Coordinating international river basin development

Managing rivers
Cooperating in management of drainage basins
Undertaking international river basin development

The entire territory of nearly one-quarter of non-island countries is part of an international river basin. By the mid-1970s, around 40% of the world's population was estimated to be living in international river basins. Yet more than one-third of the 200 major international river basins in the world are not covered by any international agreements, and fewer than 30 have cooperative institutional agreements. More treaties or agreements have been signed by European and North American countries.

The amount and the quality of water available in river basins are influenced by the activities in the co-riparian countries. The relationships between upper and lower riparians cause special problems: the larger the irrigated area in upstream countries, the less water is available to downstream countries; the greater the polluting activities in upstream countries, the poorer the quality of water received by downstream countries.

The positions of the different countries in an international river basin may be in accord - for instance, when countries have a common interest in increasing the dependable flow in the river by water storage and flow control schemes etc. This seems to be the case with rivers such as the Nile and the Senegal. In other cases, serious competition may develop between the upstream countries and the downstream countries. The Rhine is an example of divergent interests on water quality – with Switzerland, France and the Federal Republic of Germany polluting the water on which the Netherlands has to rely for a large part of its drinking water supply. The Ganges is an example of competition for water quantity, with flow diversions in India creating dry season problems in Bangladesh.

At the United Nations Water Conference, 1977, considerable interest was expressed in international river basins. Many downstream countries joined in a call for an international code of conduct, or conventions; upstream countries, however, stressed sovereignty over their natural resources. Some basic problems still need to be resolved in order to promote regional and international co-operation on the use of shared bodies of water. For instance, considerable ambiguity surrounds the fundamental concept of "equitable use", articulated in the relevant Helsinki rule. The concept seems to be clear if it refers to water flow only, but difficulties emerge when it refers to equitable sharing of water quality or to how an upstream country should share water with downstream countries. Thus, there is, evidently, an urgent need to strengthen international laws and agreements that will put co-operation on water resources among states on a firmer basis.

The UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses was signed by the UN General Assembly on May 21 1997 and adopted by 104 votes in favour and 3 against (Burundi, China and Turkey). 27 countries abstained and 33 were absent. The Convention shall enter into force when it receives 35 instruments of ratification. Concerns about the Convention are: (a) hidden assumptions which reduce its usefulness in regions under rapid change, i.e. in the developing country regions, where efforts to improve socio-economic conditions are often contradictory in an upstream/downstream context; (b) incompatibility between its two core principles: one on equitable and reasonable use, and another on avoiding to cause downstream harm; vague, broad and general terms which allow expert advice to be "tailored" to legitimise each country's political views and demands; (d) failure to distinguish between consumptive and through-flow water use, the latter returning water to the river system after use where it can be reused provided the water quality is acceptable for reuse. (e) a number of aspects not adequately covered, e.g. groundwater issues, links between rivers, estuaries and the marine environment, the difficulties of ecological restoration and issues of climate change; and (f) the risk that the Convention – in August 2000 ratified by only seven countries – will lose in authority as time proceeds without reaching the needed number of ratifications to put it in force.

While there is much to be said in favour of comprehensiveness and completeness, a realistic water strategy should not be so ambitious as to put it beyond the realm of feasibility. The key elements of strategy for the future need to include: (1) ways and means of providing safe drinking water and sanitation facilities to all people on an urgent basis; (2) development of adequate water resources to meet the demand in agriculture and industry; (3) development of institutional and human resources for efficient water resources management.


[Africa] Africa is the continent where most of the river systems are international, in the sense that the river basins are shared by several countries. Of the nine international water bodies shared by six or more countries, five are in Africa. The Niger runs through 10 countries: the Nile and Zaire, through nine countries: the Zambezi through eight countries; and Lake Chad is shared by six countries. Nearly 60% of the surface area of Africa is accounted for by shared river and lake basins, and at least 80% of the total surface area of 20 African countries lies within international basins. This makes Africa particularly liable to the problems of co-operation encountered when shared water resources have to be partitioned among the countries within the joint water divide.

Intergovernmental commissions or planning agencies have been established for co-ordinating and integrating the development of several basins. Progress in most cases has been rather slow, and it is likely that the problems will become more complex and intense. For instance, when the Sudan requires more water for irrigation, it can draw it from the Nile. But that would be detrimental to Egypt, which already uses all the water it can get. Similarly, the construction of dams in Ethiopia may be essential to the development of land for irrigation in Somalia. With relations strained between Ethiopia and Somalia, dams may not be a feasible solution in the short-term. In addition, countries depending on hydro-electric power from the Kariba and Volta dams have to agree among themselves to release adequate amounts of water for irrigation. Thus far, there has been considerable reluctance, especially at the Kariba, to release water for irrigation at the expense of hydro-electricity.

[Europe] In Europe, significant progress is in sight on the prevention and control of pollution of transboundary waters. Several bilateral and multilateral agreements and conventions have been signed. Notable examples are the agreements on ecological objectives with respect to the utilization of the waters of the Rhine and the Danube. In 1985, ECE adopted a regional strategy for environmental protection and the rational use of natural resources, which aims, inter alia, at dealing with transboundary water pollution, municipal and industrial waste water and agricultural and aqua-cultural activities.

