Water is scarce, precious and under pressure. It crosses borders and raises tensions among countries and people relying on it for life.

For those pursuing global, equitable change through collaboration and multilateralism, as Green Cross is committed to doing, there is no substitute for United Nations conventions establishing norms and standards for states to follow. As former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter said at the Conference for a Green and Inclusive Economy, “The United Nations still has the best institutions – we need to support it, and think more seriously about the meaning of ‘sovereignty’.”

Green Cross in particular stands behind a number of relevant UN conventions, and calls on states to sign, ratify, and then to fulfill their obligations under each of them. This will benefit their own populations and the world as a whole.

The Water for Life and Peace Programme’s advocacy for governance of water resources at the international level has coalesced around two similar and complementary treaties:

  • United Nations Watercourses Convention (UNWC) – Green Cross is part of the group of NGOs pushing more states to ratify this convention, which achieved a major breakthrough in 2014 when the number of member countries reached 35 (the number required to bring it into force). The UN Watercourses Convention establishes a framework for the utilization, development, conservation, management, and protection of international watercourses; whilst promoting optimal and sustainable utilization thereof for present and future generations, and accounting for the special situation and needs of developing countries. See here for more details on this Convention
  • UNECE Treaty on Watercourses – The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) 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. Initially negotiated as a regional instrument, it turned into a universally available legal framework for transboundary water cooperation, following the entry into force of amendments in February 2013, opening it to all UN Member States. It now makes an effective complement to the UN Watercourses Convention, providing an additional avenue to achieve the same goals.

Working with major partners such as WWF (World Wildlife Fund), IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and Dundee University’s IHP Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science, Green Cross is engaged in numerous awareness-raising initiatives and collaborations with governments to promote legal frameworks, cooperation and better management of international watercourses. About twenty countries joined the Convention between 2006 and 2015, with Vietnam becoming the 35th country to ratify – thereby triggering the Convention’s entry into force, in 2014. The Green Cross network and its partners played an essential role in that. The Water programme continues to promote sound legal governance of shared waters and is now getting involved in next steps, such as implementation and joint promotion with the UNECE Water Convention (a formerly regional legal instrument which has now opened to global accession).

There are about 280 watercourses around the world which are shared between two or more countries – including the Nile, Amazon and Mekong basins – and about as many cross-borders aquifers (those geological formations containing groundwater from which humanity extracts most of the freshwater used for agriculture, industry and domestic purposes). The management, sharing and protection of those waters is crucial for 60 per cent of all freshwater flows in transboundary basins.

Considering the rising demand for water, demographic growth, and the pressure under which aquatic ecosystems are already placed, better water management will be absolutely necessary for a sustainable future. Having to coordinate water management between neighbouring countries adds a level of complexity to the challenge, but it also creates opportunities.

There exists an important gap in governance regarding transboundary waters. Only 40 per cent of them are subject to a cooperative agreement between governments, and 80 per cent of the existing agreements either do not address sustainability, are obsolete, or do not include all of the countries that share the watercourse.

Much needs to be done to improve the governing frameworks of transboundary basins and for those frameworks to translate into sustainable management, protection, and use of the watersheds. Green Cross undertook, almost two decades ago, the job of promoting global legal governance through ratification of the UN Watercourses Convention. The Convention was negotiated over three decades at the United Nations, and was adopted by over 100 countries at the UN General Assembly in 1997. It established basic principles of sustainable and equitable use, management, and protection of international watercourses. This historic global water governance agreement did not see quick ratification by many state parties, however, for a variety of reasons.