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B1.2 Transboundary organisations for water resource management


Transboundary organisations provide a framework for managing water resources across international boundaries, where there are issues about the management of common (cross-jurisdiction) property resources.

Such organisations vary in type and function according to the political context, the water resources challenges and the cultural features of the area. They are often based on voluntary agreements between sovereign states, but may include international and intra-national water authorities and commissions. Traditionally, international organisations have been set up to address a given problem, for example, navigation or flooding. However, their remit can be and has often been expanded to tackle wider water problems in the basin. While ministers in each country often wish to retain ultimate responsibility for decisions, it can be helpful to establish some kind of consultative body to broaden the range of stakeholder involvement.

The type of agreement underlying these organisations varies greatly around the world, from ad hoc arrangements, memoranda of understanding, to formal international treaties and agreements. It is clear that the effective functioning of transboundary organisations requires a secure funding base, the political will of governments, and the commitment of the partners who create them. An IWRM approach requires that human resources and institutional capacity in transboundary structures are able to address social issues, as well as environmental and economic development imperatives.

To develop the essential confidence to enable transboundary water resource management and collaboration, parties need to build and accept common data sets and knowledge about the water resource issues (see C1 and C8), and share visions (see C5) about the future of the resource.

Lessons learned

  • Once established, transboundary organisations and water agreements are remarkably robust – contrary to popular belief, they often act as a moderating factor within a conflict situation (Kader Asmal, 2000).
  • Establishing the conditions for agreement can be time-consuming and costly in terms of money and resources (e.g. brokers and negotiators to build confidence). Donor support can be helpful here.
  • The use of a respected external party or organisation to act as honest broker is useful (multilateral agencies such as the UNDP and World Bank have both fulfilled these roles).
  • National water policy needs to support inter-agency co-ordination for the transboundary organisation and may need to be modified to align with the other parties in the agreement.
  • Citizen, media and NGO pressure frequently galvanises action, e.g. to reduce environmental problems from water overuse (see also B1.9, role of civil society).
  • Once established, transboundary water management needs to move beyond visions, and develop specific regulatory mechanisms, data and information sharing protocols and financing mechanisms to put transboundary water management firmly on the ground. Experience shows that technical secretariats are essential in this respect.

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