Role of the Water Convention:

Throughout the world, water is one of the most important resources of our century. While demand for water continues to grow, its availability is declining. Water resources are stressed by excessive use and pollution. In addition, floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and intense.

Water resources that cross political borders cover almost half of the earth's surface, covering about 60 percent of the world's freshwater runoff. They support the income and livelihoods of millions of people and play a particularly important role for countless ecosystems.

Thus, a cooperation on shared water resources is vital for ensuring peace and stability, economic growth and development, protection of natural resources and sustainable development.

The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention), whose secretariat is hosted by UNECE, is an international framework, that helps strengthen transboundary cooperation and measures for the ecologically-sound management and protection of transboundary surface waters and groundwaters. It aims to protect and ensure the quality, quantity and sustainable use of such transboundary water resources by facilitating cooperation and strengthening it.

The Water Convention fosters the implementation of integrated water resources management, in particular the basin approach. Implementing the Convention’s implementation contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and other international commitments on water, environment and sustainable development.

From regional to global

The Water Convention was initially negotiated by UNECE Member States as a regional convention for the pan-European region. It was adopted in Helsinki, Finland, in 1992 and entered into force in 1996. Over the past 20 years, the Convention has proven its effectiveness and has made a real difference on the ground; fostering 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.

In 2003, for the purpose of sharing experiences under the Convention and promoting cross-border water cooperation around the world, the Parties amended the Convention to make it possible for any United Nations Member State to join this legal instrument. This amendment entered into force in 2016.In 2018, the first country from outside the pan-European region acceded to the Water Convention. The Republic of Chad became the first African Party to the Water Convention, symbolically marking a historical milestone in the Convention’s development. A number of other countries have raised their interest to accede to the Convention.


Three main pillars of the Water Convention

The Convention on Transboundary Waters provides a sound legal framework for stable and reliable cooperation and for the achievement of a sustainable, equitable and reasonable use of transboundary surface water and groundwaters. The three most important obligations under the convention are:

1. Prevent, control and reduce transboundary impacts

Parties shall take measures to prevent, control and reduce any transboundary impact on the environment, human health and safety and socio-economic conditions. Such measures include the application of environmental impact assessment and other assessment methods, the prevention and reduction of pollution at the source of pollutant discharge, the issuance of permits for wastewater discharge and monitoring of discharges, and the development and application of best environmental practices to reduce the supply of nutrient and hazardous substances from agricultural activities or from other diffuse sources.

Parties should use water resources in a sustainable manner, taking into account the ecosystem approach. They must also set target indicators and criteria for water quality, develop contingency plans, and minimize the risk of accidental water pollution.

2. Ensure reasonable and equitable use

Parties should ensure that transboundary waters  are used in a reasonable and fair manner. The reasonable and equitable use of a watercourse depends on the specific characteristics of the basin, the population dependent on its waters, the existing and potential uses, the impacts  of such uses, the availability of alternative uses and other factors. In any case, the use of water must be sustainable, so that it must take into account the needs of future generations.

3. Cooperate through agreements and joint bodies

In order to implement the two previous obligations in practice, the Convention requires Parties to conclude transboundary agreements and establish joint bodies for cooperation in the management and protection of their transboundary waters. The Convention encourages cooperation within the river basin. Joint bodies, such as river or lake commissions, are asked to:

  • Provide a forum for the exchange of information on existing and planned uses of water, as well as sources of pollution and the ecological state of water;
  • Serve as a platform for regular consultations;
  • Create joint monitoring programs;
  • Conduct joint or coordinated assessments of the state of transboundary waters and the effectiveness of measures taken with respect to transboundary impact.
  • Determine the limit values ​​for wastewater discharges and establish joint water quality targets;
  • Develop plans for coordinated actions to reduce the load pollution;
  • Set warning and alarm procedures


Specificities and advantages of the Water Convention

The Water Convention can be applied in different  settings and conditions. It is implemented in water-rich as well as water scarce countries. Since the level of aspirations for its implementation is commensurate with the capabilities and resources of the Parties, the Convention is ratified and implemented by countries with different levels of development. The Convention is based on equality and reciprocity, defending the right and defining obligations 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. In addition, the Convention is a collective platform where a Party may bring its needs and expectations to others.


More information about the Water Convention, its principles, provisions and advantages is available in the following publications:


 The unique institutional mechanism of the Water Convention:

An important strength of the Convention lies in its institutional framework. The highest decision-making body of the Convention is the Meeting of the Parties, which convenes every three years. The Meeting of the Parties takes decisions that support the implementation of the Convention, including the adoption of amendments and Protocols, the development of soft law instruments to facilitate interpretation and implementation, and the definition of three-yearly programmes of work to respond to common challenges in implementation.

In the period between sessions of the Meeting of the Parties, a number of subsidiary bodies support Parties and non-Parties in implementing the Convention’s provisions and the decisions of the Meeting of the Parties. These include bodies of a more political and policy-orientated nature — such as the Bureau, the Working Group on Integrated Water Resource Management or the Working Group on Monitoring and Assessment — and bodies of a more technical nature, that work on resolving practical and concrete issues — such as the Task Force on Water and Climate, the Task Force on the Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystem Nexus or the Joint Expert Group on Water and Industrial Accidents. These bodies, which normally meet once per year, review activities carried out by Parties and non-Parties to implement the Convention, in particular activities in its programme of work. They provide an important platform for the exchange of experiences and good practices, mutual learning and capacity-building. In addition, the Implementation Committee provides a simple, non-confrontational, non-adversarial, transparent and supportive mechanism to facilitate and support implementation of and compliance with the Convention.

The secretariat hosted by UNECE services the Convention and its different bodies. The institutional framework assists countries in the implementation and progressive development of the Convention. In other words, a Party is not left alone to implement the Convention: its needs and expectations may be brought to the attention of the Meeting of the Parties and its subsidiary bodies for advice and assistance.

For more information on previous meeting of the Parties, click here

For more information on previous working group on IWRM, click here