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UNEP Conference on Strengthening Transboundary Freshwater Governance – The Environmental Sustainability Challenge


The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is, in cooperation with the Government of Thailand, organizing an international high level ministerial conference on the topic: Strengthening Transboundary Freshwater Governance with a focus on strengthening its environmental dimension. The conference is scheduled to take place at the United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok 20  22 May 2009. Participants will be drawn primarily from the African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean regions.
The main aim of the conference is to identify challenges and opportunities in transboundary freshwater governance and define priority actions for improvement. Special attention will be paid to strengthening the environmental dimension taking into account the added challenge of a changing climate. It also aims at developing political and financial support for reform. The ministerial segment of the conference will raise the political profile of transboundary freshwater governance and provide policy guidance to addressing the important transboundary environmental issues.

The Conference will contribute to the implementation of the intergovernmental decisions on promoting integrated water resources management (UNCED, WSSD, CSD13), it will contribute to UN-Water’s efforts in promoting Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and it will draw attention to importance of transboundary waters and their governance and management, which is this year’s World Water Day topic.  It will build on recent developments and draw on the outcomes of other processes, such as the 5th World Water Forum, and it will feed into international processes such as UNFCCC CoP 15.  In this context it should be noted that the conference could provide additional momentum to implement the International Law Commission’s Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers, which were endorsed by the General Assembly in December 2008 (A/RES/63/124).

The overall objective of the Conference is to strengthen transboundary freshwater governance through promotion of the environmental dimension.  In this regard, the Conference will be a platform to exchange views, share experiences and develop common positions and priority actions.

Additionally, the Conference will be a forum to promote IWRM and discuss how it can be implemented at the transboundary water management levels.  The underlying assertion being that IWRM frameworks at the transboundary level would be conducive to addressing environmental issues within the basin while complementing IWRM reforms at the national level. More specifically, the Conference will discuss issues like participation of stakeholders in transboundary water resource decision-making processes which have direct impact on environmental aspects. 

Expected Outcomes:

  • Identification of priority actions to be undertaken by relevant stakeholders to bridge gaps in and strengthen the environmental dimension of transboundary freshwater governance and cooperative frameworks;
  • Recommendations to States and other stakeholders on the implications of climate change to transboundary freshwater governance;
  • Recommendations to governments and other stakeholders on how to implement IWRM, particularly its environmental dimensions, at the transboundary level;
  • Recommendations to UNEP on its role and specific activities, in the short and long term, on how to support governments and other stakeholders in strengthening transboundary freshwater governance;
  • Contributions to international processes and fora such as the fifth World Water Forum, UNFCCC, the Stockholm World Water Week, and World Water Day on strengthening the environmental dimension of transboundary freshwater governance.

The Conference will be organized under the following five thematic areas:

  1. Freshwater governance and the environment in the context of sustainable development.
  2. Environmental dimensions of transboundary freshwater governance.
  3. Improving transboundary water governance through the application of IWRM at national, basin and sub-regional levels.
  4.  Adjusting transboundary freshwater governance to address climate change.
  5. Building political and financial commitment for improved transboundary freshwater governance.

There is a water crisis, and there is an increasing understanding that it is a crisis of governance rather than one of physical scarcity of water.   Freshwater is a shared resource serving multiple constituencies, from environment to agriculture, industry and households, among others.  Water also crosses frontiers, linking users across borders in a system of hydrological interdependence, encompassing surface waters of different types and groundwater aquifers. 

The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports made it very clear that climate change will have impacts on water and that some of the major challenges to adaptation are related to water resources development and management.  Many countries will experience increased water scarcity.  One sixth of the world population, currently living in snowmelt-fed river basins, will experience increased water shortages due to the reduction of snow cover and subsequent run-off. At the same time extreme events will increase, i.e. floods will become more frequent and violent, and droughts longer. In Africa IPCC warns that crop yields on rain-fed lands may be reduced by up to 50%.

