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FAQs part 4

4. Scope

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.


4.1 Which waters fall under the scope of the Water Convention?

The Water Convention applies to transboundary waters. According to the Convention (Article 1(1)), “transboundary waters” means any surface waters or ground waters which mark, cross or are located on boundaries between two or more States. With regard to groundwaters, the Convention applies to both confined and unconfined aquifers. Furthermore, the notion of transboundary waters under the Convention is not limited to a water body (e.g. a river, a lake or an aquifer), but covers the entire catchment area (Article 2(6)).

Additional resources:

4.2 Why does the Water Convention use different terms such as “transboundary watercourses”, “international lakes” and “transboundary waters”?

“Transboundary watercourses” and “international lakes” appear in the title of the Convention, and “transboundary waters” is used throughout the Convention text. The use of the different terms might have been the result of a compromise reached during the negotiations of the Convention, though no definite answer to this question is known today.

From a legal and practical point of view, it is important that the Convention provides a clear definition of “transboundary waters” (Article 1(1)) when outlining its geographic scope of application, and that it consistently follows a holistic approach to the concept of environment. The Convention strongly promotes the concept of “catchment area” (Articles 1(2), 2(6) and 9(1)). The term “transboundary waters”, encompassing both transboundary surface and groundwaters whether confined or unconfined, has been most commonly used in the soft law instruments developed within the framework of the Convention over the past two decades.

As at mid-2020, no Party to the Convention has ever brought to the attention of the Meeting of the Parties of the Convention or its subsidiary bodies any practical difficulties with the terminology in question.

Additional resources:

4.3 Does the Water Convention apply to groundwaters? If yes, which type of groundwaters?

Along with transboundary surface waters, the Water Convention applies to transboundary groundwaters, including both confined and unconfined aquifers. In accordance with the catchment area approach of the Convention, cooperation under the Convention should cover the entire recharge area of an aquifer, whether confined or unconfined. The scope of application of the Convention also covers groundwaters located exclusively within the territory of one State if they interact with transboundary surface waters (e.g. located in the discharge zone of those groundwaters). The non-binding Model Provisions on Transboundary Groundwaters  adopted by the Parties in 2012 provide guidance to Parties in applying the Water Convention to transboundary aquifers.

Additional resources:

4.4 Does the Water Convention apply to seas or oceans?

Seas and oceans as such are generally excluded from the scope of the Water Convention. As detailed in the Convention’s Article 1(1), “wherever transboundary waters flow directly into the sea, these transboundary waters end at a straight line across their respective mouths between points on the low-water line of their banks”. However, the Convention recognizes the interlinkages between the management of freshwaters and oceans and seas. It therefore requires Parties to protect the environment that is influenced by their transboundary waters, including the marine environment (Article 2(6)). Furthermore, the Convention encourages cooperation between Riparian Parties and coastal States that are Parties to the Convention when coastal States are directly and significantly affected by transboundary impact deriving from transboundary waters shared by those Riparian Parties (Article 9(3)).

4.5 Does the Water Convention apply to wetlands that fall under the Ramsar Convention?

The Water Convention applies to transboundary waters. The Ramsar Convention applies to wetlands irrespective of their transboundary character. Not all wetlands covered by the Ramsar Convention are therefore covered by the Water Convention.

See also the reply to the related question:

4.6 Does the Water Convention address only water and environmental issues? If not, what other areas benefit from cooperation under the Water Convention?

The focus of the Water Convention is on cooperation in the field of transboundary waters. However, such cooperation has a direct impact on many other sectors such as agriculture, energy, industry, land management and health. Conversely, the Water Convention applies to any activity that may cause transboundary impact, which can potentially include activities in agriculture, energy, industry, transport and other sectors. Cooperation across sectors is therefore crucial for the implementation of the Convention. Cooperation frameworks set up according to the obligations of the Water Convention and the consultation procedures envisaged by the Convention provide for discussion of planned measures and development decisions, improving certainty and building investor confidence.

Although different sectors directly depend on the availability of water resources, planning in energy, agriculture, land management and water resources sectors often takes place in isolation, i.e. without adequate consideration of what the planned developments require or assume about other sectors. An inter-sectoral approach to managing the interlinked resources could thus enhance water, energy and food security. The work on the water-food-energy-ecosystems nexus  in transboundary basins implemented in the framework of the Water Convention helps countries identify opportunities for additional and equitable sharing of benefits that come from stronger cooperation and integration across sectors and helps develop practical solutions for reconciling the different sectors’ needs.

The work on the benefits of transboundary cooperation , also implemented in the framework of the Water Convention, helps countries increase cooperation by moving from ‘sharing water’ (i.e. allocating water resources among riparian States) to ‘sharing the benefits of water’ (i.e. managing water resources to achieve the maximum benefit). There is even greater scope for increasing cooperation by moving from ‘sharing the benefits of water’ to ‘realizing the broader benefits of water cooperation’, which include macroeconomic and security benefits beyond the water sector. The Water Convention assists countries in preparing benefits assessments to identify, assess and communicate the benefits of cooperation in specific transboundary basins.

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4.7 Does the Water Convention regulate water quantity issues?

The Water Convention addresses all transboundary impacts, whether related to water quantity or water quality. Water quantity may cause transboundary impact within the meaning of the Convention (e.g. droughts, floods, effects on human health and safety) and it is therefore an area where Parties may have to take appropriate measures to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impact. The ‘equitable and reasonable utilization principle’, which is also a key principle of the Convention’s normative structure, provides another cornerstone pillar on how water quantity issues should be tackled.

All the Convention’s provisions (obligations to carry out joint monitoring and assessment, exchange data and information, including on planned measures, conduct environmental impact assessments, hold consultations, set up warning and alarm systems, or provide mutual assistance) apply to cooperation on water quantity issues in as much as they apply to cooperation on water quality.

Following a global workshop on water allocation in transboundary basins organized in 2017 under the Water Convention, Parties realized the need for additional guidance in this area. Between 2019–2021, a handbook on water allocation in a transboundary context is being developed under the Convention by a group of experts from all over the world. This soft law instrument aims to review the existing practices and to cover the key aspects for the equitable and sustainable allocation of water resources in transboundary basins, addressing both surface waters and groundwaters.

Additional resources:
•    Water allocation in a transboundary context.


Last update date: January 30, 2021