The Greening of Water Law: Managing Freshwater Resources for People and the Environment


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[[Category:Water law]]
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[[Category:International Water Law]]

Revision as of 14:56, 3 August 2011

Publication Title

The Greening of Water Law: Managing Freshwater Resources for People and the Environment

Publication Type


Publication Date

July 2010


Publication URL




A central challenge facing nations today is how to ensure that both people and the natural environment have adequate freshwater to sustain and nourish their existence. In many parts of the world, communities actually compete with nature for dwindling supplies, to the detriment of both. Most often, though, water for the environment is not a priority in water management practices, the result of which has gravely impacted the natural environment, especially the aquatic environment.

Water is an inseparable component of life, both human and environmental. It forms a relationship based on the intricacies of both the hydrologic cycle and the interdependencies of all life on Earth. When water resources are degraded, they can impact every form of life, including human life. The challenge, therefore, is to overcome the need for competition and to find ways to harmonize the water requirements of people with those of the natural environment.

Potentially, the most effective means for achieving such harmonization is to integrate environmental concerns into national and international water laws and policies. The goal of such integration is to ensure that the water needs of both people and the natural environment are considered collectively and balanced in a way that will further the sustainable use of freshwater resources while maintaining ecosystem integrity.

‘The Greening of Water Law’ explores the notion and the benefits of greening water law by presenting and assessing a variety of legal, procedural and policy mechanisms, for both national and international arenas, that can help to elevate the status and importance of environmental concerns in relation to other societal interests and harmonize the water needs of both people and the natural environment.

The greening of water law is both a theoretical and practical effort to modernize legal regimes governing the management and allocation of freshwater resources. It is based on the recognition that the life and well-being of people and the natural environment are interrelated and even interdependent and that the coordination of the needs of these two water-dependent stakeholders will further the sustainable use of freshwater resources for both. It is also founded on the notion that by ensuring adequate supplies of clean freshwater for the environment, people, communities, and nations, the human condition can be enhanced through improved health and more sustainable resource exploitation and economic development.

The benefits of incorporating environmental considerations into greening water law at the national level can be manifold and range from economic advantages and social and health benefits, to the more obvious environmental benefits. Moreover, the ability to green water laws is an indispensable tool in realizing the objectives and in meeting the obligations of international agreements and overarching policy agendas such as those expressed in the MDGs and in multilateral environmental agreements.

Freshwater ecosystems and their services have been experiencing rapid and tremendous degradation and loss in the past 50 years, destroyed by overuse, pollution and other human activities. This being said, there is mounting evidence that a clean and healthy aquatic environment is advantageous for people and nations in all facets of life, including in economic terms. Nearly 1.8 million children under the age of 5 die annually from diarrheal diseases (such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery) attributable to a lack of safe drinking water and basic sanitation options. Water pollution also affects the capacity of wetlands to provide significant aesthetic, educational, cultural, and spiritual benefits, as well as a vast array of opportunities for recreation and tourism. There are many examples of the economic value of intact wetlands exceeding that of converted or otherwise altered wetlands. It is therefore evident that a clean and healthy environment is essential for ensuring not only the integrity of species, habitats, and other aspects of the natural environment, but also for the sustainability and continued progress of people and human communities.

International water law has evolved beyond its people-focused and commerce-based origins and has expanded to address environmental protection issues. It is internationally recognized that cooperation between nations is not only essential for the environmentally sound management of freshwater resources traversing political boundaries, but also an extremely valuable tool for dispute prevention and resolution for riparian States engaged in disagreement over shared waters. There are many examples of internationally accepted legal principles and norms that combine this twofold purpose of environmental protection and peaceful management and allocation of freshwater resources. These include the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization, as well as the general obligation not to cause significant harm across international watercourses and its corollary duty to conduct transboundary environmental impact assessments.

Today, the process of greening water law is also underway at the national level. Although most water laws around the world are still primarily geared towards satisfying human water demand and insufficiently, if at all, address the protection and sustainable use of freshwater resources, an increasing number of countries have taken a different approach to balancing socio-economic development and environmental protection when drafting or reviewing their water related legislation. There is a broad array of examples of mechanisms being employed to strengthen the environmental dimension of domestic laws and regulations. These include environmental criteria for water permit and licenses, pollution prevention and abatement standards, environmental impact assessments requirements, prioritization of water allocations for environmental purposes, minimum instream and environmental flow criteria for rivers, reserved water requirements for specific purposes, groundwater exploitation controls for ensuring the viability of dependant ecosystem, environmentally-sensitive trading systems for water rights, ecosystem services payment schemes, protected areas for water-related purposes, and general environmental perspectives in the overall water legal scheme.

These examples suggest that a trend in the integration of environmental considerations into water laws and policies is well on its way and that many nations are experiencing the benefits of incorporating environmental considerations into their water laws to realize their developmental and environmental aspirations. However, it is far from universal or comprehensive. Many nations, in both the developed and developing world, have yet to embrace the fundamentals of greening their water laws and many more have yet to recognize the considerable advantages that may emanate from a more integrated and balanced approach to water management. Moreover, because the green approach to water regulation does not always result in immediate societal benefits, governments also face political and economic obstacles in seeking to realign medium and long-term water management strategies rather than providing for the immediate needs of their citizens.


See also


Water-related Legislation and Conventions

External Resources



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