Around the world, some 153 States share transboundary water resources, including 592 transboundary aquifer systems and 286 transboundary river and lake basins. Together, such transboundary waters account for some 60 per cent of the world’s freshwater flows. These shared resources have come under increasing pressure as a result of industrialisation, modern agricultural techniques and population growth – at a time when climate change and pollution have also exacerbated water scarcity.
Intensifying water stress has promoted increasing engagement by States around the world with the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (“UN Water Convention”). On 22 March 2023, the Federal Republic of Nigeria (“Nigeria”) acceded to the UN Water Convention, becoming the Convention’s 48th Member State. It was followed soon after by the Republic of Iraq (“Iraq”), which acceded on 24 March 2023 as the Convention’s 49th Member State and its first from the Middle East, and more recently by the Republic of Namibia (“Namibia”), which acceded on 8 June 2023 as the 50th Member State.
Namibia is the first South African country to join the UN Water Convention. The accessions of Nigeria and Iraq are also notable, given Nigeria’s status as the most populous State in Africa and the acute water challenges facing Iraq and the Middle East.
More than 20 States, predominantly from Africa and Latin America, are currently working towards accession. They include the Republic of Panama, which appears set to become the UN Water Convention’s first Latin American Member State, and the Republic of Gambia, whose parliament has approved its accession.
First adopted in 1992 in Helsinki, the UN Water Convention originated as a pan-European regional instrument to manage shared waters equitably and sustainably. It entered into force in 1996 and has been open to worldwide membership since 2016, with the Republic of Chad and the Republic of Senegal becoming the first African Member States in 2018. At the recent UN Water Conference convened by the Governments of Republic of Tajikistan and the Kingdom of the Netherlands in March 2023, the UN Water Convention (acting through its official Secretariat) set an ambitious target of expanding its membership to cover half of all transboundary water-sharing States by 2030 (i.e., 77 of the 153 water-sharing States worldwide).
Among other things, the UN Water Convention requires Parties to prevent, control and reduce water pollution linked to transboundary impacts; to ensure use of transboundary waters in a reasonable and equitable way; and to ensure sustainable management of transboundary waters. It also confirms the importance for State actions to be guided by the “precautionary principle” under international environmental law, the principle of “polluter-pays” and by the principle that water resources “be managed so that the needs of the present generation are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN Water Convention, Article 2(5)). The UN Water Convention sits alongside a significant broader network of regional water treaties, such as the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty; the 1964 Convention and Statutes Relating to the Development of the Chad Basin; the 1995 Mekong Agreement; and the 2000 Revised Protocol on Shared Watercourses in the Southern African Development Community.