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FAQs part 2

2. Global Application

The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the Water Convention include the replies to over 50 questions grouped in seven thematic parts. The FAQs are also available as a publication.


2.1 The Water Convention was originally drafted as a regional agreement. Why was a decision taken to open it to all United Nations Member States?

The Water Convention was amended in 2003 to allow accession by all United Nations Member States, i.e. not only those belonging to the UNECE region. Such a decision was taken by the Parties based on the Convention’s successes in strengthening transboundary water cooperation at both political and technical levels in the region, and in response to the interest from countries outside the UNECE region in the Convention.

This decision was rooted in the advantages of opening the Convention to the whole world. By amending the Convention to enable accession by all United Nations Member States, its Parties wanted to broaden political support for transboundary water cooperation at the global level, share the experiences of the Convention, and learn from other regions of the world.

The Parties to the Convention also intended to offer the principles and provisions of the Convention and its intergovernmental platform worldwide. They believed that the implementation of the Water Convention at the global level would be crucial for international peace and the prevention of conflicts, as the situation of water resources is projected to aggravate in the coming decades. They saw the Water Convention as an effective and much needed intergovernmental platform, under the umbrella of the United Nations, capable of enhancing water security, preventing disputes over water, and facilitating conflict resolution.

The process of the entry into force of the amendments has been accompanied by a growing interest in the Convention from countries from outside the UNECE region and largely driven by such interest. As of 2009, the active participation of countries from outside the UNECE region in the activities under the Convention demonstrated the wealth of valuable experience on transboundary water cooperation outside the region and further motivated Parties to the Convention to speed up the entry into force of the amendments. In the period 2009–2020, more than 120 countries worldwide have participated in meetings and activities under the Convention.

The amendments became operational as of 2016. As at 2020, the Convention has 44 Parties, including three from outside the UNECE region (Chad, Ghana and Senegal).

Additional resources:

2.2 What is UNECE?
2.3 Why is the Water Convention serviced by UNECE?

Since the 1960s, UNECE has been very active on the issues of water management and transboundary water and environmental cooperation, as demanded by its member States. In the early years, its Committee on Water Problems adopted a series of recommendations and declarations on water management issues, which set international benchmarks for water management and cooperation in the region and globally. UNECE was thus the most appropriate forum for the negotiation of a framework convention on transboundary waters when the Meeting on the Protection of the Environment of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (Sofia, 1989) recommended the development of such a convention. UNECE has also naturally become an obvious choice for implementing the functions of the secretariat for the Water Convention.

The Water Convention’s secretariat arrangement is not unique. For similar historical reasons, UNECE also hosts the secretariat of many other global agreements and conventions, in particular on transport , for example, the 1954 Convention concerning Customs Facilities for Touring, the 1968 Convention on Road Traffic, and the 1968 Convention on Road Signs and Signals. In agriculture , UNECE standards are used internationally by governments, producers, exporters and importers. The United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT)  is another UNECE body with a broad remit, delivering globally-used trade facilitation recommendations and electronic business standards. UNECE also manages a global system for the classification of dangerous goods (chemicals, explosives) and a global convention on the rules governing their transport.

2.4 Why is the Water Convention relevant for countries that were not involved in the negotiations?

It is not unusual for countries not involved in the negotiations of a multilateral environmental agreement to later decide to become party to it. For example, as at mid-2020, 187 countries are Parties  to the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, but only 96 countries were represented at one or more of the sessions of the Ad Hoc Working Group of Legal and Technical Experts that negotiated the Convention (UNEP/IG.80/4). Accession by a country that did not participate in the negotiations is usually driven by the value of participation in a given treaty for the country.

In the case of the Water Convention, the major arguments for the countries who were not involved in the negotiations but are considering accession to the Convention are the results achieved in the Convention’s framework and the assistance the Convention provides to its Parties. Results demonstrating the effectiveness of the Convention include: i) the conclusion of numerous transboundary water agreements based on the regulatory template of the Convention; ii) practical support to the implementation of the provisions of the Convention; iii) the development of a body of soft law instruments (guidelines, recommendations, model provisions, etc.), which provide further guidance to the Parties in the interpretation and application of the Convention; and iv) the contribution of the Convention to the implementation by its Parties of the water-related Millennium Development Goals in the past, and the Sustainable Development Goals in recent years.

The Convention can thus be a relevant instrument for countries wishing to strengthen or develop cooperation in their shared transboundary basins, participate in further developing international water law, and contribute to the advancement of transboundary water cooperation worldwide, even if they were not involved in the negotiations. By becoming a Party to the Convention, countries can participate in its further development, including by: i) proposing amendments to and shaping the normative framework of the Convention; ii) suggesting decisions for adoption by the Meeting of the Parties; and iii) designing the 3-year programme of work under the Convention.

See also the replies to the related questions:
Would the Water Convention be useful to every country, taking into account regional specificities and each country’s unique situation? [1.7]
Would the Water Convention be an efficient instrument for developing countries? 

