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Governance of Shared Waters

Governance of Shared Waters

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Published by: Uğur Özkan on Dec 21, 2011
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Of all the water on earth, only 3% of it is freshwater, 97% of it being salty. Most of this 3% is

located in the polar icecaps and in underground reservoirs. It is estimated that only 3% of freshwater

reserves are found in rivers and lakes1

.Water, so abundant and revered for its ability to give life, is

becoming a scarce resource2

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), if current projections for global popula-

tion growth and resource availability remain unchanged, about 34 countries will experience serious

diffculties in obtaining water supplies by the year 2025. Currently, about 29 States are already suffer-

ing from moderate to severe water shortages. The number of people living in countries experiencing

water shortages will increase from around 132 million (in 1990) to about 653 million by the year 2025,

which will represent between 13% and 20% of the world’s population3

There are many reasons for this phenomenon. On the one hand there is an overall population

increase which has led to increased water consumption and which, in turn, has led to an

increase in the amount of water needed to meet population requirements. On the other hand, other

reasons for this water crisis include the gradual deterioration of water quality. This is due to various

factors, including the contamination of watercourses with ‘heavy’ metals, chemical waste or pesticides

and fertilizers. It is also worth mentioning the damage caused by salt water intrusion, particularly in

island states, which affects not only surface water but also underground water. It is also important

to remember what impacts a change in the course of a river can have and the consequences of the

construction of dams and reservoirs and of the destruction of catchment areas.

Global changes have led to changes in the levels of rainfall, exacerbating shortages in the regions

already experiencing this problem.

The inevitable consequence of the events described above is a gradual decrease in quantity as well

as a deterioration in the overall quality of water and associated terrestrial and coastal ecosystems,

and a potential increase in disputes over this resource. Indeed, during the course of the last century

there has been an increase in international disputes over the possession of water4

Of the two hundred and fourteen transboundary river basins in the world, one hundred and ffty-fve

of these are shared between two States, thirty-six between three States and twenty-three between

four or more States.In addition to this, an estimated ffty States have seventy-fve percent of their

territory located in shared river basins, with about forty percent of the world’s population living within

one of these shared basins.


Gleick, P., 1993, An Introduction to Global Fresh Water Issues, Water in Crisis.


Water stress can be measured as follows: low (10% loss of total available water), moderate (loss of 10 to
20%), medium (disappearance of 20 to 40%) and high (more than 40% of the total available water having
disappeared).Global Environment Outlook 2000, page 42.




See Mc Caffrey, S. 1993, Water, Politics and international law, Water in Crisis, Peter H.Gleick (Editor).



The central theme of this publication has evolved in recent years, but it has not had much impact in

terms of management issues, implying that current degradation and pollution, as well as the pressure

on natural resources sustaining the ecosystem persist, despite the introduction of integrated water

resources management approaches. Also, the validity of national sovereignty is clearly refected in

the management of shared river basins, where there is still a lot to be done in terms of cooperation

and joint management in accordance with the principles of sustainable development, the ecosystem

approach and effective water governance. Until this is implemented, the most vulnerable populations

will continue to suffer from the negative effects of unsustainable water management practices.

It is necessary to explain what most effective strategies exist, as well as what policies and legal

instruments will allow for the joint governance of transboundary basins, in order to preserve water

quality, the minimum fow of water and to make sure that ecosystems are properly used as the basis

for promoting sustainable development.

From a political point of view, shared natural resources also offer a challenge, due to the fact that the

management of these resources may have consequences for the sovereignty and territory of different

States. Indeed it is important to take into account the political relations in certain regions, whether

the context is of calm and peaceful interactions between States or whether there are disputes. It

is necessary to refect on the value of the shared resources in relation to the integration processes

taking place in different regions, also taking into account, for example, the integrated management of

shared waters as a possible mechanism for avoiding disputes on resources that may become scarce

due to growing demand.

