Shared cross-border water management crucial

Niagara Falls represents one border between two countries

More than 3 billion people depend on water that crosses national borders. Cooperation on shared waters and water management 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.

153 countries share 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 at the global and regional levels.

Impact of the Water Convention still resonates 30 years on.

In March 1992, governments gathered in Helsinki with a vision. They wanted to find a way to manage shared waters collaboratively and sustainably. They wanted to mitigate risks and prevent 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. It provides both a holistic legal framework and an intergovernmental platform for managing shared watercourses better. It also contributes to the achievement of SDG6 and the 2030 Agenda. One hundred thirty countries worldwide participate in its activities, and more than 15 countries are joining the 46 Parties. It includes five countries outside the Pan-European region: 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.

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 many of these countries have not yet joined the Convention. The Estonian chairmanship prioritises the expansion of the convention globally.”

Water Convention still vital

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. It also provides a framework to use transboundary waters reasonably and equitably. The Water Convention ensures sustainable water management through cooperation. Parties bordering the same transboundary waters must 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, and 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 are increasingly referring 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.
  • From 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 organisations and NGOs are partners of the Water Convention.

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

Three 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. They also agreed to develop and implement an information exchange protocol on the shared Cijevna/Cem River Basin. This resulted from consultations with these two countries led by the Water Convention Implementation Committee. It was based on a request from Montenegro. They were concerned 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, five 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.
  • The GambiaGuinea Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal broke new ground in 2021. They agreed to establish a legal and institutional framework for cooperation on shared groundwater reserves. 80 per cent of their populations depend on these reserves. This resource is strategic for the region’s adaptation to climate change, as it is less vulnerable than surface water.
  • The Sava basin countries Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia agreed on a regional investment programme for transboundary water management. This includes investments to upgrade the Sava waterway’s navigability. It also modernised ports to improve market access, reduced transport and logistics costs, and facilitated regional trade.
  • Five transboundary river agreements were signed between the Canton of Geneva, Switzerland, and French authorities. These agreements sought to address deteriorating water quality and 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 reporting operational cooperation arrangements covering all their transboundary basins, 19 are Parties to the Water Convention. One hundred eighty-six Convention Parties reported transboundary water agreements in 2020. The majority of the 144 transboundary river and lake basins are covered by agreements. At least 16 river and lake basins and 15 sub-basins are not covered.

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