Fresh water protection gets a big boost

Global fresh water protection: big dreams, deliberations and celebrations

It’s Monday, and World Water Week in Stockholm is in full swing. The conference venue’s café buzzes with conversation. Experts from around the world have gathered to discuss one of our most precious shared natural resources: fresh water. Together, they share ideas and hatch plans for the future.

The scene reminds me of another café in a different time and place. In 2008, I sat with a team of lawyers in the Vienna Café, located in the basement of the United Nations building in New York. There we discussed a huge challenge: How could we revive and sustain support for the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, the first global legal framework to help manage transboundary freshwater resources? At the time, it looked like the convention would never enter into force.

Seven years later, against odds that once seemed impossible to overcome, the UN Watercourses Convention officially entered into force last month. This is a victory for the countless people who toiled behind the scenes; but more than that, it’s a victory for people everywhere and for the resource on which we all depend.

Danube River flowing through the Iron Gate Gorge, Djerdap National Park, Serbia. The Danube is the world’s most international river basin, as it includes the territories of 19 countries. © Wild Wonders of Europe /Ruben Smit / WWF

For the past several years, I worked alongside colleagues within WWF and beyond to find the “right” people – those who would truly commit to moving the convention forward. And we did find them: wonderful, dedicated people in ministries and other organisations around the globe, none of whom shied away from pursuing something big. They were willing to fight to keep the issue on the “top of the pile,” to make international commitments “stick” and to brave all the tedious procedures required to turn a convention from an idea into something enforceable. They all understood that big solutions – like international treaties – may sound abstract and take years, but if we work together, they are not impossible to achieve.

But we can’t stop now.

The convention entering into force is just one (albeit big) step. Now we must implement it, and there’s no time to waste, as a growing global population, climate change, increasing demands and economic growth, and other mounting pressures fuel conflicts over the natural resources we all share.

Currently, there are 276 transboundary freshwater lake and river basins worldwide, but only 40 per cent are governed by agreements. Where agreements exist, 80 per cent involve only two countries, even though other states may also be part of the watercourse in question. Nature and wildlife do not respect national borders, and some of the most crucial areas for biodiversity are linked to international rivers and lakes.

Fisherman in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam. The Mekong runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and is the primary source of protein for 60 million people. © Elizabeth Kemf / WWF-Canon

Roughly one-third of UN member States are party to transboundary water conventions; that is not enough to create global cooperation and actions to manage our shared water. We need to motivate the others. While this month marks a significant milestone, we can’t lose the momentum – there’s still work to be done.

So to all my colleagues at World Water Week and around the world: Keep talking. Keep fighting. Keep turning big dreams into reality.

Lesha Witmer is an expert on water governance who has helped guide WWF’s efforts in support of the UN Watercourses Convention.