Central America

UNWC's Global Relevance

The territories of Central American countries are criss-crossed by international rivers: close to 40% of the region’s land surface are transboundary watersheds. Indeed, most countries in Central America have significant portion of their territories within international river basins. The extensive area covered by international river basins makes cooperation between states an important aspect of the management of watershed ecosystems. Yet, as shown by the assessment, there are very little legal cooperation framework agreements in the region. For this reason, the UNWC has the potential to fill the gap and strengthen the legal administration of river basins in Central America.

The assessment starts by examining the situation of water governance in Central America. Institutions surrounding transboundary watershed are scarce, and those in place are weak. The authors attribute the limited development of cooperation mechanisms to the fear by states that such mechanisms would undermine their state sovereignty, and the belief that resource management falls under the authority of each individual state. Despite the high interdependence between Central American states, a by-product of their heavy reliance on the services and resources provided by international rivers, there are very little legal and institutional frameworks regarding water governance. This proves to be an impediment to the implementation of effective transboundary cooperation.

The strongest challenge to the development of cooperation agreements identified in the assessment is the historical. Indeed, states in Central America, following centuries of domination by foreign powers, won, in the bloodiest of fashions, a hard-fought independence. Attempts to impede on their state sovereignty are often met with fierce opposition. This explains why the states in the region have been lukewarm to the idea of entering into cooperation agreements. As a result, most of the governance structures and watershed management legal structures were adopted at the domestic level, with each country choosing a different path to grapple with the issues at hand.

Through case studies of provisions in Central American constitutions and legislation related to water resources, the authors point out that the development of institutional and legal frameworks for international river basins in the region are actually being set back by domestic provisions, what the authors call the ‘structure problem’. In fact, most cooperation between riparian states is informal and limited in scope.

In the context of the paucity of adequate legal protection of international basin in Central America, the UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC) has a central role to play. The assessment identified five ways in which the UNWC can strengthen the governance of international watersheds in the region:

  • The Convention could add legal value to the informal cooperation mechanisms and provide them with the basic principles which should be followed by the governance bodies created by these mechanisms.
  • The UNWC could act as a model for future basin-wide cooperation agreements, and could bolster the adoption of such agreements by providing a prototype on which to design them. The provisions contained in the Convention could also help devise national legislation that is respectful of the principles of international law.
  • The UNWC could fill the gap of overseeing the use, management and protection of freshwater resources where no agreement currently exists.
  • The mechanisms of dispute settlement contained in the Convention, by laying down a detailed process by which disputes can be resolved, could help end long-standing border issues between Central American states, as well as prevent potential disputes.
  • Most importantly, the UNWC could catalyze broader regional cooperation. By promoting negotiation, information-sharing, and joint management of shared watersheds, the UNWC would foster cooperation and help to build trust in one domain, encouraging policy-makers to adopt such agreements and cooperate in other areas. This is the so-called ‘Policy of Small Steps’, which was adopted by the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) following World War Two and has been largely successful in Europe.



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Global Water Facts

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