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Water allocation in transboundary basins: highlighting global relevance and successful cooperation

Growing water scarcity, climate variability and increasing water needs for economic development have led to a rising global interest in water allocation practices. Especially where rivers, lakes and groundwater bodies cross national borders, the competing demands of countries and sectors for water resources pose a threat of conflict. Equitable and effective water allocation is thus an important foundation for peaceful and sustainable development, as well as one of the biggest challenges in water management and protection.

Given the specificities of each transboundary basin and their different water allocation needs, what can countries learn from examples of cooperation in other basins? What different forms of water allocation arrangements are currently in use and what are the benefits of including them in transboundary agreements? What tools and mechanisms are available to support knowledge-based decision-making on transboundary water allocation?

These were among the key questions addressed at a global workshop held on 16 and 17 October 2017 under the auspices of the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention), which is serviced by UNECE. The workshop brought together more than 100 representatives and experts from governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and academia. Coming from over 48 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, the participants shared experiences and knowledge on strengthening transboundary water allocation arrangements.  

In his keynote speech, Professor Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University (USA) shared lessons from his vast experience with water allocation negotiations. He emphasized the importance of the process of agreeing on water allocation. “Customary law itself cannot be used to determine allocations but rather to determine boundary conditions for dialogue”, he said, adding, “The problem is not the lack of guidelines or principles or really the lack of water but the lack of process”.

Water allocation for sustainable development

Effective water allocation addresses interconnected needs such as drinking water for human consumption and other water uses across the water-food-energy-ecosystems “nexus”. Promoting cooperation on water allocation can therefore make a direct contribution to countries’ achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation, and in particular targets 6.5 on integrated water resource management and transboundary cooperation, 6.4 on increasing water-use efficiency and reducing the number of people suffering from water scarcity, 6.1 on achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, 6.3 on improving water quality by reducing pollution and 6.6 on protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems. The aspect of pollution prevention received notable attention during the water allocation workshop. As Seppo Rekolainen, from the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture, chair of the event concluded: “The better we protect the quality of our water resources, the more water we have to allocate.”   

Successful cooperation on water allocation: learning from experiences

While the needs and priorities of every basin are unique, the workshop provided a valuable forum for countries to learn from successful examples of cooperation that could inform concrete strategies adapted to specific basin contexts. Different aspects that are fundamental to ensure a successful allocation arrangement were reviewed and discussed.

For example, not only sharing waters but also sharing benefits is a useful approach to agree on water allocation. Such an approach was illustrated in a presentation on the Lesotho Water Highlands Project, where water is exchanged for electricity generated from hydropower. It was highlighted that there is more scope for water allocation decisions if the benefits of water are considered, too. Following the same focus on benefits, a methodology for identifying, assessing, and communicating the benefits of transboundary water cooperation has been developed under the Water Convention and is being applied in several countries.

Discussions about water allocation are also ongoing in the Scheldt basin shared by Belgium and the Netherlands, demonstrating that water allocation concerns are more and more relevant also in countries with high levels of rainfall. Due to global climate change, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense, increasing the need to address questions of water allocation.

A key challenge for water allocation arrangements is to strike a balance between robustness and flexibility. The water allocation mechanism under the Albufeira Convention on waters shared by Portugal and Spain was offered as an example of an effective approach to deal with this challenge. The two countries have developed a sophisticated scheme for water allocation, but at the same time the agreement includes the stipulation that in case of droughts the Parties are exempted from compliance with the agreed flow regime.

Another common challenge is to allocate water for ecosystem needs. The approach applied in the Pungwe, Buzi and Save River basins shared by Mozambique and Zimbabwe illustrated a participatory approach to guarantee environmental flows and ensure the provision of ecosystem services in the river basins, through stakeholder involvement throughout the process.

Joint infrastructure investments can be a driving force for agreeing on water allocation. Representatives from Iran and Turkmenistan shared experiences of how the jointly financed Doosti (“friendship”) dam on the Tejen/Harirud River is helping to meet water needs for agriculture, drinking water, industry and environmental protection in a basin of around 3 million inhabitants, and how the agreed water allocations between the two countries form part of the day-to-day management of the dam.  

Cooperation over 25 years in the Amu Darya basin between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in the framework of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in Central Asia (ICWC) highlighted the need for everyday technical interaction to deal with water allocation, set on the basis of the countries’ historical and present water use and their respective areas of irrigated land.

While the Amu Darya basin also extends into territory of Afghanistan, the latter is not involved in the ICWC or other institutional frameworks of transboundary water cooperation in Central Asia. However, there are several efforts ongoing to enhance water cooperation between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, including the negotiation of a memorandum of understanding. Also, the recent UNECE-supported joint expedition of hydrology and environment specialists from Afghanistan and Tajikistan to the Pyanj River in the upper Amu Darya basin, conducted with the objective of facilitating enhanced monitoring of river flow and water quality, is a concrete example of developing this cooperation further.

Global relevance of water allocation: future directions

Looking ahead, workshop participants acknowledged that water allocation is not a concern for all basins globally, but a growing concern in basins faced with temporary or constant water scarcity, which, due to climate change impacts, is affecting more and more countries in the world. Therefore, many delegates proposed to include activities to promote sustainable, equitable and resilient water allocation in the future programme of work under the Water Convention for 2019-2021. Concrete suggestions included capacity-building and awareness-raising activities as well as the development of a document guiding efforts in these areas based on existing examples and good practices.

Background information

The workshop was organized under the Water Convention in cooperation with the Geneva Water Hub, the Global Environment Facility’s International Waters Learning Exchange and Resource Network (IW:LEARN) project, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Finland and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The workshop was financially supported by IW:LEARN and the Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety of Germany.

The workshop was followed by the fifth meeting of the Task Force on the Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystems Nexus, held on 18 October, which reviewed the progress in applying a participatory methodology developed under the Water Convention for assessing intersectoral challenges in managing water, energy and land resources, and protecting the ecosystems, in transboundary basins and for identifying possible collaborative actions to improve sustainability and reduce transboundary impacts.

The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention), serviced by UNECE, aims to protect and ensure the quantity, quality and sustainable use of transboundary water resources by facilitating cooperation. It provides an intergovernmental platform for the day-to-day development and advancement of transboundary cooperation. Since 2016, the Convention is open to accession by countries beyond the UNECE region.

For more information on the workshop, please visit: https://www.unece.org/index.php?id=43623