Local farmer, UN lawyer wins international water award

originally printed in the Winters Express


Staff Writer


Outdoor Easter celebrations on the family farm are common in Winters, slightly more unusual is to have one held by the world’s top International water rights lawyer. Stephen McCaffrey is a 7-year resident of the Horseshoe, a neighborhood just west of the city limits where he grows organic walnuts sold by Dixon Ridge Farms and his wife runs a horse boarding and training business. McCaffrey still keeps his day job at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento where he a professor, teaching law students between jet setting around the world to represent foreign countries in water disputes.

On March 22, World Water Day, McCaffrey learned he won the 2017 Stockholm Water Prize, awarded by the Stockholm Water Institute in Sweden. The winner may hail from any profession, and the prize honors the highest contributions to water conservation and protection.

“I’m not sure that a lawyer has ever won this award before,” said McCaffrey

Surprised and honored to receive the prize, McCaffrey explained that his greatest contribution to international water issues stemmed from his service with the International Law Commission of the United Nations.

McCaffrey became a commissioner in 1982, and from 1985-1991 he was the special rapporteur on the subject of international water rights, leading the formation of a treaty that still stands today as the final word to settle water disputes between different countries.

“If a river is shared by two countries, what are the obligations and rights of those two countries? The ILC decided to work on the subject to try and codify the law,” said McCaffrey

The treaty has had some major political implications, and one that stood out for McCaffrey was a dispute over the Danube between Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

“Czechoslovakia split up when both of these countries were liberated from the Soviet Union. They both wanted to join the UN,” said McCaffrey.

The UN, however, would not admit the countries until the dispute over the Danube was solved.

“The UN basically said if you want to join our club, you need to solve that.”

With the help of McCaffrey’s work, the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the UN in 1993.

McCaffrey’s passion for the preservation and management of water, the world’s most precious natural resource started in his youth.

“I loved the out-of-doors. You can’t help but be interested in the environment, although when I was a boy scout, that word wasn’t used,” he said.

“My father said to me that I should think internationally, because the world is only going to get smaller. That planted a seed.”

McCaffrey went on to study world history at the University of Colorado, then earn his law degree from U.C. Berkeley, where he studied international law, while maintaining his love for the environment. These factors put him in the right place at the right time to have a huge effect on policy at a time when environmental issues were just emerging as a larger political concern.

“It was a series of incremental steps, many of which I couldn’t have foreseen,” said McCaffrey.

“Without realizing it, I wrote the first article on the human right to water. I thought there must be a lot of literature on the subject, Well, it turns out there wasn’t.”

McCaffrey took the opportunity to formulate the subject of international human water rights and shape the forward progress of environmental and humanitarian management of water around the world.

While he is not officially involved in local state or county water politics, McCaffrey says he follows the issues closely.

“As a farmer, I’m very concerned of water issues. I often use California as an example of water disputes in the classroom. Internationally, the same things are going on,” said McCaffrey.

On the smallest scale, McCaffrey irrigates his walnuts from a well he shares with his neighbor. With a bigger lens, he explained that in California, mountainous regions that hold more water do not have large populations, but their water supports big cities farther away.

“The southern California megalopolis, that wouldn’t exist without outside water. That phenomenon repeats itself all over the world. Other countries can learn lessons from it.”

Next on tap for McCaffrey is flying to South America, where he is representing Chile in a dispute over the Silala water basin, which originates in Boliva, but flows into Chile, where the water is used more heavily. The basin is in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on earth, where the right to even a small stream is crucial.

“Bolivia hasn’t used [the water] and Chile has used the water for steam engines among other things, but now they’re claiming it is Bolivian water. I can’t resist advocating,” he said.

McCaffrey plans to travel with his family to Stockholm, Sweden to receive the prestigious award for this lifetime of indispensible contribution to the conservation and protection of water on Aug. 30. H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden will present the award along with $150,000.

When asked what his plans with the winnings were, McCaffrey gave a characteristically humanitarian response.

“I plan to give it to good causes, that’s what one should do when one receives a prize. I will give some to the program at McGeorge”

Fondly recalling camping as a boy scout near Monticello, a bygone town at the bottom of Lake Berryessa, McCaffrey said he will also donate some to local nonprofits that support the education and recreation that inspired him in his youth to advocate for the natural riches of the world.

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