COOPERATION IN THE LAW OF TRANSBOUNDARY WATER RESOURCES, by Christina Leb

Reviewed by Sharmila L. Murthy, Suffolk University Law School

Christina Leb stresses the need for international cooperation when it comes to transboundary water systems, particularly in respect to international water law and resource management.

Cooperation in the Law of Transboundary Water Resources, by Christina Leb, Cambridge University Press, 2012, 363 pp.

In her book on the Cooperation in the Law of Transboundary Water Resources, Christina Leb makes a strong case for the heightened importance of the duty to cooperate within international water law.  She methodically and carefully illustrates how the duties and obligations associated with cooperation on transboundary water resources have become more robust over time, which reflects broader trends within the fields of public international law and international relations.  The duty to cooperate was not explicitly recognized by early texts that sought to codify international water law, but, for example, by the time the UN Watercourses Convention was drafted, it was described as a “general principle.”  Leb further builds her case by explaining how it is misleading to conceive of the general duty to cooperate as merely a “procedural” obligation, rather than also considering the interrelated “substantive” aspects. (p.114)  Drawing on real-world examples, she links the substantive and procedural content together to consider specific cooperation obligations, such as the regular exchange of data and information.

In an understated way characteristic of her style, Leb argues that the duty of cooperation is now on par with the two seminal principles of international water law, namely “equitable utilization” and “the obligation not to cause significant harm,” which Leb describes as “the principle of good neighborliness.”  She illustrates how these principles, along with the duty to cooperate, “interact, overlap and mutually support on another as general principles of international water law” and thus, should be understood as a “triangle of cornerstone principles.” (p.105)  Drawing on a textual analysis of over 200 bilateral and multi-lateral treaties concerning transboundary water resources as well as key judicial decisions, she supports this argument through examples of state cooperation, such as via negotiations, consultations, planning and joint management (see Chapters 4 and 5).

The book also delves into another fascinating area of the law, namely the intersection of transboundary water law and human rights law.  In Chapter 6, Leb considers the relationship between the obligation of “vital human needs” as set forth in the UN Watercourses Convention with recent recognition of a human right to water by the United Nations, which derives from existing treaty obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Leb tackles one of the more controversial aspects of this newly recognized human right by considering the degree to which there are associated extraterritorial obligations.  Under the existing human rights framework, states have obligations to individuals within their boundaries, but not to individuals living in other states.  Leb suggests that a provision in the UN Watercourses Convention relating to non-discrimination with regard to access to justice could be complementary to human rights law and provide a way of expanding transboundary water obligations with respect to vital human needs.

Leb’s book offers a thorough analysis of the increasingly important role the duty to cooperate plays in international water law.  While the topics she addresses will be relevant to anyone interested in questions of transboundary water governance, the style of writing and approach will make it most interesting and accessible to legal scholars.


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