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How to prevent climate conflict over dwindling water resources? UNECE releases Guidance on Water and Adaptation to Climate Change

Published: 20 November 2009


Countries need to adapt to climate change jointly without delay! This is the main message of the Guidance on Water and Adaptation to Climate Change, developed under the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) and recently adopted by its 36 Parties at their fifth meeting (Geneva, 10–12 November).

The socio-economic impacts of climate change are significant: between 2000 and 2006, the frequency of disaster from extreme climate events worldwide increased by 187 per cent as compared with the previous decade, accounting for 33,000 deaths and 1.6 billion people affected (2000–2008). In the same period, global economic damage from flooding events and heavy storms was estimated at about US$ 25 billion (source: the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters).

Most extreme climate events involve too much or too little water. Like climate change, water knows no borders. Countries must adapt - and work together when doing so. Adaptation measures, especially structural measures such as dams, reservoirs or dykes can have significant effects on other riparian countries. What to do if an upstream country unilaterally builds a dam to retain water for its population during droughts, but the water downstream is drastically reduced? What can be done if an upstream country is bound by an agreement stipulating the delivery of a specific amount of water downstream, but the overall amount of water is reduced? The Guidance describes how to prevent such situations and how to deal with them should they arise: for instance, by empowering existing institutions for cooperation on transboundary waters with the required authority to address climate change impacts, by opening consultations, pooling knowledge and initiating joint action.

In the UNECE region, most watercourses cross borders: there are more than 150 transboundary rivers, 50 major transboundary lakes and more than 170 transboundary groundwater systems. Transboundary cooperation on adaptation strategies is currently almost non-existent, however. The danger is that dwindling water resources will increase the risk of conflict; a threat to UNECE member States as well as to many parts of the world. Cooperation on adaptation can help to find better and more cost-effective solutions, by enlarging the geographical area considered in planning  measures, broadening the information base and combining efforts.

In these terms, the Guidance is more than “just another paper”, it is a unique tool to deal with these issues. It explains step by step how to develop and implement an adaptation strategy in the transboundary context. Based on the concept of integrated water resources management, the Guidance provides advice to decision makers and water managers on how to assess impacts of climate change on water quantity and quality, how to perform risk assessment, including health risks, how to gauge vulnerability, and how to design and implement appropriate adaptation strategies. More than 80 different authors from many countries and disciplines contributed to the Guidance. It features nearly 40 case studies – illustrating, for example, how river basins like the Rhine or the Danube are preparing for climate change.

Having the Guidance is not enough, it needs to be used and applied. The Parties to the Convention therefore decided to promote implementation of the Guidance through a programme of pilot projects and by establishing a platform for exchanging experiences with adaptation on transboundary waters. Projects on the ground will be developed to strengthen capacity to adapt in different transboundary basins, particularly in South-Eastern Europe, and in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia. Preliminary plans include projects for the Dniester River basin, shared by Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, and for the Chu and Talas basins, shared by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Guidance is available online at:

Francesca Bernardini: +41 22 9172463
Sonja Koeppel:, +41 22 917 1218

Note to Editors

Since its entry into force in 1996 the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) has provided an important legal framework and contributed to improving transboundary water management in the pan-European region. Currently, 35 countries and the European Community are Parties to the Convention, covering almost the entire UNECE region: Albania, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Republic of Moldova, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. In 2003, the Convention was amended to allow access to countries outside the UNECE region.

Although the Water Convention does not explicitly mention climate change, it is one of the most important legal frameworks in the UNECE region for cooperation on the transboundary aspects of climate change as well as adaptation strategies. It obliges Parties to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impacts, including those related to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moreover, the Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that transboundary waters are used in a reasonable and equitable way, including in relation to decisions on adaptation measures in transboundary basins.

The Convention includes other obligations related to climate change adaptation. It stipulates that joint water quality objectives shall be set and measures shall be designed to attain and maintain them. Parties are required to follow the precautionary principle which, in the case of climate change, implies taking action even before adverse impacts are fully proven scientifically. The Convention obliges Parties to exchange information about the current (and expected) conditions of transboundary waters as well as about the measures planned to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impacts. The Convention also includes provisions for consultations, common research and development, and joint monitoring and assessment. These can establish a basis for riparian countries to cooperate on adaptation strategies. The Convention requires Parties to enter into bilateral or multilateral agreements and to establish joint institutions for managing shared water resources, such as river commissions, which are good forums for transboundary adaptation. In addition, Parties are obliged to establish early warning systems, to apply and exchange best available technology and to provide mutual assistance to each other. Finally, Parties must make information about the environmental status of transboundary waters, expected scenarios and water quality objectives available to the public.

The Emergency Events Database EM-DAT was established in 1988. EM-DAT contains essential core data on the occurrence and effects of over 16,000 mass disasters in the world from 1900 to present. The database is compiled from various sources, including United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, insurance companies, research institutes and press agencies (The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance/ Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (OFDA/CRED) International Disaster Database, Université Catholique de Louvain, Brussels, Belgium. Available online at:

Ref: ECE/ENV/09/P27

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