Water cooperation

The major task, which the international community is facing today in the field of water resources, is the transfer of committed obligations into concrete actions that need to be implemented on the ground for the benefit of people, ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole.

Nurturing the opportunities for cooperation in water management among all stakeholders and improving the comprehension of the challenges and benefits of water cooperation can help build mutual respect, understanding and trust among countries and promote peace, security and sustainable economic growth.

  • A multilevel, inclusive approach for water cooperation
    Water resources management issues must be addressed at the local, national and at appropriate regional and international levels. All stakeholders, including those in government, international organizations, the private sector, civil society and academia, should be engaged, paying special attention to the livelihoods of the poor and most vulnerable people. Water management choices must also be consistent with other government policies and vice-versa. All the while, social, political and economic decisions must be made in a way that seeks to balance and fairly distribute the allocation of natural resources while keeping in mind the biophysical limits of the environment.
  • Innovative approaches for water cooperation
    Mobilizing political will and commitment to address water issues worldwide remains crucial. Equally important are forward thinking and a willingness to consider innovative ways to approach local, regional and international cooperation. Open discussion of the issues shaping our water resources today and strong citizen participation in decision-making (which is key to fostering good governance and a climate of accountability and transparency) can stimulate cooperative action and political commitment. Promoting a culture of consultation and increasing participative capacities will help to deliver benefits in all areas, including collaborative water management.
  • The benefits of water cooperation
    History has often shown that the vital nature of freshwater is a powerful incentive for cooperation and dialogue, compelling stakeholders to reconcile even the most divergent views. Water more often unites than divides people and societies.
  • Cooperation for peace and security
    At the global scale, the effective and mutually beneficial solution of water resources-related problems underlies peace, security and stability of our nations. Fortunately, our planet actually has sufficient water resources to provide 'water security' for all. But this can become a reality only if we change our conceptual approaches to water management. Throughout history, nations have learned how to share the benefits of the river. The key issue here has always been and remains to be the development of rules of conduct to handle disputes peacefully.
  • Cooperation for sustainable development and environmental sustainability
    Water is key to sustainable development; it has value from a social, economic and environmental perspective and needs to be managed within a sound, integrated socio-economic and environmental framework. Upstream and downstream, water stakeholders will have to be involved in management decisions. It is impossible to maintain the integrity of a balanced ecosystem without an overall strategy on water resources management. We all have a shared responsibility for protecting the shared environments surrounding rivers and their associated watersheds.
  • Cooperation for poverty alleviation and universal water access
    Water contributes to poverty alleviation in many ways – through sanitation services, water supply, etc. Water of appropriate quantity and quality can improve health and, when applied at the right time, can enhance the productivity of land, labour and other inputs. Reaching these goals is achievable and would cost far less than having to provide the necessary health care to treat people suffering from preventable diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. Each responsible government should provide a solid regulatory framework and implementation structure to manage the use of its water resources.


  • Concept Note: PREPCOM Conference "Towards the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20): Water Cooperation Issues" UNESCO, UN Water, South-South News, UNDP, OSCE Offices in Dushanbe, 19-20 October, 2011.
  • Concept Note: UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 ). Thematic session on water cooperation. UNESCO, UN Water, South-South News, UNDP, OSCE Offices in Dushanbe, 2011.

Water Cooperation and the MDGs

Given the basic necessity of water to sustain life and its central role in the provision of a wide range of services, water is a crucial and cross-cutting factor at the heart of all the MDGs. Consequently, the active participation and cooperation of all sectors, levels of government, and civil society are critical for ensuring better management and allocation of water resources. While recognizing the differentiated responsibilities between developed and developing countries, each nation must take ultimate actions to meet the MDGs.

Did you know?

