A deeper look International Waters work

At the 51st Council Environment Tobago as part of the GEF-CSO Network was asked to open the discussion on opportunities and visions for new GEF strategies on International Waters. The Caribbean perspective is not unique but water is a common link that binds our biodiversity, our economies and thus our very way of life. If International Waters were to ever require a poster child, the Caribbean would more than likely be the front runner.

International Waters (IW) are bodies of water that overlap or pass under borders such as lakes, rivers, groundwater systems or large wetlands.

A key concern for any strategy attempting to deal with the international waters issue is, many times these are legal no man's land. Consider the ongoing depradations of the East Asia whale killers in the Southern Oceans, or even closer to our home, the various fleets of longliners which ravage both the Caribbean and the Atlantic Basins. As the record shows no one country has been able to make effective arguments against these groups, although what they do will no doubt affect environmental outcomes.

The fact of the matter is International Waters has no sovereignty - no one state controls them. While IW technically falls into the global commons category the parts do not always make up a cohesive whole. Consider the difference in the case of easily identifiable commons like the ice sheets of the Arctic and Antartica. Even though the polar regions can be - and indeed already are mapped into political slices, it is widely accepted that to interfere with almost anything there creates risk for the world's entire population.

Seas and oceans are the first to come mind when international waters are mentioned in a conversation. The reason probably has to do with lexicon - open ocean is also referred to as high seas. And Latin for that term is mare liberum which also translate to 'free sea'. No wonder the average small national court is loathe to rule on a topic this fluid.

Hazards affecting the seas and oceans are well known like; sedimentation, nutrification, acidification and now plastification - to coin a word.
But the sea has other stressors like; overfishing - which can alter ecological balance, glacial meltwater - which can and possibly already is changing circulation patterns and which in turn will if it hasn't already, negatively affect (cross-boundary) marine ecosystems. Even more compounded issues come out of this regime of absolute disregard. There's the unprecedented level of seaweed growth that recently affected coasts on both sides of the Atlantic and the concomitant effect it had on the fisheries sector.

Ground water, though very much a high value item in the global quest for better quality of life, isn't that easy to manage much less pin down, as a global commons. Ground water - think of it as the freshwater stockpile, is often polluted without due care, over-utilised to satisfy economic strategies, or re-routed without thought of ecological blowback. And ground water arguably is also under threat simply because no one can calculate how much is there. This last lends to an infinite usage paradigm, which ultimately will also lead to water scarcity, higher water prices, elevated cost of living and then the predictable downward spiral of poverty, health and other social issues.

If ground water is the ultimate destination of rain and or snowmelt then rivers are the key conduits of such and are themselves a major international water repository. Consider the diagram in Table 1.

Those 75 rivers - the shortest is 1300 km. if combined, would form a freshwater pipe that could encircle the globe over a dozen times. The problem the planet's rivers face is the same though as its oceans and aquifers; pollution and irresponsible usage.

Transboundary wetlands have historically prove difficult territory to manage. And not because they're damp, bug infested, hostile (to humans) places. Rather wetlands by virtue of their ecological functions, provide home for food species. Also they are high on the list of places to frequent for people who cannot find work in towns or cities. Wetlands are also a default dumping ground for municipal sewage in many countries where waste management is simply a term but not a practice.

Studies show after the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Law of the Sea, the largest level of support by the IW focal area is dedicated to marine fisheries–related agreements, followed by the Global Program of Action and treaties related to freshwater, SIDS, habitats, and navigation.

The GEF is of course no newbie to International Water issues. IW was formally commissioned as a focal area 21 years ago Current strategies after the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Law of the Sea, include marine fisheries–related agreements and a Global Program of Action and treaties related to freshwater, SIDS, habitats, and navigation. Or in sum:

  1. restoring and sustaining coastal and marine fish stocks and associated biological diversity
  2. reducing nutrient over-enrichment and oxygen depletion from land-based pollution of coastal waters in Large Marine Ecosystems consistent with the Global Program of Action (GPA)
  3. balancing overuse and conflicting uses of water resources in surface and groundwater basins that are transboundary in nature
  4. reducing persistent toxic substances and testing adaptive management of waters with melting ice.

What's missing in this picture however is;

  • clarity or emphasis for pathways to clear statutes (regional or international) that identify and or categorise IW transgressions allowing for the equivalent of deportation/extradition, as used in 'normal' terrestrial law.
  • A global education programme to show the importance of preserving all water sources and repositories - and it should be accessible to schools, business communities, agencies and political (or decision-making centers).
  • A singular repository to assimilate all international water related data (like pH, turbidity, Dissolved oxygen levels, nutrient levels (to enable a real time heatmap available to all developer parties.
  • A genetic stockpile like the Doomsday Vault for plants - in case a region overloads (likely in the near future).

To elaborate on 'a'. Presently neither property nor criminal law governs transgressions by parties which beggars the commons. To refer to the Southern Sea overfishing example to successfully indict a nation (say China), for overfishing another regions foodstocks (say tuna), evidence is the only thing that can lead to a conviction. However while evidence on high seas is hard to collect it is not impossible.
Technology exists to track vessels beyond 'mere' positioning via the GPS. Marine Traffic to name one open source initiative, use satellites to collect AIS feeds in order to constantly monitor [ships] locations [movement]. The assimilated data then provides the means for qualified readers to translate what vessels are up to sometimes. For the fisheries management entities this means longliners for one are easy to identify given their unique style of zigzagging the currents.


The Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Refrigerated Transport Vessels and Supply Vessels (Global Record) is a phased and collaborative global initiative to make available, in a rapid way, certified data from State authorities about vessels and vessel-related activities. The programme aims towards providing a single access point for information on vessels used for fishing and fishing-related activities with the primary objective being to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by enhancing transparency and traceability. The programme’s long-term goals are to strengthen the fisheries’ sector in terms of management and its sustainability, to enhance food security and the livelihoods of populations depending on fisheries including rural coastal populations.] - download brochure

Environment Tobago's Bertrand Bhikarry on possible IW focal area strategies for GEF 7

Suggestion 'b' calls for ramping up of public education about the importance of international waters. While it is true water science may have strong following in municipalities, industry and even government, the general public demonstrate a remarkably blase attitude to the importance of water - fresh or salt to the quality of their lives. In the modern compressed environment the outlook for oceans, lakes aquifers and wetlands ought not to be left to chance. If the wider community takes an avid interest, eventually incidences of pollution and over-use will follow. Which in turn lends to the effective management of same.

Suggestion 'c' calls for the removal of the data in silos effect by allowing for the chemical properties of various international waterbodies to reside (or stay in sync) in a communal database. The feeds need to be ongoing but the effort may be justified if the resultant models or projections improve our early warning systems for phenomena like algal blooms, temperature changes, species depradation or even total water loss. Certain marine geographies lend themselves to the argument for example the Red Sea.

Finally, 'd' recommends the creation of a record of the genetics of the species within at risk IW's (in the first instance), following the Doomsday Vault example.This could be useful in case there's a mishap (eg Fukushima) and a repopulation is required to restitch the particular ecosystem.