Progress on transboundary water cooperation

30 August 2018

Transboundary basins cover more than half of the Earth’s land surface, account for an estimated 60% of global freshwater flow and are home to more than 40 % of the world’s population. Across the world, 153 countries share rivers, lakes and aquifers, and 592 transboundary aquifers have been inventoried by UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme to date. Therefore, transboundary water cooperation is critical for ensuring sustainable management of water resources and achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 on ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. A new report by UNESCO and UNECE provides the first global overview of the status of transboundary water cooperation to track progress towards the targets of SDG6. It was released during World Water Week in Stockholm this week.  

The report “Progress on Transboundary Water Cooperation. Global baseline for SDG indicator 6.5.2” shows that in some regions and basins, significant progress has been made to further transboundary water cooperation through operational arrangements. However, results from the 6.5.2 indicator monitoring exercise on transboundary water cooperation show that arrangements for transboundary water cooperation are often absent.

This first SDG indicator 6.5.2 monitoring exercise has demonstrated that for the 62 countries considered, the average proportion of the transboundary basin area covered by an operational arrangement is 59 per cent, while only 17 countries have all their transboundary basins covered by operational arrangements. Cooperation on transboundary aquifers represents a particular challenge and is lagging further behind.  
Despite numerous services provided by groundwater for both humans and ecosystems, operational arrangements for transboundary aquifers are still rare around the world. Key issues that pose obstacles in realizing a commitment to coordinated or joint management of the ‘invisible resource’ include a lack of adequate groundwater monitoring at national levels and detailed transboundary aquifer assessments.

Four criteria must be satisfied for an arrangement to be considered operational:
•    A joint body or other institutional mechanism must be in place;
•    There must be at least one annual (political or technical) meeting between riparian countries;
•    There must be at least an annual exchange of data and information
•    Riparian countries have adopted joint or coordinated management plans, or joint objectives.

Basin-specific arrangements are greatly supported by regional and global frameworks such as the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Rivers and International Lakes (Water Convention), the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (Watercourses Convention, which entered into force in 2014), the EU Water Framework Directive and the Revised SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems. Where operational arrangements are lacking these instruments offer the tools upon which new arrangements can be negotiated or existing arrangements can be strengthened.

UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme also helps Member States through in-depth assessments of transboundary aquifers, to establish a shared science-based understanding of the resource, and capacity building to support the process of institutionalizing cooperation among riparian countries. This led most recently to the establishment of a joint governance mechanism for the Stampriet Transboundary Aquifer System (STAS) between Botswana, Namibia and South Africa in 2017.

The full report, “Progress on Transboundary Water Cooperation. Global baseline for SDG indicator 6.5.2” will be publically available shortly. This report is part of a series that track progress towards the various targets set out in SDG 6 using the SDG global indicators. The reports are based on country data, compiled and verified by the United Nations agencies responsible, sometimes complemented by data from other sources.