  • At the international level water appears to provide reasons for transboundary cooperation rather than war. Looking back over the past 50 years, there have been some 37 cases of reported violence between states over water—and most of the episodes have involved only minor skirmishes. Meanwhile, more than 200 water treaties have been negotiated. Some of these treaties—such as the Indus Basin Treaty between India and Pakistan—have remained in operation even during armed conflict.
  • One clear message from the record is that even the most hostile enemies have a capacity for cooperation on water. Most governments recognize that violence over water is seldom a strategically workable or economically viable option. The institutions that they create to avert conflict have shown extraordinary resilience. The considerable time taken to negotiate the establishment of these institutions—10 years for the Indus Treaty, 20 years for the Nile Basin Initiative, 40 years for the Jordan agreement—bears testimony to the sensitivity of the issues.
  • Disaster can be a catalyst for cooperation. It was not until the Chernobyl disaster, which led to radioactive caesium deposits in reservoirs and increased risk of exposure to radioactivity all the way down to the Black Sea, that governments responded to the challenge of improving river quality.
  • Where cooperation fails to develop or breaks down, all countries stand to lose—and the poor stand to lose the most. Failures in cooperation can cause social and ecological disasters, as in Lake Chad and the Aral Sea. They also expose smaller, vulnerable countries to the threat of unilateral actions by larger, more powerful neighbours.

The benefits of cooperation

  • Gains from cooperation can include the costs averted by reducing tensions and disputes between neighbours. Strained interstate relations linked to water management can inhibit regional cooperation across a broad front, including trade, transport, telecommunications and labour markets. Obvious examples include the Euphrates, Indus and Jordan Basins.
  • Cooperative approaches to river systems can also generate less tangible political benefits. The Nile Basin Initiative links Egypt politically and economically to poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. These links have the potential to create spillover benefits. For example, the political standing that Egypt has acquired through the Nile Basin Initiative could reinforce its emergence as a partner and champion of African interests at the World Trade Organization.
  • Cooperation at the basin level can promote efficient techniques for water storage and distribution, expanding irrigation acreage. The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 was the precursor to the massive expansion of irrigation works in India, which in turn played an important role in the green revolution.
  • Cooperation between municipalities and private providers can stimulate resource mobilization. The Tamil Nadu Urban Development Fund, established by state authorities in 1996, developed the Water and Sanitation Pooled Fund—a 300 million rupee facility generated through bond markets for 14 small municipalities—with a partial credit guarantee from the US Agency for International Development.

Cooperation provides a foundation for change

  • Decentralized cooperation. The decentralized international financing approach developed in France is an example. New legislation in 2005—the Oudin Santini law— established a framework for decentralized cooperation in water and sanitation covering six French basin agencies. Local authorities can now dedicate up to 1% of their water and sanitation budgets to international development programmes. In 2005 around $37 million was committed. If other high income countries were to adopt this type of scheme, it could generate about $3 billion a year by one estimate, an important new flow of financing for water and sanitation.
  • In urban slums with large and highly concentrated populations, the success of any community initiative depends on individual participation, especially for improved sanitation. Orangi is a large, low-income informal settlement in Karachi, Pakistan. Home to more than a million people, it is a success story of the power of communities to expand access to sanitation. The Orangi Pilot Project, which began as a small community-led initiative, scaled up through cooperation with local governments. Scaling up matters because small isolated projects cannot spark or sustain national progress. At the same time, the energy and innovation of community actions can strengthen government capacity to deliver change.


  • Facts and Figures from the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP)
  • Human Development Report 2006. Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis. UNDP, 2006

UN initiatives that are helping to raise the issue...

