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Science is ally of international law on Danube


UNU book details formula for alleviating international conflict over water

A new study by United Nations University reveals the limits of international environmental law, and the potential for scientific methods to help resolve disputes between countries that share water resources.

After the collapse of communism in the 1990s, a dispute arose between Hungary and Slovakia over a project to dam the Danube River. It was the first of its type heard by the International Court of Justice and highlighted the difficulty for the Court to resolve such issues decisively. "The Danube: Environmental Monitoring of an International River," formally launched today by United Nations University Press, is the most complete examination yet of the way that dispute has been managed, and the new scientific tools and political process it required.

The authors show how science came to the aid of the International Court. Instead of determining the case outright, the Court left it up to the parties to reach an agreement in view of their treaty obligations and the damages born by each of the countries. To assess them, Hungarian and Slovak scientists and engineers used joint environmental monitoring and evaluation to determine and agree on the amount of environmental impact caused by the dam.

The book shows the environmental monitoring and other scientific techniques and political tools can help countries achieve sustainable management of shared water resources. "There are 17 European countries directly reliant on water from the Danube so there is clear potential for conflict if any of these countries act selfishly," says author Libor Jansky, Senior Academic Programme officer at UNU. "Cooperation is the only way they can avoid wasteful disputes."

"The issues and solutions are not restricted to Europe," adds co-author Masahiro Murakami, Professor of International Development at the Kochi University of Technology, Japan. "Governments worldwide are now becoming acutely aware that their economic, environmental and social development relies on adequate supplies of water, and yet they are often sharing water resources with other countries. Conflict will erupt over water disputes in the next decade if countries cannot find ways to resolve their competing needs for this scarce resource."

The troubled Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros project began with a 1977 treaty between Slovakia and Hungary to create two dams for electricity, flood control and navigation on the Danube. In 1989, Hungary suspended and subsequently abandoned the project, alleging its completion would pose grave environmental risks and threaten Budapest’s water supply. Slovakia rejected those claims and insisted Hungary comply with its treaty obligations. Slovakia later created an alternative project entirely within its territory, the operation of which had some adverse impacts, Hungary alleged, landing the case by mutual consent at the International Court.

The monitoring system eventually instituted by the two nations along a 70 km shared stretch of the river is one of the most intensive in the world, the two sides having achieved agreement on national experts to undertake the monitoring, the monitoring parameters and sites, and the sampling frequency.

To make the best use of the system, however, the authors recommend that Hungary and the Slovak Republic integrate their joint monitoring work with that of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River. "This is not only a cost-effective optimization strategy but also a necessity in view of the new water management obligations of the two countries resulting from their recent entry into the European Union."

Based on the lessons from the case, they suggest that joint monitoring of international waters needs to be designed in line with clearly defined scientific rather than political goals, and integrated in the framework of basin-wide or regional monitoring, information exchange and decision-making structures.

"Science can provide an objective basis for decision-making but decisions are inevitably based on subjective judgments of scientific, political, social and economic factors that often go beyond the borders of the concerned states," says co-author and UNU Research Assistant Nevelina I. Pachova. "Those limitations need to be clearly recognized if science is to contribute to international water management effectively."

There are an estimated 300 freshwater basins around the world that straddle or cross international borders. Due to population growth, pollution and continuing degradation, the risk of conflicts linked to freshwater is rising.

"The situation on the Danube between Hungary and Slovakia represents a classic water conflict and the way it has been handled represents a model for many nations in similar circumstances. Managing water disputes between states requires more than international law – it takes real cooperation among the parties concerned, including joint legal, technical and environmental impact assessments."

Terry Collins | EurekAlert!
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