2.5 Would the Water Convention be an efficient instrument for arid or semi-arid regions?

The UNECE region, for which the Water Convention was originally negotiated, is often considered a water abundant region. However, in reality, the UNECE region is very diversified in terms of water availability, with the impacts of climate change likely to change the situation with water availability in the future. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—both Parties to the Water Convention—are among those countries whose level of water stress (SDG indicator 6.4.2) exceeds 100 per cent, along with Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic, United Arab Emirates and Yemen (see Progress on Level of Water Stress. Global baseline for SDG indicator 6.4.2 (2018). FAO and UN-Water).

For arid and semi-arid countries and regions where little water is available, and where such water is a shared resource, it is even more important for countries to cooperate in order to ensure sustainable, equitable and efficient use of water resources. The Water Convention is useful for such regions as it provides the framework for day-to-day cooperation, including through the exchange of information and data, consultations, early warning and alarm systems, mutual assistance, and other procedures.

Furthermore, arid and semi-arid countries and regions can benefit from a number of activities and tools under the Water Convention that specifically address water availability and water scarcity:

  • Water and climate change activities: Since climate change may reduce the availability of water resources in the long term or make certain regions more prone to the occurrence of drought, Parties to the Water Convention work together to identify possible solutions. In 2006, they set up a dedicated Task Force on Water and Climate  to help countries adapt to climate change, including floods, drought and water scarcity. Since then, activities have included exchanges of experience, capacity-building and projects on the ground, as well as the development of guidance documents, such as the 2009 Guidance on Water and Adaptation to Climate Change  and the 2018 Words into Action Guidelines: Implementation Guide for Addressing Water-related Disasters and Transboundary Cooperation, which is an official guide for implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030. A global network of basins working on climate change  (some with a focus on water scarcity, others on floods) and regular global workshops help countries to develop and implement joint adaptation strategies and exchange experiences. The Convention’s pilot projects on adaptation to climate change in transboundary basins  strengthen the capacity of specific basins to adapt to climate change. For example, in the Chu-Talas River Basin—shared by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both facing water scarcity challenges—the pilot project  resulted in a transboundary climate change impact and vulnerability assessment, as well as proposals for adaptation measures with a focus on the transboundary level.
  • Aquifer-specific agreements: Aquifers are especially important for arid countries. Since the Convention covers both surface water and groundwaters and requires the conclusion of specific transboundary water agreements, it can facilitate the development of aquifer-specific agreements in those regions with the provision of tailored assistance to this end, potentially on the basis of the 2012 Model Provisions on Transboundary Groundwaters, which were developed within the Convention’s framework.
  • Nexus activities: The work on the water-food-energy-ecosystems nexus  in transboundary basins in the framework of the Convention can help arid and semi-arid countries and regions identify practical solutions for reconciling the different sectors’ needs, having a direct impact on the efficiency of water use and thus reducing water stress. 
  • Water use efficiency: The Convention’s focus on recycling, recovery and reuse as part of the concept of “best environmental practices” (Annex II of the Water Convention) promotes water use efficiency, which can be particularly relevant for arid and semi-arid countries and regions.

Additional resources:

2.6 Would the Water Convention be an efficient instrument for developing countries?

Shared water resources and the accompanying need to manage them jointly can become a driver of development and regional integration. A good example of this is the case of the Senegal River Basin.

The Water Convention can help developing countries develop their transboundary basins in a sustainable manner, preventing conflicts over shared resources.

The provisions of the Water Convention are to be implemented by developing countries taking into account their capacity. Owing to the due diligence nature of many of its obligations, the Convention allows for the different capacities and level of economic development of its Parties to be considered. As a result, developing countries are not expected to implement the Convention in the same way as developed countries. Instead, they could use the Convention’s rules and tools as a means to achieve and accelerate their development objectives in transboundary water management by securing water-related investments. As at 2020, Parties to the Convention include several low-income and lower-middle income countries, according to the World Bank classification for the 2020 fiscal year.

See also the replies to the related questions:

2.7 Are there any differences between the rights and obligations of Parties from the UNECE region and those of Parties from other regions of the world?

There are no differences in the rights and obligations of Parties from the UNECE region and those of Parties from other regions of the world. All Parties have the same rights, such as to participate in decision-making, to receive assistance, to be elected to the bodies of the Convention, and to lead the activities under the Convention. For example, as of 2019, Senegal—a Party to the Convention since 2018—co-chairs the Convention’s Working Group on Monitoring and Assessment  and is a member of the Convention’s Bureau. All Parties can participate in the development of the Convention’s programme of work  so that it better responds to their specific needs.

2.8 Is the decision to open the Water Convention to all United Nations Member States extended to all its protocols?

The decision to open the Water Convention to all United Nations Member States refers to the Convention only. Accession to the 2003 Protocol on Civil Liability and Compensation for Damage Caused by the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents on Transboundary Waters  is open to all United Nations Member States. The 1999 Protocol on Water and Health is not open for accession by countries from regions other than the UNECE region. However all countries can use and benefit from the tools developed under the Protocol on Water and Health.


Last update date: February 6, 2021