  • 2013: International Year of Water Cooperation
    On 11 February 2011, the UN General Assembly, in its resolution 65/154, decided to proclaim 2013 International Year of Water Cooperation. The objective of the Year is to raise awareness of both the potential for increased cooperation and the challenges facing water management in the context of greater demand for water access, allocation, and services. The Year will highlight the history of successful water cooperation initiatives as well as identify emerging and burning issues. It is a platform to unify activities and proposals aimed at heightening awareness of water cooperation. At its 15th Senior Programme Managers (SPM) meeting, the UN General Assembly appointed UNESCO as lead agency, with the support of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), for the preparations and celebrations of the Year.
  • 22 March 2013: World Water Day 2013 on Water Cooperation
    On 22 March 2013 World Water Day was celebrated under the theme "Water Cooperation". The Day was organized as part of the International Year of Water Cooperation. The aim of the celebrations is to raise awareness on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources with a special focus on water cooperation, its challenges and benefits.
  • 8-10 January 2013: International Annual UN-Water Zaragoza Conference 2012/2013. Preparing for the 2013 International Year. Water Cooperation: Making it Happen!
    This conference, preparatory of the International Year of Water Cooperation, focused on processes that make cooperation happen by: (1) Identifying the best approaches to promote effective cooperation processes at different scales; and (2) Identifying how we can do 'better' in water cooperation through sharing lessons from experiences, and inspiring participants to do 'better'.
  • 19 June 2012: UNESCO and UN-Water Side Event at Rio+20 on Water Cooperation
    As part of 'Water Day', on 19 June 2012 at Rio+20, the attention of world leaders was called once again to the importance of water cooperation. Tajikistan, who has shown leadership on the topic, also collaborated to organize the event. At the national and international level actors were called upon to make water an instrument of peace by focusing on the responsibility to share and manage resources in a fair and equitable manner.
  • Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes
    The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) is intended to strengthen national measures for the protection and ecologically sound management of transboundary surface waters and groundwaters. The Convention obliges Parties to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impact and to use transboundary waters in a reasonable and equitable way. Parties bordering the same transboundary waters shall cooperate by entering into specific agreements and establishing joint bodies.

  • Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses
    The 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses is the only treaty governing shared freshwater resources that is of universal applicability. It is a framework convention which sets out principles and rules that may be applied and adjusted to suit the characteristics of particular international watercourses. Some key guiding principles set out in the document include; the equitable and reasonable utilization of international watercourses; the application of appropriate measures to prevent harm to other states sharing an international watercourse; and the principle of prior notification of planned measures. The convention aids in preventing conflict by establishing a foundation of agreed-upon principles from which to begin negotiations if disputes arise. Similarly, it promotes cooperation as it requires the consideration of other countries' right to the fair and equitable use of international watercourses. For the Convention to become legally binding, at least 35 nations must ratify it.
  • UNESCO-IHP Programme 'From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential (PCCP)'
    UNESCO's International Hydrological Programme (IHP) launched the PCCP Programme in order to respond to The Hague Ministerial Declaration, signed in 2000, which identified seven water related challenges to achieving water security. PCCP facilitates multi-level and interdisciplinary dialogues in order to foster peace, cooperation and development related to the management of transboundary water resources. The PCCP website offers a range of information and publications on projects, as well as methods and practices.

To know more...

Free Flow. Reaching Water Security through Cooperation.Free Flow. Reaching Water Security through Cooperation
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). September 2013
Published in the framework of the International Year of Water Cooperation, this publication brings together a broad range of water professionals and stakeholders to share their knowledge and experiences in water cooperation. The different chapters reflect the progress and challenges encountered in the fields of water management and cooperation around the world.

World Water Development Report 4 (WWDR 4)Water cooperation in action: approaches, tools and processes
UN-Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication (UNW-DPAC). June 2013
This report summarizes main concepts, challenges, tools and experiences related to water cooperation and highlights key lessons learnt on promoting water cooperation. It also provides a summary of the discussions which took place at the 'International Annual UN-Water Zaragoza Conference 2012/2013. Preparing for the 2013 International Year. Water Cooperation: Making it Happen', held on 8-10 January 2013 in Zaragoza, Spain.

World Water Development Report 4 (WWDR 4)World Water Development Report 4 (WWDR 4)
World Water Assessment Report Programme (WWAP), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN-Water. March 2012.
The WWDR4 is a comprehensive review of the world's freshwater resources and seeks to demonstrate, among other messages, that water underpins all aspects of development, and that a coordinated approach to managing and allocating water is critical. The Report underlines that in order to meet multiple goals water needs to be an intrinsic element in decision-making across the whole development spectrum.

