Transboundary Waters


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See also Transboundary Water Basins


Cooperation in Managing Water as a transboundary Resource

Water is both a source of conflict and cooperation. Transboundary water management carries with it unique challenges - as competition for water intensifies within countries the resulting pressures can traverse political borders. Neighbouring countries usually have competing water users and ecosystems that depend on different water balances for proper ecological functioning. In addition to the diverse needs of each country, the legal frameworks that determine the water management regimes nationally also differ and are weaker regionally than they are within countries. Some of the key issues that arise when managing transboundary waters are: How can the various needs of the country's population be reconciled with regional requirements? How can effective access and benefit sharing from transboundary water resources (equitable access) be ensured? And what mechanisms can ensure that long term agreements are sustainable?

The 2006 World Water Development Report underscored the need to address issues that arise out of transboundary water management, a large part of which is tied to Integrated Water Resources Management. The report acknowledges that efforts to implement integrated shared water resources management are often undermined by the changing societal value of water. Problems such as overexploitation of water resources in one country leads to water scarcity and degraded water quality in another country, such as the case with the Jordan River shared between Jordan and Israel. Other instances of localized actions having regional effects include pollution of waterways from agricultural runoff or industrial effluents, as experienced in the countries of the Danube River basin.

Transportation of Water

One of the main messages of the recently launched Human Development Report 2006 entitled Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis speaks to the potential that water has to drive cooperation rather than conflict. The report stresses the need for the development of appropriate institutions to support transboundary water management. It also stresses that hydrological independence requires basin-wide and broader multilateral governance frameworks.

Transboundary Water Management and Cooperation

The experiences presented in the water fair support the World Water Development and the Human Development Reports by demonstrating how water can be a catalyst for cooperation rather than conflict. A mutually beneficial way to share the responsibility for maintenance of and investment in the water infrastructure used by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was founded through a bilateral cooperation. Key to this agreement was the establishment of a river basin commission which would ensure long term sustainability.

To halt the ongoing pollution and inefficient environmental management in the Danube River Basin, a project was implemented to enhance access to information and public participation. Engaging the public has become increasingly important to halting destructive activities and cleaning up effected ecosystems. Through a series of outreach programmes and training workshops, both the local and national capacities on water issues of the Danube were enhanced.

Herdsmen Fording The River

Advocacy, awareness-raising and capacity-building are important to transboundary water management. The benefits of local initiatives have far-reaching effects. The partnership programme IW-Learn transfers pertinent experiences across projects by fostering a "learning portfolio" for the GEF IW (International Waters) focal area projects. An important feature of this knowledge management strategy is Transboundary Waters Management (TWM), which builds capacity gradually in isolated projects. The Globallast programme was implemented to combat the spread of invasive species in oceans and inland waterways. Thanks to active participation and cooperation on a global level, countries are able to address the spread of invasive species in transboundary waters.


  • Globally, there are 263 watersheds that cross the political boundaries of two or more countries;
  • These watersheds represent about one half of the earth’s land surface and forty percent of global population;
  • 145 countries have territory within one or more of these international water basins;
  • 33 nations have over 95 percent of their territory within international river basins;
  • There are more than 3,600 treaties relating to international water resources dating from AD 805 to 1984. The majority of these treaties are concerned with some aspect of navigation;
  • In the last 50 years, 200 water-related treaties have been negotiated and signed;
  • The total number of water-related interactions between nations are weighted towards cooperation - there have been 507 conflict-related events as opposed to 1,228 cooperative ones;
  • In the 20th century, only seven minor skirmishes took place between nations over shared water resources, while over 145 treaties were signed during the same period of time;
  • The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses was adopted May 21, 1997 after 27 years of development. The Global Convention sets out the basis rights and obligations between States relating to the management of international watercourses;
  • While the ten-year anniversary of the Watercourses Convention passed in May 2007, only 16 nations have ratified the Convention. For the Convention to enter into force, 35 ratifications are needed.
  • There are an estimated 300 transboundary aquifer systems in the world which lie under 15 percent of the earth’s land surface;
  • The Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses covered groundwater in a very limited way. 19 articles on the law of transboundary aquifers have been drafted by a team of hydrogeologists and lawyers drawn from UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (IHP) and the UN International Law Commission. The 6th Committee of UN General Assembly endorsed the articles and adopted a resolution on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers on Friday, 14 November 2008.
  • Two-thirds of the world’s 64 “Large Marine Ecosystems” (LME), where 85% of the world’s annual wild fish harvest are caught, are shared by two or more countries.

UNDP on Transboundary Waters

Clearly transboundary waterbodies constitute the norm, not the exception. At the same time, in many of these shared systems, governance and institutional structures to ensure efficient, equitable and sustainable use of freshwater and marine resources are either weak or lacking altogether, underscoring the need for more cooperation and enhanced support from donors, international organizations, and others to help strengthen these frameworks.

