By Sonja Koeppel

It is a resource that runs deep into our lives. It sustains us, is vital for our survival and has the potential to severely affect geopolitics: water.

Around the globe, water both defines borders and crosses them.

From my office at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, I overlook the deep blue waters of Lac Léman, a lake shared by Switzerland and France. This is only one of many examples worldwide; nearly half of the world’s surface is covered by waters that are shared by two or more countries. Three-quarters of UN Member States share a river or lake basin with a neighboring country.

Such waters not only connect nations, they sustain them: over 40% of the world’s population relies on freshwater from rivers that run through two or more countries. Many of the world’s largest rivers are transboundary ones: for example the Nile, the Congo, the Indus, the Ganges, the Euphrates-Tigris, the Danube, the Amazon, and the Mekong.

Water Stress is Rising with Climate Change

When my gaze moves up from Lac Léman and wanders along the horizon, my attention is captured by the white glaciers of Europe’s highest peak, Mont-Blanc. The scenery is spectacular and yet a troubling reminder of the challenges we are facing. The nearby glaciers are shrinking at rapid pace, which will eventually reduce the water flow for millions downstream.

Our response to climate change is not keeping pace. Extreme weather events are on the rise; in the last months alone, the world has witnessed numerous floods causing dire destruction. With climate change’s increasing impact, water scarcity is a growing concern. By 2050, it is projected that at least one in four people will be affected by recurring shortages of fresh water.

Climate change is increasing water stress, threatening the very foundations of our human existence. We urgently need to step up our action to these alarming trends, roll up our sleeves and work together. Cooperation is essential, especially in areas where water is already scarce.

The Spirit of Helsinki Sparked Global Cooperation

Water cooperation greatly advanced almost 30 years ago. In the spring of 1992, governments gathered in Helsinki, Finland to finalize an international framework for transboundary water cooperation. After substantive negotiations, the Water Convention was adopted – a visionary framework and platform to better manage shared waters in the pan-European region. Little did the first signatories realize how relevant the text would remain at the dawning 21st century. Looking back now, it was a pivotal moment. And the spirit that was sparked in Helsinki lived on.

The Water Convention fostered cooperation at both political and technical levels and achieved many concrete results: improved water quality, better human health, the mitigation of the impacts of floods and droughts, and the conservation of ecosystems. Building on these successes, the Water Convention was opened for accession to all UN Member States in 2016 – and Chad (2018), Senegal (2018), Ghana (2020) and Guinea-Bissau (2021) were the first ones to respond to the call, joining the 40 pan-European Parties to the Convention. Many other countries are currently undergoing the accession process.

The international community has recently reinforced transboundary water cooperation. With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the integrated management of water resources was enshrined in SDG target 6.5: “By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.” The UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), together with the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), were designated as co-custodians for SDG indicator 6.5.2, responsible for monitoring transboundary water cooperation worldwide.

Concrete Solutions to be Discussed at MOP 9

We have initiated tools and international agreements that have the potential to prevent conflicts, sustain peace, and ensure a sustainable basis for human life. But these tools and texts need to be applied in concrete settings.

The majority of the world’s transboundary rivers does not have a cooperative management framework. Only 24 countries worldwide have all their shared waters covered by operational arrangements for water cooperation. A significant increase in transboundary water cooperation is urgently needed, and would constitute a crucial contribution to the global Decade of Action to deliver the SDGs by 2030.

A critical moment for accelerating progress is the upcoming 9th session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Water Convention, which will convene in a hybrid format from 29 September – 1 October 2021 in Geneva. We will discuss the real challenges countries are facing, listen to the needs of key stakeholders, and introduce practical tools for improving the management of shared waters. New tools will be discussed and adopted to address the most crucial challenges for transboundary water cooperation: developing agreements, allocating waters between countries and sectors, financing transboundary water cooperation. The high-level segment, with ministers from around the world, will discuss the crucial topic of water and peace. I invite you to take part in this crucial intergovernmental meeting to share your experience and learn from others.

The upcoming Meeting of the Parties will help us gain momentum in advancing transboundary water cooperation. We have a lot left to do and we need to step up our action. Water carries strong potential for global cooperation – let us use it.

This guest article is authored by Sonja Koeppel, Secretary of the Water Convention, UNECE.