Reaching Across the Waters. Facing the Risks of Cooperation in International WatersReaching Across the Waters. Facing the Risks of Cooperation in International Waters
World Bank Water Partnership Program. March 2012.
This study reviews the experience of cooperation in five international river basins, focusing on the perceptions of risks and opportunities by decision makers in countries responding to a specific prospect of cooperation. For each basin, the analysis is centered on "tipping points," or periods in time when policymakers in the countries involved were faced with a critical decision concerning water cooperation. The use of historical events helped avoid the risk that the analyses would impact current negotiations or controversies. River basins selected for the analysis were: Eastern Nile, Ganges, Niger, Syr Darya, and Zambezi.

Water cooperation around the world

Highlands and Drylands. Mountains, A Source of Resilience in Arid RegionsHighlands and Drylands. Mountains, A Source of Resilience in Arid Regions
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Centre for Development and Environment of the University of Bern. December 2011.
This publication aims at raising awareness of the global role of dryland mountains by including these key ecosystems in important global processes. Efficient water management is an essential practice within these ecosystems that often must be achieved through international and transboundary cooperation by sharing knowledge and best practices. Participatory water management initiatives and their associated outcomes and implemented actions, as well as innovative and adaptive management approaches, such as fog harvesting, are explored.

Gender, Water and Sanitation. Case Studies on Best PracticesGender, Water and Sanitation. Case Studies on Best Practices [PDF document – 1 MB]
United Nations. 2006.
This document presents 15 case studies which depict best practices in securing sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation for communities by engaging both men and women as critical stakeholders. The case studies are drawn from 14 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. They illustrate what happens when communities become involved and actively engaged in addressing issues related to clean water and sanitation from a gender perspective. This perspective ensures that the concerns of women who have the primary responsibility for water are not only addressed but become part of the solution.


Partnership Interventions for the Implementation of the Strategic Action Programme for Lake TanganyikaPartnership Interventions for the Implementation of the Strategic Action Programme for Lake Tanganyika
[PDF document – 397 KB]
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 2010.
This publication aims at giving an overview of the regional water project at Lake Tanganyika in which Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Zambia currently participate. The project is an example of how to address environmental threats through activities including catchment management, improved wastewater management systems, establishment of a Regional Integrated Environmental Monitoring System, and institutional strengthening for improved regional coordination. Additionally, the project also illustrates how fisheries concerns have been addressed in the region.

Climate Change and Freshwater Resources. A Synthesis of Adaptation Actions Undertaken by Nairobi Work Programme Partner OrganizationsClimate Change and Freshwater Resources. A Synthesis of Adaptation Actions Undertaken by Nairobi Work Programme Partner Organizations
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 2011.
This document provides a synthesis of actions undertaken by 21 Nairobi Work Programme (NWP) partner organizations, and highlights the results obtained and lessons learned on freshwater issues in particular. The contributions of partner organizations showcase a rich mix of actions on freshwater resources, which have generated results on the ground, particularly in developing countries. With a focus on communication, dialogue and cooperation among different stakeholders it has produced useful lessons demonstrating improved understanding and assessment of impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change.

Asia and the Pacific

At the Crossroads. Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia and the Pacific. A Review of the Region's Institutional and Policy LandscapeAt the Crossroads. Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia and the Pacific. A Review of the Region's Institutional and Policy Landscape
United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). July 2011.
This report provides a snapshot of how Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) are undertaken and integrate in Asia and the Pacific. It does so by taking stock of past and ongoing regional initiatives; by looking into the role of certain organizations in implementation processes; and analyzing key political, policy and institutional developments. The report intends to contribute to improved regional planning and programming for DRR and CCA, and highlights areas for cooperation among regional and sub regional organizations.

Strategy and Action Plan for Sustainable Land Management in the High Pamir and Pamir-Alai Mountains (PALM)Strategy and Action Plan for Sustainable Land Management in the High Pamir and Pamir-Alai Mountains (PALM) [PDF document – 917 KB]
PALM National Project Offices in the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of Tajikistan, in collaboration with the Global Environment Facility (GEF), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations University (UNU). February, 2011.
The strategy and action plan addresses problems related to land use systems and the degradation of land resources in Central Asia, with the aim of decreasing the vulnerability of fragile mountain ecosystems and, consequently, reducing poverty among the local populations. The strategy explores and includes the need for greater transboundary and local cooperation in order to successfully manage land and water resources.

