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Transboundary water management

Water is widely shared among nations, regions, ethnic groups and communities. A total of 261 rivers (see graphic below), covering 45.3 per cent of the total land area (excluding Antarctica), are shared by two or more countries (Wolf and others 1999), making transboundary water resources management one of the most important water issues today.

Numbers of international river basins

A total of 261 river basins are shared by two or more countries

Notes: regions do not correspond exactly to GEO regions; the Jurado, shared by Colombia and Panama, is included in South America

Source: Wolf and others 1999

Disputes over shared water resources have a long history. Water has been used as a tool and weapon of conflict, access to water has been a source of dispute and contention, and major water development projects (for example dam construction) have led to violence and civil strife (Gleick 1998). But shared waters can also be a source of cooperation. This is particularly evident today with the increase in the number of initiatives related to river basin management regimes and institutions committed to bilateral and/or multilateral management of transboundary water resources. This can be traced back to the 1966 Helsinki Rules which laid the foundation for international principles for shared watercourses and influenced many specific river treaties. The Rules were subsequently followed up by various international efforts, including particularly the work of the UN International Law Commission, which led in 1997 to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The impact of this new convention is already being felt with the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) adapting many of its principles in its revised protocol on shared watercourses.

The recognition of river basin organization over the past 30 years has also resulted in the establishment of the International Network of Basin Organizations (INBO) in 1996 (see box below), while other initiatives include the 1998 International Conference on Water and Sustainable Development, which declared that 'a common vision of riverine countries is needed for the efficient management and effective protection of transborder water resources'. The conference's priority action programme (Bernard 1999) emphasized the need to:

  • facilitate the exchange of accurate and harmonized information among riverine countries;
  • promote consultation at all levels, especially within pertinent international institutions and mechanisms; and
  • define medium-range priority action programmes of common interest to improve water management and decrease pollution.

The International Network of Basin Organizations

The International Network of Basin Organizations had a total of 125 member
organizations in 49 countries in 1998. Its objectives are to:
  • establish a network of organizations interested in global river basin management, and facilitate exchanges of experiences and expertise among them;
  • promote the principles and means of sound water management in sustainable development cooperation programmes;
  • facilitate the implementation of tools for institutional and financial management, for programming and for the organization of data banks;
  • promote information and training programmes for the different actors involved in water management including local elected officials, users' representatives and the executives and staff of member organizations;
  • encourage education of the population, the young in particular; and
  • evaluate ongoing actions and disseminate their results.
Source: INBO 2001