Transboundary water resources

As water quality degrades or the quantity available has to meet rising demands over time, competition among water users intensifies. This is nowhere more destabilizing than in river basins that cross political boundaries. But experience shows that in many situations, rather than causing open conflict, the need for water sharing can generate unexpected cooperation.

Despite the complexity of the problems, records show that water disputes can be handled diplomatically. The last 50 years have seen only 37 acute disputes involving violence, compared to 150 treaties that have been signed. Nations value these agreements because they make international relations over water more stable and predictable. In fact, the history of international water treaties dates as far back as 2500 BC, when the two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma crafted an agreement ending a water dispute along the Tigris River - often said to be the first treaty of any kind. Since then, a large body of water treaties has emerged. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, more than 3,600 treaties related to international water resources have been drawn up since 805 AD. The majority of these deal with navigation and boundary demarcation. The focus of negotiation and treaty-making in the last century has shifted away from navigation towards the use, development, protection and conservation of water resources.

Legal agreements on water sharing have been negotiated and maintained even as conflicts have persisted over other issues. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, have been able to cooperate since 1957 within the framework of the Mekong River Commission, and they had technical exchanges throughout the Vietnam War. Since 1955 Israel and Jordan, have held regular talks on the sharing of the Jordan River, even as they were until recently in a legal state of war. The Indus River Commission survived two wars between India and Pakistan. A framework for the Nile River Basin, home to 160 million people and shared among 10 countries, was agreed in February 1999 in order to fight poverty and spur economic development in the region by promoting equitable use of, and benefits from, common water resources. The nine Niger River Basin countries have agreed on a framework for a similar partnership. These cases reflect two important elements of international water resources cooperation: the need for an institution to effectively develop a process of engagement over time; and well-funded third-party support trusted by all factions.

The more than 3,600 agreements and treaties signed are an achievement in themselves, but a closer look at them still reveals significant weaknesses. What is needed are workable monitoring provisions, enforcement mechanisms, and specific water allocation provisions that address variations in water flow and changing needs. The 1997 United Nations Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses is one international instrument that specifically focuses on shared water resources. It established two key principles to guide the conduct of nations regarding shared watercourses: "equitable and reasonable use" and "the obligation not to cause significant harm" to neighbours. However, it is up to countries themselves to spell out precisely what these terms mean in their watersheds.

There is a consensus among experts that international watercourse agreements need to be more concrete, setting out measures to enforce treaties made and incorporating detailed conflict resolution mechanisms in case disputes erupt. Better cooperation also entails identifying clear yet flexible water allocations and water quality standards, taking into account hydrological events, changing basin dynamics and societal values.

Source: UN Water

Selected bibliography

Agreements at the Global and Regional Levels

Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (New York, 1997) 

Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Helsinki, March 1992) 

Amendment to the Convention Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (2004) 

Protocol on Water and Health to the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (London, June 1999) 

Protocol on Civil Liability and Compensation for Damage Caused by the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents on Transboundary Waters to the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes and to the 1992 Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents (Kiev, 2003) 

Advisory Documents and Guidelines

Berlin Rules on Water Resources (Berlin, 2004) 

The Helsinki Rules on the Uses of Waters of International Rivers (Helsinki, 1966) 

Monographs and brochures

Aguilar G., Iza A. - Governance of Shared Waters. Legal and Institutional Issues (2011) 

A review of the evolution and state of transboundary freshwater treaties / M.Giordano, A.Drieschova, J.A.Duncan, Y.Sayama, L.De Stefano, A.T.Wolf (2013) 

Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis // Human Development Report 2006. Chapter 6 Managing transboundary waters 

Brels S., Coates D., Loures F. - Transboundary water resources management: the role of international watercourse agreements in implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2008) 

Dukhovny V., Sokolov V. - Lessons on Cooperation Building to Manage Water Conflicts in the Aral Sea Basin (2003) 

Dore J., Robinson J., Smith M. - Negotiate: reaching agreements over water (2010) 

Hart S. (ed.) - Shared Resources: Issues of Governance (2008) 

Mapping the resilience of international river basins to future climate change-induced water variability / L.De Stefano, J.Duncan, S.Dinar, K.Stahl, K.Strzepek, A.T. olf (2010) 

Mostert E. - Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of International Freshwater Resources: a Global Review (2003) 

Past Experience and Future Challenges. Cooperation in Shared Water Resources in Central Asia (2002) 

Regional Water Intelligence Report Central Asia (2010) 

River basin commissions and other institutions for transboundary water cooperation (2009) 

Sadoff C., Greiber T., Smith M., Bergkamp G. - Share: managing water across boundaries (2008) 

Strengthening Water Management and Transboundary Water Cooperation in Central Asia: the Role of UNECE Environmental Conventions (2012) 

Shared Water Challenges and Interests: The Case for Private Sector Engagement in Water Policy and Management / P. Schulte, J. Morrison, S. Orr, G. Power (2014) 

Tanzi A. - International law and transboundary water resources. A Framework for Shared Optimal Utilization (2011) 

Transboundary Water Cooperation in the Newly Independent States (2003) 

Transboundary Cooperation Fact Sheets (2012) 

Transboundary Waters: Sharing Benefits, Sharing Responsibilities (2008) 

Transboundary Water Governance. Adaptation to Climate Change / J.C. Sanchez, J. Roberts (Eds.) (2014) 

Value of Water – Different Approaches in Transboundary Water Management (2005) 

Wolf A.T., Yoffe S.B., Giordano M. - International Waters: Indicators for Identifying Basins at Risk (2003) 

Water, a Shared Responsibility // 2nd United Nations World Water Development Report. Chapter 11: Sharing Water 


Allouche J. - The governance of Central Asian waters: national interests versus regional cooperation (2007) 

Arjoon D., Tilmant A., Herrmann M. - Sharing water and benefits in transboundary river basins (2016) 

Bakker M.H.N. - Trans-boundary river floods and institutional capacity (2009) 

Building River Dialogue and Governance 

Dinar S., Katz D., De Stefano L., Blankespoor B. - Climate Change, Conflict, and Cooperation. Global Analysis of the Resilience of International River Treaties to Increased Water Variability (2014) 

Giordano M.A., Wolf A.T. - Sharing Waters: Post-Rio International Water Management (2003) 

Gerlak A.K. - One Basin at a Time: The Global Environment Facility and Governance of Transboundary Waters (2016) 

Hearns G. - Structured Decision Making and Evaluating Process Mechanisms that Facilitate Cooperation for International Water Resources (2006) 

Jalilov Sh.-M., Varis O., Keskinen M. - Sharing Benefits in Transboundary Rivers: An Experimental Case Study of Central Asian Water-Energy-Agriculture Nexus (2015) 

Karymsakova К. - Water problems in Central Asia (2017) 

Khamidov M. - About principles of transboundary water resources joint use and management in Syrdarya river basin under current political-economic conditions of Central Asian region (2005) 

Lloret A. - The Value of Informal Agreements in Transboundary Water Resources as an Adaptive Management Mechanism (2006) 

Nazirov A.A. - Organization types of transboundary cooperation in the world water practice (2005) 

Peachey E.J. - The Aral Sea Basin Crisis and Sustainable Water Resource Management in Central Asia (2004) 

Rieu-Clarke A., Moynihan A., Magsig, B.-O. - Transboundary water governance and climate change adaptation: International law, policy guidelines and best practice application (2015) 

Sadoff C.W., Grey D. - Beyond the river: the benefits of cooperation on International River (2002) 

Transboundary Water Cooperation. A BMZ Position Paper (2006) 

Uitto J.I., Duda A. M. - Management of transboundary water resources: lessons from international cooperation for conflict prevention (2002) 

Yoffe S., Fiske G. - Use of GIS for analysis of indicators of conflict and cooperation over international freshwater resources (2002) 


Gander M.J. - The role of international water law and supporting universally applicable water management principles in the development of a model trans-boundary agreement between riparians in international (2013) 

Giordano M.A. - International River Basin Management: Global Principles and Basin Practice (2002) 

Regulatory and procedural guidelines and reference information

A Handbook for Integrated Water Resources Management in the Basins of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Aquifers (2012) 

The World Bank Operational Manual OP 7.50 - Projects on International Waterways (2001) 

The World Bank Bank Procedures BP 7.50 - Projects on International Waterways (2001) 


Financial Sustainability of International River Basin Organizations / M. Henkel, F. Schuler, A. Carius, AT. Wolf (2014) 

The UN-Water Status Report on the Application of Integrated Approaches to Water Resources Management (2012) 

UNECE documents

ECE/MP.WAT/WG.2/2007/10 Assessment of the status of transboundary waters in the UNECE region. Updates and additions to the preliminary assessments of transboundary waters in the EECCA region (Aral Sea basin, other basins in Central Asia, Black Sea basin) 

ECE/MP.WAT/2006/16/Add.2 Preliminary assessment of the status of Transboundary rivers discharging into the Caspian Sea and their Major Transboundary Tributaries 

ECE/MP.WAT/2006/16/Add.4 Preliminary assessment of transboundary rivers in the Aral Sea basin and their major transboundary tributaries 

ECE/MP.WAT/2006/16/Add.5 Preliminary assessment of other Major Transboundary rivers in Central Asia originating in or flowing through EECCA countries 

ECE/MP.WAT/2006/16/Add.6 Preliminary assessment of Transboundary rivers in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus Discharging into the Black Sea and their Major Transboundary Tributaries