For over 15 years, through its GEF International Waters portfolio, UNDP has been providing support to assist over 100 countries in working jointly to identify, prioritize, understand, and address the key transboundary environmental and water resources issues of some of the world’s largest and most significant shared waterbodies. UNDP’s International Waters portfolio targets transboundary water systems, such as river basins where water flows from one country to another, multi-country lake basins, groundwater resources shared by several countries, and large marine ecosystems (LME) bounded by more than one nation. Through these projects, UNDP helps countries work with their neighbours to modify human activities – including agriculture, industry, mining, water and other resource extraction, fishing and wastewater management – that place ecological stress on the water systems and degrade them, often affecting their downstream use by another country or community. In this way, water use conflicts can be prevented, security and livelihoods improved, habitats protected, health risks minimized and water resources used sustainably for the benefit of all.

UNDP-GEF International Waters projects target priority global transboundary environmental and water resources concerns including nutrient overenrichment, overuse and conflicting uses of water resources in surface and groundwater systems, degradation of physical habitats in coastal and near-shore marine areas, lakes and watercourses, the introduction of aquatic alien species, and excessive exploitation of living aquatic resources and associated biodiversity. UNDP-GEF’s currently active IW portfolio totals about US$ 200 million in GEF grant funding and leverages an additional US$ 470 million in co-finance. Some of the most important results delivered to date by UNDP-GEF’s International Waters programme include:

  • Preparation and ministerial level adoption of 11 Strategic Action Programmes outlining national and regional commitments to governance reforms and investments; seven SAPs are now under implementation;
  • Preparation and adoption of four regional waterbody legal agreements, some of which have already come into force - Lake Tanganyika, Pacific Fisheries, Caspian Sea (with UNEP support);
  • The GEF-UNDP-IMO GloBallast programme is widely credited with playing a major role in helping catalyze adoption of an international Convention on Management of Ship Ballast Water and Sediments in 2004;
  • Creation and/or strengthening of 14 multi-country marine/coastal, river and lake basin Commissions, including establishment of the world’s first two Large Marine Ecosystem Commissions in 2006 (Benguela Current & Guinea Current LMEs);
  • Successful Strategic Partnership with the World Bank, European Union and other partners on nutrient reduction in the Danube/Black Sea basin led to measurable reductions in nutrient and other pollution loads to the highly degraded Black Sea ecosystem; Black Sea is now showing clear signs of recovery including reduced nutrient levels, elimination of enormous anoxic dead zone, and increased species abundance.

Additional Information

For further information on UNDP’s International Waters portfolio, see UNDP/GEF IW Portfolio

See Also

25 most recently edited WaterWiki pages on Transboundary Waters
  1. Sanitation and Water Supply Management for BT Uekera School Project
  2. Kotene Sanitation and Water Supply Enhancement Project, Fiji
  3. Challenges to International Waters:Regional Assessments in a Global Perspective
  4. Regional Research Network Water in Central Asia (CAWa)
  5. Atlas of Transboundary Aquifers
  6. Transboundary Waters:Sharing Benefits, Sharing Responsibilities
  7. Promoting Replication of Good Practices for Nutrient Reduction and Joint Collaboration in Central and Eastern Europe
  8. Template:CAWSCI
  9. Assisting local authorities and local communities in creation and proving water basin councils activity in Kazakhstan
  10. Protection and Sustainable Use of the Dinaric Karst Aquifer System
  11. Assessment of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Groundwaters in the UNECE Region
  12. Formulating an Action Programme for the Integrated Management of the Shared Nubian Aquifer
  13. Mainstreaming Groundwater Considerations into the Integrated Management of the Nile River Basin
  14. Knowledge Sharing in International Waters - Train-Sea-Coast
  15. Removal of Barriers to the Introduction of Cleaner Artisanal Gold Mining and Extraction Technologies
  16. Strengthening Global Capacity To Sustain Transboundary Waters: The International Waters Learning Exchange and Resource Network (IW:LEARN)
  17. Building Partnerships to Assist Developing Countries to Reduce the Transfer fo Harmful Aquatic Organisms in Ship's Ballast Water (GloBallast Partnerships)
  18. Good Practices and Portfolio Learning in GEF Transboundary Freshwater and Marine Legal and Institutional Frameworks
  19. Portfolio Learning in International Waters with a Focus on Oceans, Coasts, and Islands and Regional Asia/Pacific and Coral Triangle Learning Processes
  20. Transboundary River Basin Initiative (TRIB)
  21. Cooperation in managing water as a transboundary resource
  22. Transboundary Water Cooperation in the Newly Independent States
  23. Overview map of main transboundary waters in Western, Central and Eastern Europe
  24. First Assessment of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Groundwaters in the UNECE Region

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