Submitted by James Dalton on Tue, 10/27/2015

By James Dalton of IUCN’s Water Programme.

Around 40% of the world’s population lives in river basins that span two or more countries. These transboundary water systems include over 445 aquifers, more than 1,600 lakes and reservoirs, and 286 rivers. They are fundamental to the well-being of societies in terms of healthy people, healthy nature, and economic wealth. Yet population growth, climate change and a host of other threats are putting enormous pressure on these critical resources with far-reaching ramifications.

A landmark report Transboundary River Basins: Status and Trends, to be released shortly by the Transboundary Waters Assessment Programme, presents the first global assessment of the status of transboundary river health and management.

Covering 286 river basins, the assessment covers iconic rivers such as the Nile, Mekong, Amazon and Indus, all the way to the Conventillos, a small river basin shared between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, covering just 7 km2.

Produced by a partnership of nine organisations, the assessment is based on a series of global datasets, and structured around 15 key indicators. These range from water quantity and quality to governance, socio-economic and ecosystem aspects. Spanning 151 nations and 2.8 billion people, the health of these river systems is itself a key indicator for progress in water management.

Headlined in a recent Al Jazeera interview Bringing Science to Life, the report points out that animals and plants in 70% of transboundary river basins are at moderate to very high risk of extinction. Poor water quality caused by nutrients and wastewater pollution, fragmentation of wetlands and freshwater habitats, and physical barriers such as dams are key factors behind this stark warning – 218 of the 286 river basins, or 76%, risk becoming highly polluted.

The Ganges © Kurkul Shutterstock

The Ganges © Kurkul Shutterstock

The assessment highlights a complex situation. What happens upstream can dramatically change rivers and the lives of people living downstream. Designed to highlight problems and successes, the assessment helps identify where further actions need to be replicated and scaled up. The speed of change in our river basins is high. Already, construction of major infrastructure such as dams is underway or planned, even when there are no international cooperation agreements or detailed impact assessments in place. Joint solutions within countries are required as well as across borders if the full benefits of better managing our shared waters are to be realised. Upstream-downstream challenges remain very real, and are likely to increase in the next 15-30 years as populations expand and climate change affects the hydrological cycle.

The online data portal from the assessment allows users to look at both the global and national state of transboundary rivers. Information from one basin can be used to inform others, and can be used by national, regional and international organisations. The assessment delivers complex data in a way that can inform decision making. It improves the use of multi-discipline data by multiple sectors, and we hope will help steer transboundary action to solve the most pressing problems first.


IUCN’s involvement in this assessment has been long. Almost seven years in design and development complexity doesn’t simplify easily. And our knowledge chain is historical. The Water and Nature Initiative invested, along with many others, in the African Red List Assessment for Freshwater Species in 2005. It is this data and the wider global Red List Assessment data that forms the baseline extinction risk indicator for transboundary river basins. The more we look, the more we find how the Water and Nature Initiative influenced and developed data, knowledge, programmes, and institutions that were not immediately obvious. More and more we see the influence of this in West Africa and the Middle East.

International endorsement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals provides a stark reminder of our energy (targets 7.1 & 7.b), food (targets 2.1 & 2.4), and water security concerns. We need water to generate electricity and to grow our food. Target 6.3 focuses on water quality and pollution and 6.5 on integrated water resource management and transboundary cooperation. But this also highlights the huge hurdle we have created to ‘protect and restore water-related ecosystems’ (target 6.6) and ‘ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services’ – all by 2020. That’s four years from now.

What is clear is that the next four years requires significant investment in technical, governance and hydro-diplomacy support, together with funding to support the enabling conditions in many countries. We have data and knowledge that can direct us to the key problems, but on the ground we remain behind. It’s like having a new car, but with no wheels on it. We need to link the right data and indicators with policy and, most importantly, action that will have the greatest impact. If we don’t clean up our rivers, if we don’t protect and restore our freshwater systems soon, what then for the other SDG targets? The horse is clearly in front of the cart, but is it big enough?

The Global Environment Facility established the Transboundary Waters Assessment Programme to develop a baseline assessment to evaluate changes in these waters systems due to human activities and natural changes.

 Find out more about IUCN’s work on sustainable water management.