Latin America and the Caribbean

Restoring Land Use Through Local Water Governance and Technology in High Andes Communities: Management of Natural Resources in the Southern Highlands Project (MARENASS), Peru [PDF document – 88 KB]

International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), November 2004.
This document provides an example of water cooperation in Peru, where the national government designed a national strategy aimed at limiting the degradation of the country's natural resource base. The strategy plans to confront the problem through watersheds management with a three-pronged approach: (1) at macro-level, with World Bank assistance, (2) at a micro regional level and (3) at community level.

UNESCO Director General said
Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General.

Water is a key foundation, whose importance can hardly be overestimated. It is a common denominator of the leading global challenges of our time - energy, food, health, peace and security. Water management can reduce the risk of disasters, such as droughts and floods. With transboundary river basins and aquifer systems representing almost half the earth's surface, water cooperation is vital for peace.
Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General.
Keynote address to the High-level panel discussion organized by the Government of Finland at the Rio+20 Conference.

UNESCO Assistant Director-General said
Hans d'Orville, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Strategic Planning.

One of the primary objectives of the UN International Year of Water Cooperation 2013 is to break down, analyse and achieve a common understanding on the essence of 'water cooperation'. Water cooperation refers to the peaceful management and use of water resources among various players and sectors and at different levels. Indeed this consists of acting together toward a common end and mutual benefits.
Hans d'Orville, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Strategic Planning at side event Thematic Session on Water Cooperation organized by the Government of Tajikistan at the Rio+20 Conference.

Video library
Video message from UN Secretary-General for IYWC

>> Video message from UN Secretary-General for IYWC
February 2013
Duration: 2min14sec

"Water is central to the well-being of people and the planet," says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in this video message for the International Year of Water Cooperation 2013.

The objectives of the IYWC

>> The objectives of the IYWC
February 2013
Duration: 3min38sec

Blanca Jimenez, director of the Division Sciences of UNESCO, summarizes main objectives of the International Year of Water Cooperation 2013.

Video: Interview with Faith M. Livingstone, Mt. Kenya East Pilot Project for Natural Resources Management

>>Interview with Faith M. Livingstone, Mt. Kenya East Pilot Project for Natural Resources Management
Ms. Livingstone introduces the Mt. Kenya East Pilot Project for Natural Resources Management and its overall goal: to reduce poverty through improved food security and improving levels of income of farmers - particularly rural women. The project focuses on the effective use of natural resources, improving access to water and introducing better farming and water management practices for sustainable use of land and water resources.

Video: Interview with Alice Bouman, President of Women for Water Partnership

>> Interview with Alice Bouman, President of Women for Water Partnership
In this interview, Alice Bouman, President of Women for Water Partnership, introduces a partnership in the Irrawaddi River in Myanmar, where there is no basin authority. This partnership aims to improve water management and cooperation as well as to increase the involvement of civil society in river basin management.

Video: Interview with Pedro Serra, Former Director of the Water Institute of Portugal.

>>Interview with Pedro Serra, Former Director of the Water Institute of Portugal
Pedro Serra, former director of the Water Institute of Portugal, introduces the cooperation process for the management and development of shared river basins between Spain and Portugal.

Video: >> Interview with Robina Wahaj, technical officer at FAO.

>>Interview with Robina Wahaj, technical officer at FAO
In this interview, Robina Wahaj, technical officer at Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), highlights the issue of multiple water uses and water cooperation, especially in relation to irrigation systems.

Information briefs

>> Information brief on Water Cooperation
>> Information brief on Alternative Dispute Resolution
>> Information brief on Financing
>> Information brief on Information Sharing and Joint Assessments
>> Information brief on Legal Frameworks and Institutional Arrangements

UNESCO's series of articles on water cooperation

>> International cooperation over water far outweighs conflict
>> There is no evidence of coming 'water wars'
>> Water problems can contribute to local instability