About 40% of the world’s population lives in transboundary river basins and these basins cover nearly 50% of the earths total land surface and account for approximately 60% of global freshwater flow.  About 2 billion people depend on groundwater supplies withdrawing about 20% of global water (600- 700 km3) annually (UNDP and others 2000).  Groundwater sources in many parts of the world offer water supply security when surface water supplies are deficient.
It is estimated that 1.1 billion people currently lack access to clean water and that some 2.6 billion people, almost half the total population of developing countries, do not have access to adequate sanitation.  Even if the Millennium Development Goals for water and sanitation are achieved, there will still be more than 800 million people without water and 1.8 billion without sanitation in 2015.   When decision makers take further steps with the aim to satisfy these basic human needs, it is important to ensure that it is done in way that guarantees sustainable water use and respects the ecosystems and the services they provide.  Therefore, this conference is being called to raise the attention of the environmental dimension of transboundary freshwater governance.

Globally, people are becoming increasingly aware of the degradation of the world’s water bodies. Freshwater resources are increasingly under stress, destroyed by overuse, pollution and other human activities.  This water stress is not only detrimental to aquatic ecosystems but also leads to ecological stress in other ecosystems that depend on availability of water of adequate quality.  As a consequence, there is growing concern regarding the declining quality and quantity of the world’s freshwater resources, even more so in light of climate change. 

In light of the above, governments and decision makers are increasingly under pressure to institute new and innovative policies and strategies to improve management of freshwater resources.  The core challenge is to realign availability of water with demand at levels that maintain ecosystem integrity and environment sustainability.

Against this background, UNEP’s role on the overall question of freshwater governance is primarily concerned with the environmental dimension,  well aware of the fact that the environmental challenges need to be addressed within a framework that encompasses all four governance dimensions.   The main reason for promoting the consideration of the environmental dimension is that this will allow sustainable use of water resources while maintaining ecosystem integrity. The flow of sufficient and quality water is critical in maintaining ecosystem functions and services (environmental flow).

There are a number of important issues related to the environmental dimension of transboundary freshwater governance that need to be addressed.  Below are some examples:

  • How can the environmental dimension of transboundary freshwater governance be considered on the same footing as the other dimensions?  The water needs of the environment should be taken into account alongside the needs for consumption, sanitation, agriculture and industry.
  • Many countries and sub-regions are experiencing ecological stress, as a consequence of human overuse of freshwater resources at levels that exceed the level required to maintain the ecological integrity of aquatic and related ecosystems.  This results in erosion of the environment and increased difficulties to sustain livelihoods.  How could such situations be best addressed within a transboundary context?
  • The impacts of climate change are highly likely to further exacerbate water-related problems and adversely affect livelihoods, in some (sub)regions mostly due to increased water stress, in other (sub)regions due to increased precipitation and augmented flood risk.  In addition, climate change will have a negative effect on freshwater ecosystems, inter alia, due to rising water temperatures, which in turn negatively affects local food supplies e.g. by declining fisheries resources.   What are the implications of climate change to transboundary freshwater governance and management?
  • How can IWRM be implemented at the transboundary water management level in a manner that enhances the consideration of environmental aspects and complements national IWRM reform processes?  How can participation of relevant stakeholder in transboundary water resources management deepen cooperation while contributing to improved decision-making?
  • In many instances, river basins and aquifers are transboundary.  Sub-regional and regional surface and groundwater governance regimes should, where necessary, be strengthened so that they promote sustainable use of surface and groundwater.  How can transboundary water governance and its legal and institutional frameworks be strengthened, and particularly its environmental dimension?
  • Transboundary water governance has attracted limited political and international financial support.  There is a case for international development partners to substantially increase financial and technical support for improving transboundary water governance in cases where it is consistent with recipient countries’ priorities.  How can increased international support be mobilized.

For further inquiries please contact:

Mr. Bakary Kante,
Director, Division of Environmental Law and Conventions (DELC),
P.O. Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya,
Tel:  (254-20) 7624011
Fax: (254-20) 7624300
Email: bakary.kante@unep.org  

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