The Environment Programme for the Danube River Basin was agreed in September 1991 in Sofia by 11 riparian states in Central and Eastern Europe. It a multilateral initiative to protect the Danube watershed. Under the Programme, a Strategic Action Plan for the period 1995-2005 was prepared, setting out strategies for dealing with the environment-related problems in the Danube basin. The Plan sets targets to be met within ten years and defines a series of actions to meet them with the aim of achieving four objectives: (1) to reduce the negative impacts of activities in the Danube basin and the Black Sea; (2) to maintain and improve the availability and quality of water in the Danube basin; (3) to control hazards from accidental spills; and (4) to develop cooperation in the field of regional water management. The Action Plan is addressed to the officials of national, regional and local governments who share responsibility for implementing the Convention on Cooperation for the Protection and Sustainable Use of the Danube River and the national environmental action programmes prepared under the Environmental Action Programme for Central and Eastern Europe. The Plan also recognises industry, agriculture, NGOs and the public as important actors. The regional strategies set out in the Action Plan are intended to support national decision-making on water management and on the restoration and protection of vulnerable and valuable areas in the Danube Basin. Each country is to designate a national authority to coordinate its activities in implementation of the Action Plan. The Danube Programme Coordination Unit and the future international secretariat of the Danube River Protection Convention play important roles in coordinating national and international activities.

The Convention on Cooperation for the Protection and Sustainable Use of the Danube River, 1994 sets out to establish a framework for joint activities and exchange of information (on bi- and multilateral agreements, legal regulations etc.), to protect the marine environment, to prevent and control pollution in the Danube and to ensure sustainable use of the water resources of countries through which the Danube flows. Under the Convention, all countries should adopt the same monitoring systems and methods of assessing environmental impact. The Convention also addresses the question of liability for cross-border pollution, lays down rules for the protection of wetland habitats and establishes guidelines for conserving areas of ecological importance or of great aesthetic value. The signatories have agreed to cooperate on fundamental water management issues by taking "all appropriate legal, administrative and technical measures to at least maintain and improve the current environmental and water quality conditions of the Danube River and of the waters in its catchment area and to prevent and reduce as far as possible adverse impacts and changes occurring or likely to be caused". The Parties should evaluate the importance of different biotopes for the riverine ecology and propose measures for improving the aquatic and littoral ecological conditions. The Danube countries have agreed to cooperate in implementing the Convention before it formally comes into force and the Strategic Action Plan will be an important tool to do this. They have also agreed to establish an interim international secretariat. When the Convention enters into force, responsibility for the water-related parts of the Environmental Programme will be transferred to the international commission and its secretariat. In the meantime the interim secretariat and the Environmental Programme Coordination Unit will work closely together. The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River has been established to provide a framework for regional cooperation under the Convention. The Parties shall report to the commission on progress. The task of coordinating the various implementing activities lies with the Programme Management Task Force.

[Asia] In Asia, some 65% of the drainage area of rivers is from river basins shared by two or more countries. A number of co-operative agreements have been reached on important shared river basins - for instance, the Permanent Indus Commission which regulates the allocation of waters from the Indus River basin between India and Pakistan: the agreement between China and the Democratic People Republic of Korea for the joint development of the Yalu River; the Joint Rivers Commission for the Ganges and the Brahmaputra between Bangladesh and India; the Interim Committee for the Co-ordination of Investigations of the Lower Mekong Basin, and agreements between Afghanistan and the former USSR on the Amu River basin, between Afghanistan and Iran (Islamic Republic of) on the Helmand River basin, and between Malaysia and Thailand on the Golok River basin. No doubt, as the demand for water increases and pollution from agricultural and industrial sources grows, such regional and international co-operative agreements, most of which are loose and lacking in coverage, will have to be strengthened in order to ensure the equitable and effective use, conservation and development of water resources.

In Western Asia, where some 95% of the average annual discharge from rivers emanates from river basins shared by two or more countries, so far only two co-operative agreements for the development of shared river basins exist. The joint Syro-Jordanian Commission is empowered with integrated planning and development of the Yarmouk River basin, and the Trilateral Commission on the Euphrates River deals with the collection and analysis of river flow and rainfall data. In this region, tensions among riparian countries are likely to grow with increasing demand for water.

[South America] In South America, international river and lake basins account for about 75% of the total flow of water. Thus far, international co-operation covers only 15 of the region's shared basins, and most of the agreements are restricted to exchange of information, research and joint studies. The only two working multilateral agreements are those on the Plata River basin and the Amazon basin.


Water scarcity is the largest issue of the higher politics of water basin management, particularly because historically shortages have caused wars. This is directly linked to environmental decline. Once exclusively national or new sources of water are no longer available, there is a tremendous pressure on countries to develop transboundary water bodies.

Type Classification:
E: Emanations of other strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 1: No PovertyGOAL 2: Zero HungerGOAL 3: Good Health and Well-beingGOAL 4: Quality EducationGOAL 5: Gender EqualityGOAL 6: Clean Water and SanitationGOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and InfrastructureGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 14: Life Below WaterGOAL 15: Life on LandGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal