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Second Assessment of transboundary waters in wider Europe shows improvements over the past decade amidst emerging concerns

Published: 21 September 2011

Geneva, Switzerland, and Astana, Kazakhstan

The status of transboundary waters is improving in many parts of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) region thanks to the efforts to protect waters and the environment. However, transboundary water resources are still under great stress from a variety of causes including poor management practices, pollution (agriculture, wastewater discharges, etc.), overexploitation, unsustainable production and consumption patterns, hydromorphological pressures, inadequate investment in infrastructure and low efficiency in water use.

These are some of the main findings of the Second Assessment of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Groundwaters which was launched today at the Seventh “Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference” being held in Astana from 21 to 23 September 2011. The Second Assessment provides relevant information and stimulus for Governments, river basin organizations and international and non-governmental organizations to take action to improve the status of transboundary waters and related ecosystems.

Transboundary waters play a significant role in the ECE region. Transboundary river basins cover more than 40% of the European and Asian surface of the region and are home to more than 50% of the European and Asian population of ECE. The Second Assessment covers more than 140 transboundary rivers, 25 transboundary lakes, about 200 transboundary groundwaters and 25 Ramsar Sites and other wetlands of transboundary importance. It presents a broad analysis of transboundary water resources, pressure factors, quantity and quality status, and transboundary impacts, as well as management responses and future trends.

Competition — and in some cases even conflicts — between different water uses, often in different riparian countries, is a challenge. Climate change impacts are expected to further aggravate the problems. In many basins, potential impacts of climate change on water resources have not been specifically assessed: more comprehensive and collaborative research into the impacts of climate change at the subregional and basin level is needed. Among the transboundary rivers where climate change is a concern are the Amu Darya, Danube, Ems, Maritsa/Evros/Meriç, Meuse, Rhine, Rhone and Torne. Initiatives to develop a common understanding of major challenges and to collate existing knowledge have started in some basins, but moves to establish joint or coordinated adaptation strategies should be accelerated.

In Western and Central Europe changes caused to the rivers’ natural flow by dams, canalization and similar constructions are an important pressure factor, and several basins, such as the Ems, Meuse, Morava and Scheldt, are heavily modified along most of their course. The consequences include altered and degraded ecosystems (wetlands in particular), sedimentation and blocked fish migration. In some basins, measures such as building fish ladders have been taken, but more efforts and investments are needed to reinstate natural conditions. Another major cause for impaired water quality in the subregion is diffuse pollution from the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

In South-Eastern Europe, the steady growth of manufacturing, mining and hydropower sectors has emerged as an environmental challenge together with the current methods employed in agriculture. At the same time, the European Union (EU) accession process has driven improvement in national legal frameworks and water management-related investments, but cooperation on transboundary waters remains weak in many cases.

In Eastern Europe, the status of waters has improved, not least due to the investments in wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure. However there are remarkable differences between EU and non-EU countries, where wastewaters still represent a heavy pressure.

In the Caucasus, there is need to balance the aggressively prioritized economic development and enhance environmental protection to ensure long-term sustainability. Despite some modest progress in bilateral cooperation, no basin-wide agreement exists for the management of the Kura River, the main river in the subregion, and a greater political commitment to transboundary cooperation is needed.

In Central Asia, agreements signed in recent years between China and Kazakhstan, China and the Russian Federation, and the work under the Chu-Talas Commission are positive steps towards improving transboundary cooperation. However, the lack of properly implemented basin-wide agreements on the main rivers of Central Asia (the Amu Darya and Syr Darya) is a major hindrance. Further efforts in the subregion are needed to improve water efficiency. These include increasing the effectiveness of irrigation systems — by repairing and maintaining existing infrastructure — switching to less water-demanding crops and limiting the surface of irrigated land. Environmental impact assessments of planned projects with potential transboundary impact (including further flow regulation in Central Asia) should be carried out in a more systematic manner, with involvement of the affected countries and populations.

Through the pan-European region, the Assessment shows that stronger water and environmental governance, sound land management policies and, above all, integration of sectoral policies are needed more than ever so that improvements in water management are not compromised by policies in other sectors. Such integration remains a challenge also in the EU.


For further information please visit:

or contact:

Ms. Annukka Lipponen
UNECE, Environment Division
Water Convention Secretariat
Phone: +41 (0)22 917 2666


Note to Editors:

The Second Assessment of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Groundwaters is the most comprehensive overview of the status of transboundary waters in the ECE region. It has been carried out under the auspices of the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention), in close cooperation with the water and/or environment administrations of some 50 countries and with the involvement of more than 250 experts.

As sustainable management of water and water-related ecosystems is one of the two main themes of the Seventh “Environment for Europe” Ministerial Conference, the Second Assessment of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Groundwaters is one of the key inputs to it.

The assessment is based on official information provided by countries of the region. Where active, river basin and lake commissions also play an important role in providing a balanced and accurate view of pertinent issues within basins.

The Second Assessment has been prepared upon request by the Sixth Ministerial Conference (Belgrade, 2007) in the framework of the Water Convention, under the leadership of Finland.

The UNECE Water Convention’s central aim is to strengthen measures at the local, national and transboundary levels to protect and ensure the quantity, quality and sustainable use of transboundary water resources — both surface waters and groundwaters. The Convention takes a holistic approach, based on the understanding that water resources play an integral part in ecosystems as well as in human societies and economies.

The Water Convention requires countries to fulfil certain obligations, from observing general principles to implementing concrete actions. The Convention requires Riparian Parties (Parties bordering the same transboundary waters) to enter into specific bilateral or multilateral agreements and to create institutions — joint bodies such as river and lake commissions — to meet these responsibilities. Other specific obligations include establishment and implementation of joint programmes for monitoring the conditions of transboundary waters and, at regular intervals, to carry out joint or coordinated assessments of the condition of transboundary waters and the effectiveness of measures taken to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impacts.


United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Information Unit

Palais des Nations, 

CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Tel.: +41 (0) 22 917 44 44

Fax: +41 (0) 22 917 05 05