Sustainable Human Right to Water and Hydropower Projects on Transboundary Rivers

When? 10am CEST Monday 20 June 2022

Where? Register to join us on Zoom using this link –

Given that hydropower projects have the potential to affect individuals and communities, there is a need to consider international human rights law, and in particular the human right to water. While treaties that aim to protect particularly vulnerable groups include explicit references to the human right to water,
the main human rights treaties do not contain an explicit promulgated
human right to water. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the independent body of experts elected by States to interpret and monitor compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), has clarified in its General Comment 15 on the human right to water, adopted on 20 January 2003, that the right to water is essential for ‘the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living,’ as contained in Article 11(1) of the ICESCR, and the right to health in Article 12 ICESCR. Both the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, together with the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, have since embraced the Committee’s
interpretation of the ICESCR.

The above-mentioned references to a human right to water do not say much about the effects hydropower projects on transboundary rivers might have on the enjoyment of this right. These effects could be both positive and negative. In general, many of the references primarily seek to remind countries that vulnerable people need special care to ensure that their human right of access to safe, sufficient, and uncontaminated drinking water is assured. When undertaking a hydropower project on a transboundary river, such ‘traditional’ water needs and uses thus need to be considered. When the human right to water is applied in the context of hydropower projects on transboundary rivers, its extraterritorial application is of particular importance. Can a State, by allowing the construction of a hydropower project on its side of the border, breach the human right to water of individuals residing on the other side of the border? Normally, a State is only responsible for human rights protection within its own territory, but there are exceptions. In its General Comment 15, the CESCR made it clear that ‘States parties have to respect the enjoyment of the right in other countries’, and that ‘international cooperation requires States parties to refrain from actions that
interfere, directly or indirectly, with the enjoyment of the right to water in other countries.’ This general principle applies also to hydropower projects on transboundary rivers.


Otto Spijkers is professor of international law at Wuhan University’s China Institute of Boundary and Ocean Studies as well as its Research Institute of Environmental Law, and founding staff member of its International Water Law Academy. He is managing editor of the Chinese Journal of Environmental Law.
Prior to joining Wuhan University, he worked at the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law and Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea of Utrecht University, Netherlands. He was visiting lecturer inter alia at Peking University Law School, Xiamen University’s China International Water Law Programme, the Università degli Studi di Salerno (Italy), and the Université Catholique d’Afrique Centrale (Yaoundé, Cameroon).
He wrote his doctoral dissertation, entitled The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law, at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden University. He has published over a hundred articles and books. A full list can be found on the ORCID-page:

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