28 February 2018

water Feature

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Strengthening Transboundary Water Cooperation
28 February 2018
Revolve |

water Feature by RevolveTeam

As water demand continues to grow and water quality continues to diminish, the importance of transboundary water cooperation is becoming primordial to ensuring safe and clean access to water.

Transboundary lake and river basins cover nearly half of the Earth’s land surface and account for an estimated 60% of global freshwater flow. Transboundary groundwaters provide drinking and domestic water for about two billion people across the world, support their income and livelihood and play a crucial role in conserving ecosystems. While demands for water continue to increase, availability and quality is dwindling. As a result, water resources sustainability is endangered.

Around the Mediterranean, water is an increasingly scarce resource unevenly distributed in time and space, and heavily exploited. Mediterranean countries are highly dependent on shared water resources, both surface and groundwaters, and therefore water management poses a major challenge. To achieve an integrated sustainable management of these shared waters, Mediterranean countries have to cope with conflicting water uses, different political priorities and strategic interests; and diverse legal and institutional frameworks. In some cases, unequal levels of overall development are some of the obstacles inhibiting cooperation between countries and turbulent political relations can impede coordination efforts. Mediterranean countries have realized how hard managing transboundary waters can be when done alone. Significant progress has been made across the countries to improve the joint management of shared waters to make it beneficial for everyone.

The Water Convention aims to protect and ensure the quantity, quality and sustainable use of transboundary water resources by facilitating and promoting cooperation between riparian countries.

At the global level, the importance of transboundary water cooperation is recognized in the Sustainable Development Goal #6 (clean water and sanitation) where target 6.5 requests all countries to implement integrated water resources management (IWRM) at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation. At the trans-regional level, commitments such as the 2017 Ministerial Declaration of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) Water Ministers on the UfM Water Agenda (see pages 40-41) and the 2015 Water Strategy in the Western Mediterranean of the 5+5 Dialogue (see pages 38-39) recognize the need for transboundary water cooperation.

Transboundary water cooperation is indeed crucial to prevent conflicts between riparian countries, to optimize the use of resources and to ensure sustainability, therefore contributing to stability, peace and prosperity in a region facing many environmental, socio-economic and political disparities.

Introducing the Water Convention

International water law can provide a common language and a starting point for the discussion, adoption and further elaboration of normative and institutional frameworks for transboundary water resources management. By protecting the rights of all riparian countries and at the same time defining obligations to ensure sustainability and prevent harm, international water law has a key role in preventing conflicts on transboundary water resources. In recent years, a significant development in international water law took place with both the entry into force of the 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN Watercourses Convention) in 2014 and the opening of the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (1992 Helsinki Water Convention or Water Convention) to all UN Member States in 2016.

The Water Convention, whose secretariat is hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), is an international legal and institutional framework that helps strengthen transboundary cooperation. The Water Convention aims to protect and ensure the quantity, quality and sustainable use of transboundary water resources by facilitating and promoting cooperation between riparian countries.

Initially negotiated by UNECE Member States as a regional Convention for the pan-European region, the Convention was adopted in Helsinki, Finland, in 1992 and entered into force in 1996. In 2016, the Water Convention became a global multilateral framework for transboundary water cooperation as a result of an amendment process. Currently, 40 countries and the European Union are Parties to the Convention.

Over the past 20 years, the Convention has proven its effectiveness and has made a real difference on the ground; fostering the development of agreements, the establishment of joint institutions and the strengthening and broadening of cooperation at both political and technical levels in the pan-European region. When becoming Parties to the Convention, countries commit to the implementation of the three central obligations of the Convention which are 1) to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impacts, 2) to ensure reasonable and equitable use, and 3) to cooperate through agreements and joint bodies. These principles are based on the level of basins for water management to achieve successful IWRM.

Thanks to its institutional framework that is organized around a Meeting of the Parties, a Bureau, an implementation committee, working groups and task forces as well as a secretariat, the Convention provides a platform for the continuous development and advancement of transboundary cooperation. Through the many activities in its programme of work, the Convention supports Parties and non-Parties in implementation, promotes the sharing of experience between countries and basins, the development of guidance, fosters mutual assistance and adapts its activities to emerging needs. For example, in the framework of the Convention, guidance documents have been elaborated on climate change adaptation in transboundary basins, transboundary groundwater cooperation and identifying, assessing and communicating the benefits of transboundary cooperation.

The Douro River, Iberian Peninsula.

Joining the Water Convention

The Convention is based on equality, reciprocity and no-harm and it defends the rights of both upstream and downstream countries.

As a flexible international tool, the Convention can be applied in very different settings and conditions. In the Mediterranean region, countries have different levels of water stress and of economic development, so the level of ambition for implementation measures should be proportionate to the capacity and means of the respective country. The Convention is based on equality and reciprocity and it defends the rights of both upstream and downstream countries.

Joining the Water Convention offers multiple advantages. A country gains recognition from the international community and shows its willingness to cooperate on implementing the Convention. This can be a way for a country to place the transboundary water issue in the main political priorities, launch a dynamic discussion and set the example to its riparian countries in the regional basin. Being Party to the Water Convention also enables countries to take part actively in the institutional structure of the Convention and to participate in the development of its regime during the meeting of its governing bodies. Parties benefit from existing experience under the Convention including guidance documents and projects on the ground. For instance, a basin struggling with the allocation of water for irrigation and energy production can benefit from the Convention’s activities on the water-food-energy-ecosystems nexus. In addition, the Convention is a collective platform where a Party may bring its needs and expectations to others. Potential concerns between riparian countries can be shared and discussed at the Meeting of Parties, for example.

Implementing the Convention obligations improves IWRM at the national level through the application of specific standards decided by countries themselves based on their capacities. While the Convention obliges its Parties to have bilateral and multilateral agreements for specific basins and established joint bodies, it provides support to establish such agreements and bodies, or in strengthening existing ones. In this context, the secretariat of the Convention’s role is to guide and advise Parties as well as non-Parties interested in the Convention, taking into account their governance and political mechanisms. Parties may also benefit from the Convention’s trust fund (based on voluntary contributions) for technical support in the effective implantation of the Convention through organization of training activities or pilot projects.

The Water Convention provides the framework for evolving and long-term transboundary water cooperation agreements to integrate environmental, cultural, social and economic implications of water use. In the Mediterranean region, the Convention is an appropriate tool to improve political and technical collaboration both between riparian countries as well as between northern and southern Mediterranean countries. Indeed, since the opening of the Convention, there are interesting opportunities for exchange between southern Mediterranean and northern Mediterranean countries on their experiences in transboundary water cooperation and best practices.

Supporting the improvement of water management and enhancing trust between countries, the Water Convention offers different technical instruments and a multilateral platform for the Mediterranean region. These can help turn potential conflicts into mutual benefits, boosting regional development and contributing to global peace and security.

For more info on the Water Convention, visit: