Water allocation in a transboundary context


Water allocation, which is the allocation in terms of quantity, quality or timing of water resources between and within different sectors and for different uses, is one of the biggest challenges in water management and protection. Increasing demands on water from different sectors, growing water scarcity and climate variability have led to a growing global interest in the topic of water allocation, particularly in a transboundary context, as competition over shared water resources rises.

The overarching objective in this regard is to support efforts to develop sustainable and equitable transboundary arrangements on water allocation that strike a balance between robustness and flexibility. To this end, the activities of the Convention aim to increase understanding and knowledge of criteria, mechanisms, tools and good practices for water allocation in transboundary basins and aquifers.

The key principles of international water law (particularly the principles of equitable and reasonable use of shared water resources, duty to cooperate, the no-harm rule, the sustainability principle, the ecosystem approach and the precautionary approach), embedded in the Water Convention, provide general orientation for allocating water in transboundary basins. In practice, the benefit-sharing and Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystem nexus approaches promoted under the Convention can provide parallel options for addressing similar challenges and informing reflection about whether there is a need for allocation of water resources.

On 16-17 October 2017, the global workshop on water allocation in transboundary basins was organized in the Palais des Nations in Geneva, back-to-back with the fifth meeting of the Task Force on the Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystems Nexus (18 October 2017). For a description of the workshop, its objectives, the Agenda, Notice, presentations and related documents, please consult the workshop webpage here.

Water allocation is part of the Water Convention’s Programme of Work 2019-2021. Led by Hungary, it falls under Programme Area 3 “Promoting an integrated and intersectoral approach to water management at all levels.” The specific activities to be carried out under the PoW are:
•    Develop a handbook on transboundary water allocation that will serve as a tool and source of information on equitable and sustainable allocation of water in a transboundary context, detailing technical and legal approaches, relevant considerations, and benefits of allocation agreements.
•    Organize two regional workshops on water allocation.

Transboundary Water Allocation Handbook

The Handbook’s primary audience will be government officials, basin authorities and water sector practitioners working at different levels (local, national, inter-governmental) of governance of shared rivers, lakes and aquifers. As a practical guide providing an overview of the key elements, frameworks and modalities to consider in applying water allocation within transboundary basins and aquifers, the Handbook will outline options for, and alternatives/limitations to, water allocation, drawing on a diversity of practice.

The Handbook will take the form of a compendium, covering the major topics and illustrative case studies to demonstrate key elements of transboundary water allocation in different contexts, with a bibliography of specific references for further research. As a collection of global practices, the handbook will provide a synthesis of existing practices, experiences and lessons learned from around the world. It will conclude with a set of main considerations and a modular flowchart to help guide riparian countries and joint bodies in assessing, adapting, and operationalizing different allocation arrangements within their own contexts.

Drafts and especially the case studies will be subject to revision and ongoing assessment which is linked to meetings of the Water Convention’s bodies: the three Expert Group meetings (see below); the Task Force on the Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystems Nexus (22-23 October 2020); and the Working Groups on Integrated Water Resources Management (22-24 October 201930 September-1 October 2020 and 2021) and Monitoring and Assessment (6 December 2019). The goal is for the final version to be adopted at the ninth Meeting of the Parties in 2021.

Partners in this activity currently comprise the University of Eastern Finland, the Finnish Environment Institute and the International Water Assessment Centre, while new activity partners are expected to join the effort during 2020.

Expert Group and Meetings

An Expert Group was established to provide technical guidance in developing the Handbook comprising experts from across different regions, basins, countries, institutions and sectors globally.

The first meeting of the Expert Group was held in Geneva, Switzerland (21 October 2019). The main objectives were to discuss and develop some of the key content areas, format and structure of the overall Handbook, along with developing an initial list of case studies for inclusion.

The second meeting of the Expert Group, originally planned to be held in Geneva, was held via videoconference (30-31 March 2020). Revisions to the Handbook Outline were shared based on the first meeting. Thematic presentations by experts and feedback helped to further refine the main content elements, reference illustrative case studies and develop a draft set of main considerations and lessons learned.

The third meeting of the Expert Group is scheduled to be held in Geneva, Switzerland (20-21 October 2020). At this meeting, the full draft manuscript of the Handbook will be discussed and finalised.

Regional Workshops

Two regional workshops on transboundary water allocation were planned for 2020; one in Budapest, Hungary and one in Almaty, Kazakhstan. A potential third workshop was also potentially foreseen in a region of Africa.

To date, two regional meetings have been held which have involved targeted discussions, feedback and inputs for the Handbook. Firstly, the “Technical meeting of experts on water allocation and environmental flow assessment in a transboundary context” in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan (December, 2019) convened various experts involved in the regional water allocation and environmental flow projects overseen by International Water Assessment Centre (IWAC) involving Central Asia and its neighbours.

In addition, the “Regional Workshop: Enhancing transboundary water cooperation in the MENA region: progress, challenges and opportunities” held in Beirut, Lebanon (3-4 March, 2020) included a session on transboundary water allocation aim at promoting discussions and lessons learned from basins in the region. 

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