Countries share water from lakes, aquifers, and river businesses. These transboundary waters lend a helping hand to the livelihoods of a large number of people scattered throughout the world. As the global population increases and water sources dry up, it’s vital to oversee how these resources are managed by encouraging peaceful coordination and sustainable development.

Depleted transboundary water supplies pose a significant challenge to global peace efforts. It can trigger social unrest and fan the flames of conflict between the two nations. Authorities need to address the rapidly evolving climate change effects as well as the demands of the growing populations and economic surge. For this purpose, they can put forward an integrated approach for transboundary water resource management, founded on the top of institutional and legal frameworks that can share both benefits and costs between countries.

Managing transboundary waters in an efficient manner
Transboundary Waters: A Need for a Unified Framework to Promote Cooperation for Shared Water 2

Challenges Posed by Transboundary Waters

Globally, over 264 watersheds and 300 aquifers exceed the political boundaries of two or more countries. International river basins encompass more than 45% of the Earth’s land surface. They also impact around 40% of the global population and constitute 80% of the river flows across the world. Populations residing in many countries are fundamentally connected to transboundary aquifers and basins. This is why they are intertwined hydrologically, socially, and economically as transboundary waters support various livelihoods.

Managing transboundary waters in an efficient manner is crucial because it can generate advantages for those who use shared aquifers or live in shared basins. These aquifers and basins are hard to manage due to their inherent characteristics. For instance, over-abstraction in a country upstream can cause water shortages for both ecosystems and people downstream. Moreover, it can carry pollutants from one country to another, inflicting damage to health and livelihoods.

Climate change makes matters worse due to variation in rainfall volumes that spark flooding and droughts. This is why cooperation is necessary for areas that are more vulnerable to climate change and regions where water resources are already dwindling. Wetlands around floodplains and lakes that extend across national boundaries offer essential ecosystem services that are availed by the surrounding populations. These include the natural processing of pollution, barriers against flooding, and food provision.

Overexploiting aquifers, rivers, and lakes can badly affect these ecosystem services on the transboundary waters. They can signal dangerous after-effects for the sustainability and reliability of water supplies, which may trigger international tension if these effects are felt more deeply by those living on the other side of the border. In addition, depleted aquifers enable saltwater intrusion in coastal areas and expand the concentration of fluoride, arsenic, and other dangerous substances.

The change between the socio-economic development, political approach, management capacity, and water-use objectives of the two countries makes it even tricky to handle the issue of transboundary waters.

On the other hand, transboundary river basins can be a source of cooperation if they are strategically managed. The last few decades show positive signs. In the last 50 years, there were only 37 acute transboundary water disputes. The same period oversaw the signing of 150 treaties. Countries prioritize these agreements due to a reason. They help to make international water-related relationships more predictable and stable. For countries that lie in the pan-European region, there is the UNECE Water Convention, a legal framework that promotes transboundary water cooperation. Regardless, 60% of the transboundary river basins in the world are yet to have an adequate framework that can promote cooperative management.

On an international level, there’s a lot of aquifer-related sharing. These underground water resources comprise major freshwater resources. They help with the provision of good-quality, safe drinking water that can address the demand of mankind for several decades. The water quality of aquifers is safe to drink and doesn’t pose much of a health risk. Therefore, governments, particularly from water-scarce countries, need to adopt a strategic management approach that can ensure that these resources are not depleted for a long time.

Factors such as the lack of interest from institutions, financial constraints, and the underlying hidden nature of groundwater are highly problematic. This is why the data needed to determine the potential and management of these resources is not easy to obtain.

UN Initiatives for Transboundary Waters

The UN has introduced several initiatives to promote water sharing between countries.

  • The UN-Water Thematic Priority Area (TPA) on Transboundary Waters aims to provide a platform that can encourage and enhance coordination of activities by UN-Water Members and Partners that are located in the regions of transboundary waters. For this purpose, the initiative promotes joint efforts to facilitate the exchange of experiences, lessons learned, and information.
  • The theme “Shared Waters, Shared Opportunities” was assigned to the World Water Day in 2009. It was emphasized that members need to nurture cooperation opportunities in transboundary water management in a bid to assist building trust, understanding, and mutual respect between countries. In this way, they can also promote sustainable economic growth, security, and peace.
  • The UN General Assembly agreed to call the 2013 International Year of Water Cooperation.

Final Thoughts

Transboundary water management provides advantages for everyone to share: climate change adaptation, international trade, economic growth, improved governance, food security, and regional integration.

Regardless of the issues posed by transboundary waters, there are different useful tools that can enhance its management. Up-to-date information systems show how much water is available or what the current demand is. It boosts the model accuracy for figuring out the effects of potential modifications in the use and management of shared aquifers and watersheds. River-basin organizations and other independent intuitions can empower regional cooperation in different social and economic areas, offer technical support to member countries, and strengthen capacity in both infrastructure and human resources.


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