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UNECE Water Convention turns 20 as it prepares to face global challenges

Published: 04 September 2012

The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) was signed in 1992 in Helsinki. To mark this anniversary, the Government of Finland hosted a meeting on 3 and 4 September 2012. At the two-day meeting, participants debated the achievements of the past 20 years together with the future perspectives for the Convention, against the background of its forthcoming globalization with the upcoming entry into force of an amendment allowing accession by United Nations Members outside the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

In the past 20 years, the world and the pan-European region have gone through profound political, economic and social transformation. The world's population has increased by 1.5 billion persons, and there are not only more of us, but we consume increasingly more: to meet the demands of a growing population with increasing wealth and consumption levels, global water withdrawals have tripled over the past 50 years. These trends will only further accelerate. The world's population is predicted to grow to 8.3 billion in 2030 and to 9.1 billion in 2050. Unless there are significant changes to the ways that we produce and consume, agricultural production will have to increase by about 70% by 2050, and about 50% more primary energy will have to be made available by 2035. Such increases will have far-reaching implications for water resources.

In such a complex world, with looming potential conflicts between water users, the Convention is more relevant than ever, as was highlighted at the two-day meeting. It provides a useful framework to exchange experience in addressing the increasing imbalance between water supply and demand, deterioration of water quality and ecosystems, impacts of climate change as well as the linkages between water, food and energy in transboundary basins. Participants emphasized as key success factors the fact that the Convention was not only able to adapt its work to respond to new challenges, but at the same time ensured continuity of efforts, which is needed for transboundary water cooperation, typically a long-term process.

“The future of the Convention will be defined by its globalization and opening up to countries outside the UNECE region” affirmed UNECE Executive Secretary Sven Alkalaj, noting that “the approach with regard to non-UNECE countries should be consistent with how the Convention and its Parties have behaved so far towards non-Parties in the UNECE region. It has been an inclusive and engaging approach, involving non-Parties in the work almost as much as Parties.”

Another important aspect for the future will be the relationship with the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which is expected to enter into force in 2013 or 2014. The consequences of the entry into force of the 1997 Convention in terms of implementation and intergovernmental structure are to be seen and the results cannot be anticipated. At the same time, participants at the meeting stressed that it is critical that future scenarios build on synergies, and avoid duplication and the waste of resources.

The two-day commemorative event reconfirmed the strong support of Parties to the Convention and their commitment to ensure that it will rise to future challenge. In particular, Finland reasserted its strong backing of the Convention and of transboundary water cooperation not only through the organization of the event, but also in the bilateral meetings that were held between Mr. Alkalaj and Ms. Anne Sipiläinen, Under-Secretary of State for Development Aid and Development Policy, Mr. Ville Niinistö, Minister of the Environment and Mr. Jari Koskinen, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry.

For further information, please visit:

or contact:

Ms. Francesca Bernardini
UNECE Water Convention Secretariat
Phone: +41 (0)22 917 2463

Note to Editors:

The central aim of the UNECE Water Convention 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 Convention requires countries to fulfil certain obligations, from observing general principles to implementing concrete actions. It 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.

Many river basin agreements are based on the Convention, such as the Danube River Protection Convention, the agreements on Lake Peipsi and on the Sava, Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt Rivers, or, further to the East, the bilateral agreements between countries in Eastern Europe established since the mid-1990s, among them the Kazakh-Russian, Russian-Ukrainian and Moldovan-Ukrainian agreements, just to mention a few.

Today, the Parties to the UNECE Water Convention are Albania, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and the European Union. Turkmenistan will become the thirty-ninth Party to the Convention on 27 November 2012.

The Convention was amended in 2003 to allow accession to non-UNECE countries, thereby making the Convention and its intergovernmental framework available to all regions of the world. With the likely entry into force of the amendment later in 2012, it is expected that the Convention will be greatly enhanced by this expansion and the sharing of experience and promotion of transboundary water cooperation at the global level.

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