Management of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Aquifers

May 4, 2004

Global water demands are likely to increase steadily in the foreseeable future due to increases in population growth in developing countries, accelerating human activities, and changing lifestyles in most parts of the world. Since nearly all exclusively national sources of water that could be used economically have already been developed, or are in the process of development, there is likely to be increasing pressure to utilize the transboundary water bodies, which are often the only new sources of water that could be developed cost-effectively. These sources have not been developed in the past, primarily because of absence of agreements on water allocations between the countries concerned. Thus, the potential for conflicts in the future over the use of such transboundary water bodies is likely to be much higher than at present, on was the case in the past.

International organizations can play an important role as mediators of conflicts on transboundary water bodies. However, except for Eugene Black, the former President of the World Bank, who played a critical role in the 1950’s on forging the agreement on the Indus River water-sharing treaty between India and Pakistan, their contributions have been mostly marginal in recent decades. In 1970, the United Nations decided to consider a law for non-navigable uses of international watercourses. Some 27 years later, the UN General Assembly approved on 8 July 1997 a convention on this subject. More than 7 years have passed, and this convention has still not been ratified. In the future, agreements on the management of international watercourses are likely to be achieved through protracted negotiations between the countries concerned, as was the case in the past.

The Centre has conducted studies on international water bodies from its very inception. It was the Centre-sponsored study that authoritatively updated the 1978 United Nations estimates that there were 214 international waterways, which covered 47 percent of the earth’s continental land surface. The new Centre study listed 261 international rivers and lakes, covering 45.3 percent of the earth’s land surface (excluding Antarctica).

The studies by the Centre have resulted in the publication of definitive texts like:

  • Asian International Waters: from Ganges-Brahmaputra to Mekong
  • Management of Latin American River Basins: Amazon, Plata, and Sao Francisco
  • Sustainable Development of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basins
  • Ganges Brahmaputra-Meghna Region: A Framework for Sustainable Development.

The Centre currently has three specific ongoing activities in this overall area:

  • Objective, critical and in-depth assessments of global experiences on the management of transboundary rivers and lakes.
  • Present status of management of transboundary rivers and lakes in Middle East and North Africa region
  • Analysis of experiences of management of transboundary rivers, lakes and aquifers in North and South American countries.

All of these case studies were prepared by experts who are familiar with the respective regions, as well as of their institutions, main actors, historical and political considerations, characteristics of the conflicts, both existing and potential, and opportunities and constraints for feasible and implementable solutions.