Twenty years of successful water cooperation

Twenty years of successful water cooperation

13 July 2012

On 3-4 September 2012, the Finnish Ministries for Foreign Affairs, of Agriculture and Forestry, and of the Environment hosted an anniversary event to celebrate 20 years of the Helsinki Convention and debate its future. On this occasion, about seventy participants who have been involved in the development and running of the UNECE Water Convention gathered in Helsinki, two decades after its adoption in 1992, to contribute their inspiring thoughts to a symposium resolutely looking into the future.

Helsinki seaside

The convention stresses that water is the critical resource of the 21st century. While demands for water continue to increase, availability is dwindling. Water resources are stressed by overuse and pollution, and floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and intense. Water resources that cross political boundaries cover nearly half of the Earth’s land surface and account for an estimated 60 percent of global freshwater flow. They support the income and livelihoods of millions of people and play a crucial role for countless ecosystems. Therefore cooperation on shared water resources is vital to secure peace and stability, economic development and growth, protection of natural resources and sustainable development.

The Helsinki Convention ( provides a legal framework for cooperation, based on three pillars: 1) to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impacts on the environment, human health and safety and socio-economic conditions, 2) to ensure reasonable and equitable water use, and 3) to cooperate through agreements and joint bodies. Throughout its twenty years, the convention has been inspirational and more or less directly involved in a number of successful water cooperation projects and agreements that are summarized in this overview of past achievements [PDF]. The Water Convention also supports countries in adapting their water management to climate change through guidance, capacity-building, exchange of experience and projects on the ground. It is also a strategic partner to the European Union Water Initiative for national policy dialogues on integrated water resources management. Over the past ten years, the Ramsar Convention has worked with the Helsinki Water Convention on such issues as innovative approaches like the programme “nature for water” to protect ecosystems for sustainable development, the preparation of recommendations on payments for ecosystem services in integrated water resources management (adopted in 2006), and most recently, on the Second Assessment of transboundary rivers, lakes and groundwaters, including an assessment of 25 Ramsar Sites and other wetlands (published in 2011).

The Ramsar Convention congratulates the Helsinki Convention upon its anniversary and is looking forward to a continued fruitful cooperation. Having recently celebrated our 40th anniversary, we undertook a similar exercise of analysing our past successes and preparing ourselves for the challenges of the future. Only a few months ago, Finland invited the Nordic and Baltic countries to an anniversary conference on “The future of wetlands”, also in Helsinki. It is reassuring to see that speakers at both events stressed the need for increased intersectoral cooperation, notably between the classical water supply managers, farmers, fishermen, foresters, energy producers, transport planners, and experts for ecosystem maintenance and restoration. Such an integrated approach increasingly focuses on the nexus (correlations) among the objectives for water, food and energy security in times of a changing climate (cf. or ). Ramsar believes that the “nexus” concept needs to fully recognize the values and services of wetland ecosystems as key natural infrastructure in the water cycle. It is through the water cycle that good quality water is delivered to us humans, supporting our livelihoods and societies.

With the recognition that wetland ecosystems provide crucial hydrological services, the need for the Convention on Wetlands to become a more active player in global water management governance increases. This was recognized repeatedly during our 40 anniversary year. And the contributions and reflections at the Helsinki symposium also spoke to this end. Currently, there is no global treaty that coordinates international water resources management. The UN Assembly adopted in 1997 a Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. However, to enter into force, it still needs more ratifications. And it provides only a framework for future cooperation, rather than operational procedures and tools. The UNECE Water Convention however can now look back on an impressive number of tools and procedures developed over the last twenty years. Having been set up by the UN Economic Commission for Europe, it focused mainly on Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, it has been opened for ratification by countries outside this region. Neighbouring countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Mongolia, have already shown interest in using these tools. And the time for its true globalization has now come.

The speakers at the Helsinki symposium anticipated therefore that these two water conventions will cooperate in the future, look for synergies and see how best to complement each other. And this would provide an opportunity to formally include ecosystem management and restoration aspects - as developed and coordinated by the Ramsar Convention - into the “nexus”. To put it in another way: the time has come to invest in wetlands, i.e. using water-related ecosystems to advance the water, energy and food security we want for our future, as was outlined during the recent Rio+20 Earth Summit. A promising perspective and Ramsar stands ready to contribute.

Report written by Tobias Salathé, Senior Regional Advisor for Europe