19 March 2003


Press Release



(Reissued as received.)

KYOTO/NAIROBI, 19 March (UNEP) -- Around 150 river basins, upon which millions of people depend for drinking water, irrigation and, in some cases, energy, could be the flashpoints for future disputes unless urgent action is taken.  (Such river basins as defined here, are areas or regions through which important rivers run and which cross or demarcate international borders.)

A study, launched today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in conjunction with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and Oregon State University to mark World Water Day, shows that cooperation between countries covering these basins remain patchy or absent.

Many are in Asia, Latin America and Africa where tensions over water for drinking supplies, irrigation, fisheries and hydropower may be aggravated by rising populations and existing political, social and environmental upheavals.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director who is attending the Third World Water Forum in Japan, said:  "This study, published as the Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements, is both cause for alarm and cause for optimism.  It chronicles the history of water agreements and treaties as far back as 2,500 B.C. and shows us that cooperation between countries, that sharing of resources, has been the historical norm.  It also, however, highlights the need for vigilance, scientific rigour and diplomatic vigour in ensuring that this cooperation is maintained and extended to other river systems".

"Although over 3,000 treaties and agreements covering over 100 international river basins have been signed over the centuries, 158 of the world's international river basins lack any type of cooperative agreements", he said.

Mr. Toepfer added:  "There is an urgent need for international organizations to apply the lessons of the past, for the benefit of present and future parties.  They should perhaps act as the water equivalent of marriage guidance counsellors, amicably resolving differences between countries and communities who may be straying apart, or act as go-between for those who are flirting with cooperation but are too coy, too unsure, maybe even too distrustful about how to proceed.  So,

we must hone our skills and develop our capabilities in what will be the increasingly important field of hydro-diplomacy".

The Atlas, compiled by Aaron T. Wolf of Oregon State University,
United States, UNEP and the FAO drawing on maps, statistical analyses and historical documents, suggests that the first recorded water treaty was
4,500 years ago.  This was when the two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma brokered an agreement to end a water dispute along the Tigris River.

3,600 Agreements Signed over 4,500 Years

More than 3,600 international water agreements have been documented since this one.  While most concern navigational, boundary delineation and fishery issues, the dawn of hydropower and large-scale irrigation development in the
twentieth century has shifted the focus of negotiation and treaty making towards water use, development, protection and conservation.  Notably, since 1820 there have been more than 400 agreements related to water as a limited and consumable resource.

Mr. Wolf said:  "We have found that cooperation between countries over the past fifty years has outnumbered conflicts by more than two-to-one.  Things can go wrong.  But since 1948, only 37 incidents of acute conflicts, such as those involving violence, have occurred.  Thirty of these were between Israel and one or another of its neighbours".

The Atlas lists 263 rivers that either cross or mark international political boundaries -- 69 in Europe, 57 in Asia, 59 in Africa, 40 in North and Central America and 38 in South America.  These international basins are distributed over 145 countries that contain 50 per cent of the earth's land surface, 60 per cent of its freshwater and 40 per cent of global population.

Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the FAO, added:  "Water treaties, agreements and conventions abound, but knowledge of them, and the relevant records, used to be scattered and not always easily accessible.  This Atlas is a welcome step in the consolidation and dissemination of information about shared water treaties".

The Atlas dovetails with the United Nations World Water Development Report, a joint undertaking by 23 United Nations agencies.  The Report was released on
5 March and will be formally launched in Japan on 22 March, World Water Day.

Cooperative Agreements Lacking in 158 of 263 International Basins

The Atlas suggests a huge amount of international diplomatic negotiation, so called "hydro-diplomacy" still needs to be done.  One hundred fifty-eight of the world's 263 international basins lack any type of cooperative management framework.  Potential causes of dispute can occur if the creation of newly independent States leads to changes in political boundaries, countries act unilaterally to change the course or volume of water or nations are already at loggerheads over other issues.

Even in areas where there are existing agreements, vigilance is required.  Mr. Wolf said:  "Of the remaining 106 basins and water institutions, approximately two thirds have three or more riparian States (ones with banks directly on or next to the river), yet less than 20 per cent of the accompanying agreements are multilateral".

Ashbindu Singh, co-author of the Atlas, said the study also makes it clear that existing and new agreements need to be strengthened to include not only the need to share water, but to address issues of water quality, monitoring, public participation, effective conflict resolution and more flexible methods of allocation that take into account events such as droughts.

Greater flexibility and more imaginative ways of sharing water resources will be increasingly necessary over the coming decades as demand, population pressures, the need to grow more crops and factors such as climate change place greater demands on already stretched freshwater reserves.

"The potential conflict over shared water resources is real", said
Halifa Drammeh, Deputy Director, UNEP Division of Policy Development and Law.  "The issues requiring negotiation and agreement among States have grown more complex, but the practice of seeking a negotiated, agreed solution has remained.  This Atlas will be of value above all to those who negotiate such agreements in future."

World Water Day -- March 22

The main highlight of World Water Day 2003 will be the Third World Water Forum (16-23 March, Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka, Japan), which is the key event during the United Nations International Year of Freshwater.  The goal for World Water Day 2003 is to inspire political and community action and encourage greater global understanding of the need for more responsible water use and conservation.  A Web site ( has been created on behalf of the United Nations system by UNEP, the lead agency for World Water Day 2003, to help governments, key partners such as education ministries and schools, civil society organizations, communities and individuals worldwide to plan events that achieve this end.

The Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements is published by UNEP and can be viewed at and purchased at  The Transboundary Freshwaters Dispute Database, based at the University of Oregon and with clickable access to treaties, is at

The UNEP's Vital Water Graphics:  An Overview of the State of the World's Fresh and Marine Waters is available at

For more information, please contact:  Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of

UNEP's Division of Communications and Public Information, at tel.:  254 2 623292, mobile:  254 (0) 733 682656, e-mail:; Nick Nuttall,
UNEP Head of Media, at tel.:  254 2 623084, mobile in Japan:  81 (0) 90 6946 3372, e-mail:; Patricia L. Jacobs, Associate Information Officer,
UNEP Division of Communications and Public Information, tel.:  +254-2-623088;

fax:  +254-2-623692, e-mail:; or UNEP's Web site:

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For information media. Not an official record.