Research Guide on Transboundary Freshwater Treaties and Other Resources


By Barbara H. Bean


Barbara H. Bean is a Reference and Public Services Librarian at Michigan State University College of Law, East Lansing, Michigan. She holds a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and a Master’s of Science in Information Science from the University at Albany, New York.


Published April 2007



Table of Contents

I.                Introduction

II.              Water Basics

III.            Treaties and Other International Agreements

a.      Global and Regional Agreements

b.      Sources of Regional, Multilateral and Bilateral Agreements

c.      Non-treaty Instruments

d.      Selected Background Materials

IV.            International Organizations

a.      IGOs

b.      NGOs

V.              International Water Commissions

VI.            Cases and International Events

VII.          Commentary


I.         Introduction

The most common substance on earth, water covers seventy percent of the earth's surface. It is a renewable, but finite resource. Less than three percent of the world's water is fresh, most of that is trapped in glaciers or inaccessible snow cover. Fresh water is essential to all aspects of human activity: agriculture, industry, energy production, and to life itself.


Approximately 260 of the world’s river basins, with a majority of the world’s freshwater flow, cross or create international political boundaries. 145 countries, with close to half of the world’s population, are located in international river basins. Although conflicts over water resources date back thousands of years, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the essential role water plays in sustaining human civilization, the nations have found a way to cooperate in sharing and managing water resources. In addition to global conventions and rules governing the use of water resources, hundreds of regional treaties and agreements exist between and among nations, covering a wide range of issues, from border security and navigation to hydro-electric power and water quality and water quantity. Many treaties contain mechanisms for conflict resolution and many establish international commissions for water resource management.


In addition to surface water contained in lakes and rivers, the vast majority of the earth’s freshwater consists of groundwater held in underground aquifers. Although a “hidden resource”, groundwater serves the basic needs of more than half the world’s population and may be the only source of water in arid and semi-arid countries. A far smaller number of international agreements that address the use and sharing of groundwater resources are in place; international principles are still being developed.


II.        Water Basics

Selected resources containing terminology, water data and information about world water resources.


III.      Treaties and other International Agreements

A.        Major Global and Regional Agreements

B.        Sources of Regional, Multilateral and Bilateral Agreements

Some agreements also may be found in general treaty collections such as the United Nations Treaty Collection.

C.         Non-treaty Instruments

D.        Selected Background Materials

United Nations International Law Commission


·        Topics Completed: Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (Topic 8.3)

·        Topics under consideration: Shared Natural Resources (includes draft convention on transboundary aquifers) (Topic 8.5)


Sources of International Water Law , FAO Legislative Study 65(1998)
Documents governing the development and management of international watercourses: rivers, lakes and underground aquifers formed or traversed by the international border between or among sovereign states. Updates and replaces “The Law of International Water Resources”, FAO Legislative Study 23 (1980). 


Sources of International Law Association Rules on Water Resources
Excerpts from various legal instruments that support the approach of the Rules, and indicate trends in customary international law.


Land and Water – the Rights Interface: FAO Legislative Study 84 (2004)

Analysis of the interface between land tenure and water rights.


IV.       International Organizations




V.        International Water Commissions

Management of transboundary water resources is sometimes delegated to a regional commission. Listed below are commissions for which websites were located.



VI.       Cases and International Events


VII.     Commentary