Water for Nature, Nature for Water:

Integrated solutions for sustainable development and the conservation restoration and management of freshwater biodiversity

18 Apr 2023 by The Water Diplomat

On the 23rd of March, a side event was held at the UN 2023 Water Conference to present international and national legal tools and local customary norms to mainstream the protection of rivers and other water-related ecosystems in decision-making and announce commitments for the Water Action Agenda. Initiated by the International Association of Water Law, the event was co-created by 45 participant organisations, and took the form of an intergenerational debate on improving the governance of freshwater biodiversity for the benefit of people and nature and for transformative change towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. The Water Diplomat caught up with Dr Flavia Rocha Loures, environmental lawyer and one of the driving forces.  

Tobias Schmitz: tell us a little about the background to the event: what was the objective?

Flavia Rocha Loures:  the event was initiated by the International Association for Water Law based in Italy. It started as a project to bring different actors together around the idea of both the governance of freshwater biodiversity and a focus on law, which I think are two topics which can get lost in translation, not receiving the attention they deserve in water forums. We tend to talk a lot about nature for water, such as under the heading of ecosystem services that benefit societies and economies, and of nature-based solutions or ecosystem-based adaptation. But we also need to look at the other side of the equation, i.e., water for nature, i.e., the right availability of water of an adequate quality and at the right timing, for which connectivity along rivers and with groundwaters and linked wetlands is essential. We have to look at water for nature and nature for water in tandem: together, they form a virtuous cycle that benefit freshwater ecosystems all stakeholders. Both biodiversity and law tend to get ‘lost in translation’ because there is currently a lot of focus on science and data and funding, which is all necessary. But law and, more generally, good legal, institutional and financial governance, are all key elements of the puzzle: it is certainly not a panacea and it will not solve everything, but it provides the framework for water action across sectors and political borders, and needs to be part of the discussion around solutions. The idea was to bring these two -law and conservation - together in an event.

Tobias Schmitz: And what was the design of the discussion?

Flavia Rocha Loures: The intention was to have a very dynamic event, from a vision of co-creation between over 40 partners and the audience, with attention for gender, geographic, generational and stakeholder balance, with different groups representing youth, local communities, academia, NGOs, and governments. Noémie Plumier, World Youth Parliament for Water and Global Youth Biodiversity Network, for example, brought the topic of ecocide law, which looks at biodiversity conservation from the perspective of criminal law. Harris Ajebe Nnoko Ngaaje, from AJESH, emphasized the need to respect and integrate community laws, institutions and knowledge into formal national legal regime, and recalled how traditional peoples often have their own mechanisms to protect aquatic ecosystems. We also discussed transboundary water law: of course, you know better than I do that water does not respect political boundaries, and it is important that countries are talking to each other on coordinated responses, within the framework of appropriate legal and institutional regimes. For that, the Water Convention and the UN Watercourses Conventions serve as frameworks for cooperation at the global level. The Ramsar Secretariat, represented by Jerker Tamelander, made the link between that Convention and the implementation of the Global Biodiversity Framework, in particular its Targets on ecosystem restoration and protected areas. Monti Aguirre focused on legal mechanisms to protect free-flowing rivers, where as Contanza Figelist touched upon the emerging topic of rights of rivers, lakes and wetlands, which is beginning to show in national constitutions and laws and in court decisions.

Tobias Schmitz: Which were the initiatives presented for the Water Action Agenda?

Flavia Rocha Loures:  Jessica Troell from the Environmental Law Institute presented the Manifesto for National Integrated Legal Frameworks for Water Resources Governance, led by AIDA, IEL, and IUCN WCEL. She also paid special attention to local and national laws that regulate land and water tenure, and the rights of traditional communities. Éric Tardieu announced the launch of the Joint commitment on the 3-year action plan for the implementation of the Water and Nature Declaration. The Southern African Transboundary Sustainable Biodiversity and Water Resources Management Programme in the Incomati Basin 2023-2025 was presented by Dr Jennifer B. Molwantwa, from the Water Research Commission.

Tobias Schmitz: What are other interesting trends on the rule of law and freshwater biodiversity?

Flavia Rocha Loures: In Brazil, for example, a recent national law regulates payments for ecosystem services, and is being followed by tailored legislation at the state level. In this context, one of the statutes adopted at the subnational level transcends the idea of ecosystem services as benefits with social, cultural or economic values, meaning those that benefit humans. The diploma in question recognizes the protection of nature in its own right as an ecosystem service for which payments may be granted.

Tobias Schmitz: This sounds like a really interesting and dynamic discussion. Are you intending to follow up on the dialogue? 

Flavia Rocha Loures: Certainly: from the beginning the idea was to not plan this event as an isolated effort. We have submitted the event summary to be included Conference’s website and, even as different partners launch their separate commitments for the water action agenda, we ask ourselves how we can integrate them. Some of us are evaluating how scale these commitments and other requirements to provide water for nature into a global initiative to preserve free-flowing rivers. The question is, how can we build off each other to make sure that these initiatives are going in the same direction, so that we're not overlapping but being complementary. That is the intention. Personally, I would like to keep working together and it is essential that we do. As you know, a challenging issue is always that of financing and, where sound legal frameworks for ecosystem protection are absent or poorly implemented, the result is financing that is provided in the dark. As AIDA has said in its state for the Conference: “The rule of law is a key tool at our disposal to build a better world and a shared future, leaving no one behind and in harmony with nature.”