South and East Asia

UNWC's Global Relevance

Mekong River BasinThe Mekong River Basin is one of the largest in the world. It runs through six countries, and is a major contributor to the economic activity of the region as well as providing others services, including use of the waters of hydropower. As a result, there are many competing claims from all riparian states. Reconciling seemingly competing national interests is the key to addressing transboundary challenges within the Mekong River Basin.For this reason, wide efforts were deployed to mitigate potential conflicts over the Mekong River Basin, with these undertakings culminating in the adoption of the Mekong Agreement (MA) in 1995 by all but two of the riparians of the Mekong Basin. The 1995 MA has been lauded as a model in best practices for the equitable and sustainable development of an international watercourse. This basin-wide treaty, which is a framework agreement governing the non-navigational uses of the Mekong, is innovative in many ways: its establishes the Mekong River Commission, which enjoys large powers in terms of exchange of information and notification, compliance monitoring and dispute settlement; the MA also incorporates the fundamental principles of international water law and has detailed provisions on procedural rules.However, there are many disparities in the MA. Although the regional agreement is similar to the UNWC in may ways and has acted as a model for other agreements, there are major dissimilarities in scope, approach and procedural mechanisms between the MA and the UNWC. The framework of the former is more restrictive than the latter and required fewer commitments from its state parties. Moreover, the MA does not cover the entirety of the Greater Mekong Sub-Region, i.e. it does not have a basin-wide scope, meaning much of the Sub-Region is not governed by any similar legal regulatory framework. Some have also pointed out that the MA does not support an effective governance regime and the lack of political commitment has made enforcement of the treaty difficult.The cooperation framework still has a long way to go to ensure the comprehensive and basin-wide management of this great river and other international rivers in the Mekong Region. The entry into force of the UNWC and its ratification by Mekong River Basin states could have a decisive impact on the management of the Mekong, by extending the scope, framework and substantive norms applying to the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.



China did not sign the UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC), and is one of the three states that voted against this global instrument at the UN General Assembly. However, China is also a country that shares a considerable number of international watercourses, some of which are rivers of global significance. Rather than adopt a multilateral strategy, China has chosen to sign several bilateral treaties with its neighboring countries concerning its international watercourses. Yet, for some important international watercourses, such as the Lancang River (Mekong River), China has not yet signed any comprehensive treaties with its fellow watercourse countries.China shares over 40 transboundary waters with its 14 neighbouring countries. However, China has only three treaties dealing with the non-navigational uses of transboundary waters. Despite the number of watercourses China shares with neighbouring countries, it has very few water governance treaties. Only nine of the many border treaties it has signed contain provisions on the non-navigational uses of transboundary waters. Moreover, all of these treaties are bilateral, meaning that China has never entered in basin-wide transboundary water agreements.

Despite the dearth of treaties on transboundary water governance in China, those that exist borrow heavily from the UNWC, and the universally accepted general principles contained in the UNWC have been reflected in China’s treaties. This is significant because it demonstrates the influence the UNWC’s provisions have had on the drafting of sub-regional and regional water treaties around the world, including China. However, there are still some major difference between the UNWC and China’s transboundary river treaties: the UNWC contains more detailed provisions than the latter and generally provides for strict rights and obligations for states. These divergences have considerable effects on the effectiveness of transboundary water governance in China.

China does not support some of the provisions contained in the UNWC, considering that these would be an infringement on its territorial sovereignty. This makes a future ratification of the UNWC by China unlikely. Nonetheless, the UNWC is relevant to water governance in China and has some impact on China’s treaty practice with regards to its agreements on transboundary waters.


 Additional Resources

- Relevance of the UNWC in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region

- Summary Report of the Regional Awareness Raising Workshop

- Summary Notes for the National Awareness Raising Workshop, Vietnam

- Indigenous People in Transboundary Water Law- Columbia and Tsangpo/Brahmaputra Rivers Case Studies

- The 1997 UNWC and China’s Treaty Practice on Transboundary Waters

- Exploring China’s transboundary water treaty practice through the prism of the UN Watercourses Convention [Link to special issue of Water Law International]

- China’s ‘Soft-Path’ to Transboundary Water Cooperation Examined in the Light of Two UN Global Water Conventions – Exploring the ‘Chinese Way’

IUCN, A window of opportunity for the Mekong Basin: The UN Watercourses Convention as a basis for cooperation 


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