The Scheldt is a transboundary river which originates in North-Western France and runs through Western Belgium and the South-West of the Netherlands. The Scheldt Estuary is shared between Belgium and the Netherlands. The Dutch section of the estuary is called the Western Scheldt, and is of vital importance as navigation channel to the port of Antwerp. Since the separation of Belgium from the Netherlands in 1839, the free navigation of the Scheldt and the maintenance and improvement of the navigation channel have been a bone of contention and legal controversy.
The Separation Treaty of 1839 contains some important provisions for the freedom of navigation on the Scheldt: the Statute of the Western Scheldt. This statute applies Article 108 to 177 of the Final Act of the Vienna Congress (1815) to all trans-boundary watercourses that form or cross the Dutch-Belgian border. These articles deal with the freedom of navigation, and the obligation of the States to carry out the necessary works (‘travaux nécessaires’) for safeguarding the navigability of the river. Ever since the conclusion of the Separation Treaty, the interpretation of the words ‘travaux nécessaires’ has been the most important legal Scheldt issue between the two countries and even continues to be in present day negotiations.
Several attemps have been made to revise the Scheldt Statute, but it was not until 1994 that significant progress was made. Both countries negotiated a package of new water agreements in which the issue of deepening the Western Scheldt was linked to issues of water division in the Meuse River and of water pollution of both the Rivers Scheldt and Meuse. Belgian State reforms and the conclusion of the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes contributed to these developments.
In 1994 the Convention on the Protection of the Scheldt against Pollution was signed by France, the Netherlands and the Belgian Regions of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels to improve water quality of the river. In 1995 Flanders and Netherlands agreed on the Convention on the Deepening of the Navigation Channel in the Western Scheldt.