Academic journal article Global Governance

Toward Global Law on Water

Academic journal article Global Governance

Toward Global Law on Water

Article excerpt

With increasing recognition of a global crisis in water resources, it becomes relevant to ask whether existing legal systems can make serious contributions to the management of the earth's water resources. This article examines the evolution of national water law and its key features, the coevolution of international water law, and a new focus in the twenty-first century to develop global water law against a backdrop of growing pluralism in water governance. In the past, national and international water law has generally reflected prevailing social beliefs and state practice rather than shaped them. However, contemporary developments in national and international water law suggest that an emergent global law is increasingly shaping practice instead of merely reflecting it. This global law seeks proactively to influence future water management, rather than being limited by past decisions. Keywords: international law; water law; water history; water governance.


Contemporary water governance results from complex historical evolutionary processes. While the preceding article in this special issue focuses on current global water governance, our analysis examines the evolution of water law from ancient to current times and from local to global levels. We explore first the history of water law, next contemporary features of national-level systems worldwide, and then developments in international water law, before drawing some broader conclusions regarding the emergence of global law on water.

The fundamental question we ask is whether existing legal systems are capable of making serious contributions to the management of the earth's water resources and whether movement toward a global law on water would address shortcomings in prevailing arrangements. In considering these questions, we draw on a literature analysis, experience of collaborating with water specialists in the International Law Association (ILA), and efforts to teach students from across the world about water management.

We argue that while legal systems can potentially create a legitimate framework for national and international cooperation to address common problems, water is a very special case. First, unlike other issues, governance systems on water go back 5,000 years and are highly contextual in nature. Second, water governance has been subject to international influences for centuries already. However, this history shows that external impacts on water law and governance do not automatically generate better, more relevant, and more effectively implemented policies. In recent years, too, where scientific concepts receive rapid worldwide marketing, the implementation deficit for exported water laws is often high because some of these concepts are not tailored to the contexts to which they are transferred. National water law systems are undergoing major redesigns both to incorporate the latest context-neutral insights and to confront increasing domestic water challenges. However, to become truly effective, these systems need to modify international principles to fit diverse national contexts.

Yet this diversity does not preclude the development of a global law on water. True, one could argue that international water treaties that address specific water basins (as Ines Dombrowsky discusses in her article in this issue) do not constitute a global water law regime. However, the Helsinki Rules of 1966 manifest a certain global character, having inspired the design of many interstate agreements and the United Nations Watercourses Convention of 1997 (not yet in force). A spirit of global law is also apparent in initiatives to promote a human right to water. Recent work of the ILA on water law--specifically the 2004 Berlin Rules--brings together the latest insights on water, environmental, and human rights law to show that a global legal system for water is possible in the coming decades.

Water Law in History

In many countries, local customs and religious beliefs have shaped the rules applied to water. …

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