Celebrating 30 years of shared water
July 27, 2022
We tend to associate rivers and lakes with the countries in which they are located. Yet a little-known fact is that more than half of the world’s freshwater bodies are shared. Indeed, 153 countries share at least one of the world’s 256 transboundary river and lake basins. In an age of rapid development and climate change, the equitable and sustainable management of precious natural resources such as water are essential to global food security, economic development, and to reducing poverty. Freshwater systems also provide the vital basis for energy production, transport, tourism and other economic activities. Around the world, many shared freshwater ecosystems face severe degradation, having been battered by poorly planned dams, pollution, habitat loss, overfishing, climate change, and the introduction of invasive species.
That’s why the UN Water Convention is so significant, and worth commemorating on its 30th anniversary, as the United Nations did on June 30th. Formally known as “The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes,” it outlines how to improve transboundary cooperation. Opened in 2003 for global membership, the Water Convention has 44 parties, and many more have asked to join. According to progress tracked for the UN Global Goal on transboundary waters, barely more than half of the shared waters are covered by an operational arrangement. Given the degraded state of shared freshwater ecosystems and knock on socio-economic effects, it is critical that we put proper cooperative arrangements in place.
Beyond the formal commitment to cooperate on transboundary waters, the convention has in many cases served as inspiration and a model for the development, negotiation, adoption and coming into force of individual shared waterbody legal frameworks and their associated institutional mechanisms. The benefits go beyond the equitable and sustainable use of water resources. The convention has promoted and advanced regional economic integration, reduced the risk of multi-country conflict, contributing to regional security and peace.
UNDP is active in more than 30 transboundary river and lake basins, and groundwater systems in four continents. UNDP created dedicated support for the political aspects of transboundary water cooperation, or water diplomacy, through the Shared Waters Partnership. To assist countries to operationalize management on shared water systems, UNDP supports joint waterbody assessments and diagnostics; the establishment of multi-country institutions and their secretariats; joint development and management of a vision, strategy and action plans; institutionalization of regular exchange of data and information; and exchange of regular, formal communication between countries.
Cooperation between neighbours can affect water management and broader peace and security. UNDP’s transboundary waters portfolio, largely financed by the Global Environment Facility, includes many projects:
- The Drin Basin in the southeast Balkans: Connecting five countries and five water bodies in Albania, Greece, Kosovo*, Montenegro and North Macedonia, the Drin Basin sustains unique ecosystems and endemic biodiversity, while supporting the economic activity of over 1.6 million people. This initiative addressed increasing ecological degradation and climate change in the basin through the Drin Coordinated Action agreement developed in 2011. Key achievements include the Drin Core Group, the de facto joint coordination body; the Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis as well as the endorsement of the Strategic Action Programme, including the steps to address the main transboundary problems.
- Ecuador, Peru and their three shared water basins: the Puyango-Tumbes, Catamayo-Chira and Zarumilla Watersheds and Aquifers: This collaboration takes place in the context of a long history of border disputes in the Amazon basin. In 2017, a Binational Commission for Integrated Water Resources Management in the Ecuadorian-Peruvian transboundary basins was established to consolidate bilateral cooperation for peace, as well as for the use and management of water resources. The project strengthened the Binational Commission to facilitate cooperation and joint action and developed stakeholder capacities to improve the management of water resources.
As we consider the mounting pressures facing our rivers and lakes, it is important that all transboundary water basins are governed and managed collaboratively. The Water Convention has set formal transboundary cooperation in motion, and the 2030 Global Goals, with a dedicated target – SDG 6.5 - on integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary waters, represents an important goalpost. Given that nearly half of the world’s transboundary waters still lack an operational cooperative arrangement less than eight years before the 2030 mark, there is an urgent need to support countries to develop the capacity to sustainably manage shared waters. The UN Water Convention will continue to inspire and support progress towards this key target.
* References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999)