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Convention on shared watercourses wraps up talks in Geneva

Home to about 100 million people, the Niger River is shared by nine countries. Many are part of the Water Convention, or are in the process of joining the agreement. (Credit: Julien Harneis/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ministers on Friday wrapped up three days of talks around shared watercourses. The countries met in Geneva and online to discuss how to work together to manage them sustainably as climate change, pollution and population growth increasingly threaten the world’s freshwater resources.

“If we continue with current practices, the world will face a 40 per cent shortfall between demand for water and available supply. We need to act now.” said Olga Algayerova, executive secretary for UNECE, which organised the meetings.

 The talks are convened every three years by UNECE’s Water Convention. Adopted in 1992 in Helsinki, the water convention was originally a Pan-European agreement for the protection and sustainable use of transboundary waters. In 2016, the treaty was opened to all other countries. Since then, Senegal, Ghana, Chad and Guinea-Bissau have signed up, with Togo being the latest to join this week.

In a statement following the announcement, Togo’s minister of water and village hydraulics, Bolidja Tiem, said the convention would “support the efforts of our country in terms of transboundary cooperation on our shared basins” and in helping to prevent conflicts and promote peace.

Guinea-Bissau, the Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania also signed a declaration on the sidelines of the conference committing to jointly manage the Senegal-Mauritanian Aquifer.

African countries have shown a particular interest in joining as climate change and population growth add pressure to their threatened water resources. Among the arguments they have given is the need to boost development and provide clean drinking water for their populations, a major issue in a continent where one in three people face water scarcity, with 40 per cent of those being in the Sub-Saharan region.

“The rationale for cooperating on those water resources which are increasingly under threat is stronger and stronger,” Komlan Sangbana, legal officer for the convention’s secretariat, told Geneva Solutions.

“There's a benefit in better managing those resources, having a more predictable and better management of the water that you need for growing urban populations.” 

The challenges they face

There are 153 countries that share a river, lake or aquifer with one or more countries, however only 24 of them have agreements for all of them.

“It’s a really long process,”  Sangbana notes. “Cooperation can start from a very low level in terms of just data sharing or only having discussions and after years of work they [can establish cooperation mechanisms].”

Another topic addressed during the meeting was funding, a major hurdle for cooperating countries, particularly the poorer ones. In a report presented during the talks, the UNECE states that funding should primarily come from domestic budgets, but that private investments can also come in support. 

While cooperating can be expensive for countries, it can also help attract investments, Sangbana says. “Having mechanisms in place to work together is also very helpful in accessing the finance which is needed to put in place the right actions,​” he says, noting that multilateral financial institutions are encouraging countries to engage in such cooperation.

The secretariat, based in Geneva, provides support for members of the treaty in negotiations towards establishing cooperation mechanisms. “The water convention’s role is to provide a structure and tool to help countries tailor specific agreements for their respective region and basins,” Sangbana says.

Situations vary from one basin to another, as well as the way in which countries are ready to work together. “One of the key benefits is the coordination between countries. It is important to keep countries talking to build trust. When there is trust, they can plan and address challenges together,” Sangbana says.

In many regions, water is a source of dispute rather than cooperation, but as water scarcity deepens, countries are increasingly voicing interest in changing the way they approach their shared resources.

According to UNECE’s latest report, at least 10 other African countries are in the process of signing up, as well as Iraq, Lebanon and Vietnam. Also, 10 agreements have been signed since 2017 between countries for cooperation in a wide range of topics, including fishing in the Tana River between Finland and Norway, conservation of the Ural River Basin’s ecosystems between Russia and Kazakhstan, and flood forecasting in the Sava River, between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.

“It takes time but momentum is building fast,” Sangbana says.