The aim of this book is to contribute to a better understanding of the legal and institutional arrange-

ments necessary for promoting good governance5

of transboundary waters between two or more


The concept of ‘shared waters’ was chosen for the title of this book instead of the concept of

“shared basins” in order to promote a holistic vision of water, independent of its geographical

location within a territory, as well as to provide an understanding of the legal and institutional aspects of

managing and conserving bodies of water located between two or more States. It is precisely the

water resource itself that is shared, while by nature, the basin cannot be divided and as such, it is

not specifcally “shareable”.

Bearing this in mind, the authors frst of all suggest defning the conceptual framework and explaining

relevant terminology. They then provide a review of the legal foundations for the regulation of shared

waters, focusing on political agreements, international treaties and customary law as applicable to

the case. The book also aims to provide guidance regarding institutional arrangements, which are


Governance is the process of exercising economic, political and administrative authority in managing the
affairs of a country at all levels.This includes the mechanisms, processes and institutions through which
citizens express their interests, exercise their rights, meet their obligations and resolve their differences.
It can also be described as the means by which society defnes its goals and priorities and advances
cooperation, whether at global, regional, national or local level. Governance systems are expressed through
political and legal frameworks, strategies and action plans. See Burhenne-Guilmin, F., Scanlon, J. (Editors),
2004, International Environmental Governance, IUCN Environmental Policy and Law Paper No 49, IUCN
Gland, Switzerland, page 2.




necessary for promoting the changes that are needed to put good water governance into operation6

In order to do this, the book is divided into six different chapters.

Chapter I, entitled “Space in Motion”, sets out to explain what the components of a water basin are,

thus clarifying terminology on concepts such as ‘shared’, ‘transboundary’ and ‘international’, and

clarifying the scope for the practical application of the concept of shared waters.

Chapter II, with the title “From principles to tools”, aims to give guidance on the sources of interna-

tional water law and the principles of applicable law in this particular area for States to adequately

regulate their relationship to transboundary water. It also explains the powers and rights of the States

that actually use the waters fowing from one country to another.

Chapter III “In accordance with the agreements” refers to the key treaties regulating shared water,

and also focuses on other types of available instruments relevant to shared water governance.

Chapter IV entitled “Rethinking the institutions” concerns the institutions necessary for the manage-

ment of shared waters and the mechanisms used for resolving any dispute that may arise between

States currently sharing water resources.

The title of Chapter V “The dynamics of change” addresses the need to cover a set of horizontal

issues relating either to certain principles, or to agreements and institutions, and which constitute the

vectors of a new approach towards the integrated management of shared bodies of water, including,

among other issues, public participation, environmental impact assessments of projects and activi-

ties, and the conservation of freshwater ecosystems.

Chapter VI highlights some of the most relevant legal cases involving disputes between States part

of a water basin, over their shared water. This section is intended to illustrate what issues are raised

during these disputes and what mechanisms are used to fnd a solution.

In an effort to provide the reader with the answers to key legal questions concerning the

management of shared water resources, this book includes a further section entitled “Key Questions”,

which summarises the main questions asked, and a Chapter VII entitled “Short Answers” where the

answers to these questions are shown in simplifed format.

This body of work is rounded off by two annexes. Annex I includes guidelines and practical elements

to be considered in improving the governance of shared waters. Annex II contains a selection of

treaties and instruments relating to shared waters in several different regions around the world. This

selection is intended to give the reader an idea of the diversity of tools available for regulating shared

water, and of the variety of provisions contained within these tools: from general political commit-

ments such as the obligation to cooperate, to stricter regulations on the quality and quantity of



The Global Water Partnership (GWP) defnes water governance as a range of political, social, economic
and administrative systems, set out to develop and manage water resources and water supply at different
levels of society. See Moran Colom, E., Ballesteros, M., 2003, ‘Gobernabilidad efcaz del agua: acciones
conjuntas en Centro América, Global Water Partnership, page 4.



We invite the reader to think about, build upon and promote the concept of shared waters as a gate-

way to strengthening regional agreements, which seek to promote peace, democracy, the overall

welfare of ecosystems and the quality of human life.



Key Questions

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