Facts and figures about water and law

Because of its value and its importance in all aspects of life, water is a highly political issue.

International water law concerns the rights and obligations that exist, primarily between States, for the management of transboundary water resources. Such legal rules and principles are dedicated to preventing conflict and promoting cooperation of shared water resources.


The chief international legal document related to international water resources management is the ‘United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses’, adopted by the UN General Assembly in May 1997. This Convention applies to uses of international watercourses and of their waters for purposes other than navigation and to measures of protection, preservation and management related to the uses of those watercourses and their waters.

International water law has evolved and crystallized through state practice and the codification and progressive development efforts undertaken by the United Nations and private institutions. The treaty practice in this area encompasses a broad range of instruments, from general agreements (which provide basic principles for water resource development) to specific ‘contractual’ type legal and technical arrangements (which set forth detailed operational schemes).

In October 2000 the European Union Water Framework (WFD) was adopted and entered into force in December 2000. The purpose of the Directive is to establish a framework for the protection of inland surface waters (rivers and lakes), transitional waters (estuaries), coastal waters and groundwater. It will ensure all aquatic ecosystems and, with regard to their water needs, terrestrial ecosystems and wetlands meet ‘good status’ by 2015.

While water users compete for the same resource and struggle for increasing control, they also need to cooperate if they want to make effective use of water and sustain the water’s quantity and quality in the long run. This often occurs in ‘pluralistic’ legal contexts, where formal and informal normative systems sometimes clash. For example, in South Africa, water management moved from a pre-colonial collective activity to a publicly regulated resource under Roman-Dutch law. It was then transformed under Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence when it was captured as a private resource to the benefit of a small minority. A main objective of the current 1998 Water Act in South Africa is to redistribute water rights by granting water permits to sections of society that were previously discriminated against.

Information from:
2nd United Nations World Water Development Report, ‘Water, a shared responsibility’
the Policy and Law Section of the Water Page website

Source: UNESCO Water Portal, May 2006

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