Pioneering Atlas on Freshwater Supports Hydro-Diplomacy

KYOTO, Japan, March 20, 2003 (ENS) - International organizations should take the role of "marriage guidance counselors" for trans-boundary water issues before they turn into water conflicts between countries, the United Nation's top environmental official said today. Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) made this suggestion at the launch of a study released at the 3rd World Water Forum today to mark World Water Day, observed every year on March 22.

Some 150 river basins, upon which millions of people the world over depend for drinking water, irrigation or energy, could be the triggers for future conflict unless urgent action is taken, the UN study concludes, and the action should be taken in the emerging field of hydro-diplomacy.


UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer (Photo courtesy IISD)
"Hydro-diplomacy," said Toepfer, a former German environment minister, means, "amicably resolving differences between countries and communities who may be straying apart, or act as go-between for those who are flirting with cooperation but are too coy, too unsure, maybe even too distrustful about how to proceed."

The Atlas lists 263 rivers that either cross or mark international political boundaries - 69 in Europe, 57 in Asia, 59 in Africa, 40 in North and Central American and 38 in South America.

These international basins are distributed over 145 countries that contain 50 percent of the earth's land surface, 60 percent of its freshwater and 40 percent of global population.

The study details the history of water agreements and treaties back to 2,500 BC. Published as the Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements, it was a joint project of UNEP, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Aaron T. Wolf of Oregon State University.

The first recorded water treaty was 4,500 years ago when the two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma brokered an agreement to end a water dispute along the Tigris River, according to the maps, statistics and historical documents analyzed for the Atlas.


Goats along the Tigris River, shared by Turkey and Iraq (Photo courtesy Squires Web)
Over the 4,500 years and 3,600 signed agreements studied for the project, cooperation between countries and sharing of resources has been the historical norm, UNEP said.

Professor Wolf said, "We have found that cooperation between countries over the past 50 years has outnumbered conflicts by more than two-to-one. Things can go wrong. But since 1948, only 37 incidents of acute conflicts, such as those involving violence, have occurred. Thirty of these were between Israel and one or another of its neighbors."

Ashbindu Singh, co-author of the Atlas, said the study shows that both existing water sharing agreements and new ones need to be strengthened to address issues of water quality, monitoring, public participation, effective conflict resolution and more flexible methods of allocation that take into account events such as droughts.

There is a need for "vigilance, scientific rigor and diplomatic vigor" to preserve and extend a cooperative climate, in view of the number of potential conflict zones, said Toepfer. "

Although over 3,000 treaties and agreements covering over 100 international river basins have been signed over the centuries, 158 of the world's international river basins lack any type of cooperative agreements," he said.


India's river Raladiya is a tributary of the Bhramaputra which originates high in the mountains of Tibet. (Photo courtesy IFRC)
Many of these river basins are in Asia, Latin America and Africa where tensions over water for drinking supplies, irrigation, fisheries and hydropower may be aggravated by rising populations and existing political, social and environmental upheavals, UNEP warned today.

Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO, said, "Water treaties, agreements and conventions abound, but knowledge of them, and the relevant records, used to be scattered and not always easily accessible. This Atlas is a welcome step in the consolidation and dissemination of information about shared water treaties."

"The potential conflict over shared water resources is real," said Halifa Drammeh, Deputy Director, UNEP Division of Policy Development and Law. "The issues requiring negotiation and agreement among States have grown more complex, but the practice of seeking a negotiated, agreed solution has remained. This Atlas will be of value above all to those who negotiate such agreements in future."

The Atlas dovetails with the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR), a joint undertaking by 23 UN agencies. The Report was released on March 5 and will be formally launched in Japan on March 22, World Water Day.


Taiko drummers entertain delegates to the 3rd World Water Forum. (Photo courtesy IISD)
The main highlight of World Water Day 2003 is the 3rd World Water Forum now meeting with venues in Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka, Japan.

The key event during the UN International Year of Freshwater, the Forum is on from March 16-23, with a high-level segment during the last two days.

The goal for World Water Day 2003 is to inspire political and community action and encourage greater global understanding of the need for more responsible water use and conservation.

The website has been created on behalf of the UN system by UNEP, the lead agency for World Water Day 2003, to help governments, key partners such as education ministries and schools, civil society organizations, communities and individuals worldwide to plan events that will result in cleaner, more abundant water supplies.

The Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements is published by UNEP and can be viewed at and purchased at:

The Transboundary Freshwaters Dispute Database, based at the University of Oregon and with a clickable access to treaties, is at:

UNEP's Vital Water Graphics: An overview of the world's fresh and marine water resources are available at: