoption of the convention.

"The adoption of the law represents the single most important initiative to date in the development of a universal and coherent body of rules and principles to facilitate the cooperative management of shared international water resources," said Owen McIntyre, an international water law expert and faculty member at University College Cork, Ireland, in one of a number of tributes offered to McCaffrey at a celebratory event last week. "The convention would not have come about without the tireless work of a small number of champions, none of whom has played a role as significant as that of Steve McCaffrey."