Groundwater in international law
Compilation of treaties and other legal instruments
FAO Legislative Study 86
by Stefano Burchi
and Kerstin Mechlem
Development Law Service
FAO Legal Office
This is a joint publication of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Despite the social, economic, environmental and political importance of
groundwater, international law has paid relatively little attention to this
resource. Groundwater represents about ninety-seven percent of the fresh
water resources available, excluding the water locked in the polar ice. It
serves the basic needs of more than one-half of the world's population and it
is often the only source of water in arid and semi-arid countries.
Improvements in pumping technology and growth in industry, agriculture,
and global population are leading to ever increasing levels of use of this
resource, and to growing reliance on it. Largely as a result of these
phenomena, groundwater resources and the social, economic and
environmental systems dependent on them have, over the last fifty years,
come under pressure from over-abstraction and pollution, seriously
threatening their sustainability.
International law has so far only rarely taken account of groundwater. While
surface water treaties abound, groundwater is either nominally included in
the scope of these instruments, mainly if it is "related" to surface waters, or it
is not mentioned at all. Only few legal instruments contain groundwaterspecific
provisions, and even fewer address groundwater exclusively.
It is against this backdrop that FAO and UNESCO have joined forces and
embarked on this publication project. It brings together a variety of binding
and non-binding international law instruments that, in varying degrees and
from different angles, deal with groundwater. Its aim is to report
developments in international law and to contribute to detecting law in-themaking
in this important field.
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