On international cooperation and governance of transboundary waters

According to the UN water, the 263 transboundary lake and river basins cover almost half the Earth’s surface. 145 States have territory in these basins, and 30 countries lie entirely within them. There are approximately 300 transboundary aquifers, helping to serve the 2 billion people who depend on groundwater. According to the UN (2008) transboundary lake and river basins account for an estimated 60 percent of global freshwater flow and is home to 40 percent of the world’s population. 

Cooperation is essential, especially in areas vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and where water is already scarce. Wetlands around lakes and floodplains that straddle national boundaries provide essential ecosystem services to the surrounding populations, such as food provision, barriers against flooding and the natural processing of pollution. In 20th century countries rather cooperated, than conflicted over transboundary water resources. 

Since 1948, there have been 37 incidents of acute conflict over water, while approximately 295 international water agreements were negotiated and signed in the same period. This includes the UNECE Water Convention, a legal framework for transboundary water cooperation worldwide, initially only open to countries in the pan-European region but globally available since 2003. 


Despite these examples of collective regional, bilateral and international efforts, there is a large room to improve international cooperation legal frameworks, especially in the context of increasing water stress, growing population and impacts of climate change. Around two-thirds of the world’s transboundary rivers do not have a cooperative management framework. According to some studies in the next decades, the global demand for freshwater resources will exceed availability. (see, for instance, the National Intelligence Council’s report on Global Water Security The impacts of climate change, economic overexploitation of lakes, rivers, and aquifers undermine the sustainability of water supplies, which can cause international tension if those impacts are felt more keenly on the other side of a border. Several international conflicts over transboundary waters opened a new dimension in international security and peace studies. There is a need to advance international cooperation in the context of the pressing societal challenges.


Transboundary water management creates benefits for everyone to share: international trade, climate change adaptation, economic growth, food security, improved governance, and regional integration. To deal with the impacts of climate change combined with the demands of increasing populations and economic growth requires a supranational, integrated approach to transboundary water resource management based on legal and institutional frameworks and shared benefits and costs.


Should you be interested in the discovery of the topic, follow the lectures by Prof. Arcari and Prof. Nerina Boschiero. Prof. Arcari wrote several articles on this topic and can provide useful hints for your research.

By Katsiaryna Serada



SDWatch.org is an independent, non-profit and student-led project initiated and managed by students and alumni of the LL.M in Sustainable Development at the University of Milan. It is supported by the Department of Italian and Supranational Public Law of the University.