Water, Oceans and Climate Change: Legal challenges, local perspectives and important examples to learn from

Dr Joanna Siekiera was recently invited to speak at a Special Lecture on Climate Change and its Impact on Small Island Developing States: The Example of the Pacific at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) by Professor David Attard, Director of the IMO International Maritime Law Institute. Here is what she had to say.


Joanna (top left) in session with Professor Attard and other attendees


Ocean governance in the face of ocean change requires urgent actions which are not only political statements of good will, but the creation of legally binding frameworks (norms that is) with legally enforceable effects on international entities, states and other non-state actors such as intergovernmental organisations and regional groupings.

Global issues, such as access to basic education, health care, food security and potable water, are all connected to climate change – shaping correlations that increasingly give cause for close cooperation and mutual dependence between policy makers and researchers. Politicians need scientific knowledge now more than they did at the beginning of the  21st century, and we as researchers have an obligation to help solve global challenges through the tools and knowledge that we are equipped with.

Besides Pacific law and legal consequences of climate change in the Pacific region, my research deals with the law of armed conflict, or humanitarian law. It has been predicted, among others by the organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, that future conflicts may break out because of a lack of access to raw materials, including water.

In this regard, I have three key messages concerning water diplomacy for the benefit of all. We need to recognise

1) water as a source of future conflicts and as a priority for securing international law stability and security

As an example we might look at Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam, the largest dam in Africa. The dam is expected to decrease the precious water flow of the Nile, and neighboring Sudan and Egypt are concerned about potentially limited access to water as a political and humanitarian threat to their own citizens. Often in opposition, Egypt and Sudan are now uniting behind a legally binding document on how the dam will be operated. The African Union is mediating.

2) the necessity of (finally!) taking into account gender and indigenous perspectives

Water diplomacy is closely related to human security and safety. One principle to have in mind in this respect, which has been neglected by many organisations from Western countries trying to solve issues in other nations, is the importance of taking into account the capabilities, legal culture and traditions already in place within those countries. To illustrate this point, last month I participated in a NATO course where we were given the example of a well that was built for a local community in Afghanistan. The day after this well was drilled and given a grand inauguration with representatives of the local authorities and humanitarian workers present, it was destroyed… One might ask who would do this, or why. Well, it turns out it was destroyed by the local women of the community, whose sole responsibility was to bring water to their families. Going to fetch water was the only chance these women had to spend some time outside of their homes, to meet friends, to breathe… These women were not taken into account by local authorities (who were all male), nor the Western humanitarian NGOs, the lesson from this example being that we simply cannot forget gender (and indigenous) perspectives in water diplomacy if we want to achieve positive and sustainable development.

3) that regional forms of developing international law tend to be more effective, efficient and faster in addressing the urgent issue of ocean change

My proposition as a legal solution to combat ocean change is acting at the regional level, not waiting for global arrangements. For an example on this, we may draw on the Pacific. Now, while the UN Conversion on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was drafted after the Second World War, it was not signed until 1982. It then took twelve years for UNCLOS to be made officially valid (ratified), in 1994. The United States of America, one of the largest maritime powers in the world, has never implemented UNCLOS in its own national legal system. Therefore, instead of working on amendments to the Convention which cannot be expected to reach unanimous agreement, Pacific Island states have decided to focus on developing a new regional practice. The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF, an important regional organization in the Pacific basin) drew all member states into a collective effort towards developing international law, where all members must deposit their maritime boundaries through the submission of data to the international law commission. This way they are able to legally protect existing maritime delimitation, irrespective of the effects of sea-level rise.



Dr. Joanna Siekiera is an international lawyer with a special interest in Pacific law, and a postdoctoral fellow on the OceanStates project. Her main interests are legal-political integration in the South Pacific, as well as maritime sovereignty of the submerged islands