Ensuring the availability of water is one of the major global challenges of our time. Given the complexity and scale of the challenges, strong cooperation is needed to tackle them. And, given that most water resources cross borders, transboundary cooperation is crucial.

Water has proven to be a catalyst for cooperation and not for conflict. Empirical studies show that during the past 50 years, water-related events between nations are weighted towards cooperation: 7 conflict-related events, against 1,228 cooperative ones, implying that cooperation over water, and not conflict, is the most strategically rational and effective response to transboundary water issues.

On 20th September, 2020,Ghana officially became a Party to the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, serviced by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (1992 Water Convention); and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (1997 Watercourses Convention).  These are the international legal arrangements necessary for cooperation towards the protection and use of Ghana’s transboundary waters.

Ghana’s transboundary river basins are the Volta, Tano, Bia and Todzie-Aka, which cover over 75% of the country’s land surface. They generate around 80% of freshwater of which about 30% flows from outside Ghana’s borders – Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo. These basins and their shared groundwater aquifers alsoprovide substantial water supply, hydropower, irrigation and industrial needs;link the populations; and create socioeconomic interdependencies between the riparian countries.

Conversely, extreme events especially flooding and pollution occurrences in the transboundary basins are of grave concern.  For instance, Cote d’Ivoire raised concerns in early 2017 that the Bia river had been polluted by illegal mining activities in Ghana leading to the cessation of water supply to its population and civil strives. In the case of the White Volta basin, Ghana continues to raise concerns on the destructive but preventive flooding of parts of the five northern regions caused partly by the spillage from the Bagre dam in Burkina Faso.

Such interdependencies and occurrences, call for urgent action to deepen cooperation and formalize internationalprotocolsin the utilization, development and management of the shared water resources.In addition, there are now calls for international principles and practices for the sound management of international watercourses to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, especially target 6.5 (implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate).

Accordingly, the government in 2018 decided to seek pragmatic solutions anchored on dialogue and recognised the need for international agreements, specifically the 1992 Water Convention and 1997 Watercourses Convention, to serve as vital tools to guide and improve international water cooperation. In January 2018, the National Level Learning Alliance Platform (NLLAP) for the water sector with the support of the 1992 Water Convention Secretariat hosted a major national consultative forum to inform and seek consensus on the two Conventions.The consensus was that Ghana should ratify the Conventions to benefit from the stronger legal framework.The next significant steps included the submission of an accession toolkit to key decision makers including Cabinet and Parliament; engagements with Parliament; and education and dissemination of the Conventions.

Both Conventionscover international watercourses, that is, surface and underground freshwater, that is shared by two or more States and serve as mechanisms to strengthen international cooperation. The Conventions embody a number of principles on: equitable and reasonable utilization; obligation not to cause significant harm; general obligation to cooperate; regular exchange of data and information; notification and response, relating to planned measures; protection and preservation of ecosystems; preventionand controlling pollution; introduction of alien or new species; and protection and preservation of the aquatic environment.

The two Conventions are compatible, not contradictory,and in many ways complementary. For example, the 1997 Watercourses Convention complements the 1992 Water Convention by detailing the factors relevant to equitable and reasonable utilization (Article 6), and provides the procedures for notification and consultations on planned measures (Part III). 

Generally, there are some differences between the two Conventions on the same subject matter that are of greater or lesser stringency or detail rather than a matter of conflicting prescriptions. For example, whereas the 1997 Watercourses Convention leaves confined groundwater outside its scope, the 1992 Water Convention covers all transboundary groundwater, including confined aquifers.

The differences are rather a strength since the more detailed provisions in one instrument can inform the implementation of the other. That complementarity was recognized by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who stressed in 2012 that “these two instruments are based on the same principles. They complement each other and should be implemented in a coherent manner.” In 2018, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called upon Member States “to join both Conventions and to strive for their full implementation”.

The Conventions have proven their effectiveness as an international legal regime that provides benefits for Ghana as a member.Ghana’s accession to the Water Conventions signals to the international community the willingness to cooperate on the basis of transboundary norms and standards and enhances the trust of international investors.   It is worth mentioning that Ghana is currently the chair of the Council of Ministers of the Volta Basin Authority (VBA), our key international platform for transboundary water cooperation. The ratification of the conventions therefore providesthe country the strength and footing to lead actions and negotiations.

A key government policy initiative is to have in place agreements and joint bodies for the Bia, Tano and Todzie-Aka basins and their shared aquifers. Fortunately, both Conventions provide the valuable framework and support to establish the needed agreements and management bodies for the basins. The Conventions also provide standards and procedures for developing single and joint trans-border water infrastructure such as the Sogakope-Lome Water Supply and the Pwalugu Multipurpose Dam.

In terms of the area of data exchange and information sharing, Ghana has an arrangement with Burkina Faso for data sharing on water discharges from the Bagre Dam and on planned measures/developments. However, the six States Party sharing the Volta are working on the allocation of water for major water uses  and agreeable minimum flow allowable into downstream countries like Ghana. The applicable provisions of the Water Conventions help resolve this critical matter. The 1992 Convention also provides for joint training programmes and relevant seminars and meetings on data exchange.

Another benefit to Ghana is the implementation of obligations, especially the obligation to prevent, control and reduce significant transboundary impacts. The application of obligations on impacts such as the flow of pollution water from the Bia River from Ghana into Cote d’Ivoire is crucial for Ghana.The Conventions have step by step mechanisms (such as negotiation, mediation, and arbitration for States to pursue conflict prevention andresolution. An important element of Article 33 of the 1997 Watercourses Convention is the fact-finding procedure that may be invoked by one or both parties during a dispute.  This creates room for Ghana to engage its neighbours on activities inimical to us as the downstream country.  Fortunately, the accession of the Conventions has been central within the VBA. All the six riparian states – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali and Togo – have agreed to proceed with the accession. 

With the accession completed, the next stage is to ensure the successful implementation of the Conventions. In preparation, the recommendation is to develop an implementation plan which would be proportionate to the technical, economic, financial and other capacities of the country.

It is the hope that the 1992 Water Convention and the 1997 Water Convention will serve the country well as we strive towards improving transboundary water cooperation and the obligation of overcoming the imminent water crisis and achieving the SDGs.

Ben Ampomah

The writer is the Executive Secretary

Water Resources Commission


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