Shared management of cross-border rivers, lakes and groundwater is crucial to avert looming water crises

More than 3 billion people depend on water that crosses national borders. As climate impacts – from drought to flooding – are felt more and more acutely worldwide, and with rising demands, pollution and tensions threatening increasingly scarce water resources, cooperation on shared waters offers a vital tool to promote sustainable development, climate change adaptation, peace and stability.

With this in mind, some 80 countries, alongside key water actors, have come together in Tallinn, Estonia, to mark 30 years of achievements since the adoption of the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) – a unique United Nations treaty to support transboundary water cooperation worldwide.

With 153 countries sharing the transboundary rivers, lakes, and groundwater reserves that make up more than 60% of the world’s freshwater flow, the fundamental role of transboundary water cooperation for peace and sustainable development has been reaffirmed both at global and regional level, including in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), by the UN Security Council, in the African Ministers’ Council on Water Strategy 2018-2030, and in the EU Council Conclusions on Water in EU External Action adopted in 2021.

Impact of Water Convention still resonates 30 years on

In March 1992, governments gathered in Helsinki with a vision in mind: to manage shared waters in a collaborative and sustainable way, mitigating risks and preventing possible conflicts over a common resource. By the end of the meeting, the Water Convention was born. The impact of the agreement that was put on paper in Helsinki continues to resonate around the world.

“Thirty years after its adoption, the convention remains more relevant than ever, providing both a holistic legal framework and an intergovernmental platform on how to better manage shared watercourses while contributing to the achievement of SDG6 and the 2030 Agenda. 130 countries worldwide take part in its activities and more than 15 countries are on their way to join the currently 46 Parties, which include 5 countries outside the Pan-European region, namely Chad, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau and Togo. I join the United Nations Secretary-General in calling upon other countries to accede to this crucial framework”, said UNECE Deputy Executive Secretary, Dmitry Mariyasin.

Mr. Meelis Münt, Secretary General of the Ministry of the Environment, Estonia, stated “We have 286 transboundary rivers in the world, shared by 153 countries. There are currently 46 parties to the Water Convention, so a large number of these countries have not yet joined the Convention. The Estonian chairmanship prioritizes the expansion of the convention globally.”

The Water Convention is a widely accepted legal framework. It requires Parties to prevent, control and reduce negative impacts on water quality and quantity across borders, to use transboundary waters in a reasonable and equitable way, and to ensure their sustainable management through cooperation. Parties bordering the same transboundary waters are obliged to cooperate by concluding specific agreements and establishing joint bodies.

As highlighted in the anniversary publication “The Water Convention: 30 Years of Impact and Achievements on the Ground,” many important water agreements, such as the Danube River Protection Convention from 1994, the Convention on the Protection of the Rhine from 1999, or the Convention for the Prevention of Conflicts Related to the Management of Shared Water Resources in Central Africa from 2017 mention the Water Convention as a core reference for the cooperation of their Parties. New agreements and arrangements, such as the 2018 Water Charter for the Volta River Basin, are increasingly making reference to the Water Convention.

The mounting global engagement in the Convention’s activities today speaks for itself:

  • Some 85 countries have participated in activities on the ground under the Water Convention in the period 2015-2022.
  • In 2011-2021, around 6,000 experts were trained on international water law, water management, climate change adaptation, the water-food-energy “nexus” approach, dam safety and other areas through the capacity-building activities led by the Water Convention.
  • Around 100 international organizations and NGOs are partners to the Water Convention.

“The Water Convention is a vital instrument for managing and developing transboundary waters in peace and in trust”, said Cecilia Abena Dapaah, Minister of Sanitation and Water Resources of Ghana.

3 decades of cooperation deliver concrete results

The implementation of the Water Convention brings multiple benefits at the basin, national, regional and global levels, such as:

  • In 2021, Albania and Montenegro agreed to establish a joint technical working group on monitoring and assessment, and to develop and implement an information exchange protocol on the shared Cijevna/Cem River Basin. This was the result of consultations with these two countries led by the Water Convention Implementation Committee based on a request from Montenegro, which expressed concern about the possible transboundary impact of additional hydropower plants planned to be built in Albania on this shared river.
  • The Central African region hosts 16 major transboundary rivers, 5 transboundary lakes and 17 transboundary aquifer systems. In 2020, the Economic Community of Central African States Heads of States Conference (ECCAS) adopted the Convention for the Prevention of Conflicts Related to the Management of Shared Water Resources in Central Africa, with strong roots in the Water Convention. It was negotiated with the support of the Water Convention secretariat and the African Development Bank.
  • Belarus, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine – all Parties to the Water Convention – share the Vistula River Basin. The basin covers 193,960 km2, of which 87% is in Poland. As pollution generated in upstream countries affects the water quality in Poland, Polish authorities have been working with their counterparts in Belarus and Ukraine for over 20 years to improve water quality in the Vistula.
  • With the support of the Water Convention and partners, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal broke new ground in 2021 by agreeing to establish a legal and institutional framework for cooperation on shared groundwater reserves on which 80% of their populations depend. In a context of rising water stress, this resource is strategic for the region’s adaptation to climate change, as it is less vulnerable than surface water.
  • Building on the 2002 Framework Agreement on the Sava River Basin, in 2021 the Sava basin countries Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia agreed with the World Bank on a regional investment programme for transboundary water management for a total value of US$ 332 million. This includes investments to upgrade the navigability of the Sava waterway and to modernize ports in order to improve market access, reduce transport and logistics costs, to facilitate regional trade.
  • The Water Convention served as a blueprint in the development of the 1994 Convention on Cooperation for the Protection and Sustainable Use of the Danube River. The 2021 Danube Flood Risk Management Plan, which is based on the EU Floods Directive, focuses on the strategic management of flood risks across the entire river basin. The accumulated cost of the floods in 2010, 2013 and 2014 alone exceeded €8.4 billion.
  • Between 1995 and 2006, five transboundary river agreements were signed between the Canton of Geneva, Switzerland, and the French authorities to address deteriorating water quality and to improve flood protection.

Broader cooperation needed for sustainable water management

The 30th anniversary of the Water Convention is also a stark reminder that many of the world’s transboundary rivers, lakes and aquifers do not yet benefit from an operational arrangement for transboundary water cooperation. The 2020 monitoring exercise for SDG indicator 6.5.2, led by UNECE and UNESCO, shows that only 24 of the 153 countries sharing transboundary waters have all their transboundary basins covered by operational arrangements.

The Water Convention can support countries to put in place cooperative efforts for the sustainable management of these vital shared resources.

Of the 24 countries globally that report that all their transboundary basins are covered by operational cooperation arrangements, 19 are Parties to the Water Convention. 186 transboundary water agreements were reported by Convention Parties in 2020. The majority of the 144 transboundary river and lake basins reported by Parties in 2020 are covered by agreements, but at least 16 river and lake basins and 15 sub-basins are not covered.

Map water

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.