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United Nations Watercourses Convention Enters Into Force

Landmark global framework on fresh water to improve water security, conflict resolution and cooperation across borders

On August 17, 2014 the United Nations Watercourses Convention, the first global framework on fresh water and the world’s only global framework for transboundary cooperation endorsed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, officially entered into force.

“Our Board has been promoting the Convention because effective transboundary water management furthers peace and promotes cooperation, and is a fundamental element of sustainable development,” said Ms. Uschi Eid, Chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. “It is high time to have it ratified, and I am satisfied it is going into force now, as we enter a new era of international cooperation defined by the post-2015 development agenda.”

Currently, there are 276 transboundary freshwater lake and river basins worldwide, but only 40% are governed by agreements. Where agreements exist, 80% involve only two countries, even though other states may also be part of the watercourse in question. The Convention will standardize one set of criteria for which all countries with international river basins and transboundary waters abide, ensuring more practical management globally. These criteria include defining the subjects that countries should discuss on their shared waters, facilitating the process of transboundary cooperation and holding governments accountable to their own countries and regions.

“We have found that we cannot achieve the same level of conservation goals in regions where countries are not cooperating on transboundary water management,” said Lifeng Li, Director of WWF’s global freshwater program. “Nature and wildlife do not respect national borders, and some of the most crucial areas for biodiversity are linked to international rivers and lakes. The UN Watercourses Convention will play an important role in creating a world in which people live in harmony with nature.”

Throughout decades of drafts and revisions, international organizations—particularly those focused on conservation—raised awareness, increased understanding and encouraged adoption of the UN Watercourses Convention. In May 2014, Vietnam became the 35th country to ratify, bringing the Convention into force, and several other countries are on the verge of acceding. With a growing population and a resurgence in large-scale hydropower projects, the need for comprehensive and effective arrangements for the equitable and sustainable management of transboundary waters is more vital than ever.

“The Convention’s entry into force provides important impetus to further foster much needed cooperation over transboundary waters at the global to local levels,” said Dr Alistair Rieu-Clarke from the University of Dundee Centre for Water Law, Policy & Science.

Marie-Laure Vercambre, Director of Green Cross International’s Water for Life and Peace Programme, emphasized the importance of the Convention, saying “Not only will the governance of the largest and best known watercourses be enhanced by the UN Watercourses Convention, but all transboundary basins of a country’s territory will benefit from it, providing a harmonized legal coverage to all those watercourses whom we know will be more and more exploited, utilized and developed.”

“This is just the beginning. Even as we eagerly move toward the next phase of planning implementation, we encourage other nations to accede to the UN Water Courses convention, thus demonstrating international support and recognition for the importance of adequate, joint management of fresh water,” Vercambre added.


 Key facts
• In 2012, 89% of the world’s population had access to an improved drinking-water source, compared with 76% in 1990.
• Almost 4 billion people now get water through a piped connection; 2.3 billion access water through other improved sources including public taps, protected wells and boreholes.
• 748 million people rely on unimproved sources, including 173 million who depend on surface water.
• Globally, 1.8 billion people use a drinking-water source that is contaminated with faeces.
• Contaminated water can transmit diseases such diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. Contaminated drinking-water is estimated to cause more than 500 000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.
• By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.


Safe and readily available water is important for public health, whether it is used for drinking, domestic use, food production or recreational purposes. Improved water supply and sanitation, and better management of water resources, can boost countries’ economic growth and can contribute greatly to poverty reduction. In 2010, the UN General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation. Everyone has the right to sufficient, continuous, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.

Access to water

The Millennium Development Goal (MDG 7) on drinking-water was met globally in 2010. The target was to halve the proportion of the world’s population without sustainable access to safe water. Sub-Saharan Africa, which started with low levels of provision and saw high population growth in this period, is not on track to achieve the target by 2015. Progress has nonetheless been impressive. Since 2000, almost a quarter of the region’s population gained access to an improved source of drinking-water – that is 50 000 people a day for 12 years. Sharp geographic, sociocultural and economic inequalities persist, not only between rural and urban areas but also in towns and cities where people living in low-income, informal or illegal settlements usually have less access to improved sources of drinking-water than other residents.

Water and health

Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio. Inadequate or absent water and sanitation services in health-care facilities put already vulnerable patients at additional risk of infection and disease. Inadequate management of urban, industrial and agricultural wastewater means the drinking-water of millions of people is dangerously contaminated or chemically polluted.

More than 840 000 people are estimated to die each year from diarrhoea as a result of unsafe drinking-water, sanitation and hand hygiene. But diarrhoea is largely preventable for example, the deaths of some 360 000 children aged under 5 each year could be avoided each year if these risk factors were addressed. Where water is not readily available, people may decide handwashing is not a priority, thereby adding to the likelihood of diarrhoea and other diseases.

Diarrhoea is the most widely known disease linked to contaminated food and water but there are other hazards. For example, some 200 million people are affected by schistosomiasis – an acute and chronic disease caused by parasitic worms contracted through exposure to infested water.

In many parts of the world, insects that live or breed in water carry and transmit diseases such as dengue fever. Some of these insects, known as vectors, actually breed in clean, rather than dirty or stagnant water, so water quality is not always an issue. However, it is important to cover water containers to help prevent mosquitoes and other vectors breeding in them.

Economic and social effects

When water comes from improved and more accessible sources, people spend less time and effort in physically collecting it, meaning they can be productive in other ways. It can also result in greater personal safety by reducing the need to make long or risky journeys to collect water. Better water sources also mean less expenditure on health, as people are less likely to fall ill and incur medical costs, and are better able to remain economically productive. With children particularly at risk from water-related diseases, access to improved sources of water can result in better health and therefore better school attendance, with longer-term consequences for their lives.

Water sources

Surveys of people’s access to water and sanitation refer to “improved” or “unimproved” sources. But “improved” does not necessarily mean there are no health risks. A substantial proportion of water supplied through pipes is contaminated, especially where water supply is intermittent or treatment is inadequate. Even where the source is good, water can be contaminated while being transported or stored. Some 1.8 billion people use a drinking-water source that is contaminated with faecal matter.


Climate change, increasing water scarcity, population growth, demographic changes and urbanization already pose challenges for water supply systems. By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in waterstressed areas. Re-use of wastewater, to recover water, nutrients, or energy, is becoming an important strategy. Increasingly countries are using wastewater for irrigation - in developing countries this represents 7% of irrigated land. However, this practice poses health risks that need to be weighed against potential benefits of increased food production.

Options for water sources used for drinking-water and irrigation will continue to evolve, with an increasing reliance on groundwater and alternative sources, including wastewater. Climate change will lead to greater fluctuations in harvested rainwater. Management of all water resources will need to be improved to ensure provision and quality.







Current Issue: Africa Water & Sanitation & Hygiene March-April 2017 Vol.12 No.2