Skip to main content

Water for peace on World Water Day: momentum builds for cross-border cooperation through UN Water Convention

Water for peace on World Water Day: momentum builds for cross-border cooperation through UN Water Convention


“Action for water is action for peace…Achieving it relies on far greater cooperation…We must accelerate efforts to work together across borders, and I urge all countries to join and implement the United Nations Water Convention – which promotes managing shared water resources sustainably.”  

In his message for World Water Day (22 March), which this year focuses on “water for peace”, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres further reinforces the rising political momentum for water cooperation through the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, known as the UN Water Convention.  

The draft UN system-wide strategy for water and sanitation, approved this week by the UN High-Level Committee on Programmes, calls on the support of the United Nations to assist Member States in acceding to, implementing and complying with the Water Convention, highlighting that “operational arrangements for transboundary basins are pivotal for managing water, protecting ecosystems and promoting peace.” This marks an important step towards the full endorsement of the Strategy by the UN Chief Executives Board. 

The Convention today has 52 Parties. Building on its 30-year track record in facilitating cooperation in Europe, its membership has been expanding fast, especially in Africa (where 90% of freshwater is in shared basins, and the Convention is expected to soon welcome its 10th Party).  

Since the global opening of this treaty to all UN Member States in 2016, Chad, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Togo and Cameroon became the first African nations to accede, before being joined by five countries in 2023 – Nigeria, Iraq, Namibia, Panama and The Gambia. Over 20 more are in the process of joining, including Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and Costa Rica, which are in the final stages of accession. 

Greater water cooperation needed worldwide  

More than 60% of global freshwater flows across national boundaries, such as in the Congo, Danube, Amazon and Mekong, in the basins of lakes such as Lake Geneva or the Great Lakes, or for over 450 identified transboundary groundwater reserves worldwide.  

With rising water scarcity worldwide, cross-border water cooperation is considered crucial for regional stability, conflict prevention and sustainable development. Climate change impacts such as drought and flooding, as well as pollution and rising demands on use, are putting increasing stress on water resources, in both developing and developed countries, and are among the major drivers of momentum for cooperation. 

Yet, progress is too slow. As shown by new data from the 3rd reporting exercise on SDG indicator 6.5.2 on transboundary water cooperation, coordinated by UNECE together with UNESCO, only 26 of the 153 countries worldwide sharing water resources have all their transboundary basin areas covered by operational arrangements for water cooperation, compared to 24 in 2020. Only around 10 new transboundary agreements have been signed.  

UNECE Executive Secretary Tatiana Molcean stated “Benefits of water cooperation extend far beyond conflict prevention. It accelerates progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, bolstering food security, preserving ecosystems, enhancing resilience to climate change, and fostering regional integration. I personally urge countries considering accession to accelerate their efforts so that they may become parties to the Water Convention by the next Meeting of the Parties in Slovenia this October.” The Water Convention is serviced by UNECE. 

Water agreements as foundations for peace 

The importance of water agreements to promote peace and development has a long history: from the Sumerian water treaty that ended a water dispute along the Tigris river in 2550 BC, to over 100 agreements signed by UN Water Convention Parties since its entry into force, such agreements can play a pivotal role in fostering peace and broader cooperation.  

The Convention requires Parties to prevent, control and reduce negative impacts on water quality and quantity across borders, to use shared waters in a reasonable and equitable way, and to ensure their sustainable management through cooperation. Parties bordering the same transboundary waters are obliged to cooperate by concluding specific agreements and establishing joint bodies.  

Notably, the Water Convention has supported the development of agreements in basins even in complex political or diplomatic settings, exemplified by the Drin River Basin (shared by Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, Kosovo (S/RES/1244), and Montenegro), and the Dniester River Basin (shared by Ukraine and Moldova). 

The Convention has supported the establishment of river basin organizations and other joint institutions, providing platforms for dialogue, negotiations, and improved water resource governance, such as the Commission for the Chu and Talas Rivers, shared by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and has facilitated cooperation to improve dam safety across Central Asia. 

Basin organizations often persist even during conflicts or contribute to peacebuilding, such as the Lake Chad Basin Commission established in 1964, whose efforts are today further strengthened by the accession of Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon to the Water Convention. All the countries bordering Lake Chad, with the exception of Niger, have joined the Convention to support shared management efforts. The Lake has decreased by 90% in size over the last 60 years. 

The Water Convention has also supported Senegal, Mauritania, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau to establish pioneering cooperation on the Senegalo-Mauritanian Aquifer Basin

Effective transboundary water cooperation acts as a powerful tool to strengthen the foundations for peace in post-conflict settings, such as on the Sava River which flows through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. The signature by the basin countries of the Sava agreement, the first intergovernmental agreement after the war in former Yugoslavia, and creation of the Sava commission by the four states – which are all Water Convention parties – not only enables the joint management of the river, but also reinforced trust and cooperation in the region. The Sava agreement was facilitated by the Water Convention.  

The Water Convention’s Implementation Committee further offers a mechanism to help resolve water-related disputes. An example of its value is when Montenegro requested in 2019 the committee's involvement regarding the potential transboundary impact of planned small hydropower plants in Albania.  

Beyond its growing community of Parties, some 130 countries in total participate in the activities of the UN Water Convention, sharing experience with countries, basin organizations and international partners, and benefiting from practical resources in areas ranging from water allocation, to financing climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in shared basins. As such, the Convention provides the much-needed intergovernmental platform to accelerate transboundary cooperation, increase political willingness and capacity.   

For details of World Water Day events supported by the UN Water Convention, visit: 

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Information Unit

Tel.: +41 (0) 22 917 12 34

Email: [email protected]

Reproduction is permitted provided that the source is acknowledged.