Ministry secretary general: Lake Peipsi saved by cross-border cooperation

Harry Liiv.
Harry Liiv. Source: Ministry of the Environment.

It is as clear as day that if you share a trans-boundary watercourse with another state, the efforts of one party are not enough. By 1997, both Estonia and Russia had realized that the management of Lake Peipsi – one of the best fishing lakes in the world – and the Narva River required targeted action from both sides, writes Harry Liiv, Deputy Secretary General of the Ministry of the Environment.

In 1995, the idea of cooperating with Russia gained new momentum when we ratified the Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-boundary Watercourses and International Lakes. This enabled forming a joint commission on trans-boundary watercourses and organizing practical operational work. Despite the differences in the environmental legislation of the two states, we have a unique and exemplary form of cooperation for the management of our common trans-boundary watercourses – one that has worked successfully for almost 25 years.

On September 29, at the behest of Estonia and the UN, the ministers responsible for the environment from all across the world will convene in Geneva for the Meeting of the Parties to the Water Convention. It is a high-level event of the UN trans-boundary water cooperation that takes place every three years.

As surprising as it may seem, cooperation between neighbors (like ours with Russia) is not that common – of the 153 countries that share trans-boundary watercourses, only 24 countries, including Estonia, engage in operational trans-boundary cooperation to manage water resources.

For years, we assessed the condition of Lake Peipsi differently

In recent years, news articles have generally reported that the condition of Lake Peipsi and the rivers flowing to the lake is constantly improving. Now, imagine the situation in 1997 when the cooperation for the joint management of Lake Peipsi and the Narva River began. Senior colleagues have told me stories of how the scientists and officials of the two states pondered day and night over how to cooperate with a partner that follows somewhat different standards. Where Estonia used the indicators of the EU to measure the quality of water bodies, Russia had its own, and so the assessments of the condition of the trans-boundary watercourses differed for many years.

The older records of the joint commission indicate that the condition of the trans-boundary watercourses was deemed to be moderate or bad by Estonian assessment criteria and good by the Russian standard. Later, criteria were developed to assess the quality of water with a common methodology and implement the necessary measures to improve it on both sides of the border.

Thanks to the large-scale investments in water treatment equipment made by both states, less and less pollution ends up in Lake Peipsi every year. In the last 15 years, water treatment equipment has been made much more efficient. Thanks to this, the levels of phosphorus, nitrogen, and suspended solids in Lake Peipsi are decreasing. As the waste water treatment plants of large cities are in order, efforts are now being made to fix up the sewerage systems of smaller towns and villages and the local waste water treatment plants. For example, in 2020, 10.5 million euros were invested in the waste water treatment plants of the trans-boundary river basin of the Narva River.

Estonia is also engaged in trans-boundary water cooperation with its southern neighbor Latvia: we jointly assess the condition of trans-boundary watercourses and cooperate in the preparation of economic analyses, a joint monitoring program, and a joint action plan.

In what way is Helsinki like Paris?

It is quite clear that the trans-boundary water management between two states is not an easy task and must be based on a clear legal framework.

It was agreed with Russia in 1997 that the cooperation must be in line with the Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-boundary Watercourses and International Lakes, which dates back almost 30 years. Namely, in the spring of 1992, governments gathered in Helsinki to create an international framework for promoting trans-boundary water cooperation. After substantive negotiations, the Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-boundary Watercourses and International Lakes, also known as the Water Convention, was adopted. It was a significant moment – Helsinki is to trans-boundary water cooperation what Paris is to the climate agreement.

Unfortunately, not all countries sharing trans-boundary watercourses are currently engaged in operational cooperation for managing water resources. At the forthcoming Meeting of the Parties to the Water Convention, Estonia will help to further the promotion of trans-boundary water cooperation. The countries of the world need to strengthen trans-boundary water cooperation to balance the water-related economic interests with the growing demand for water.

We share trans-boundary rivers and lakes, so we must also share the responsibility for them.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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