The IJC at the UN 2023 Water Conference

Photo of Oliver Dumville
Oliver Dumville
Avni Solanki
phare speaks during un side event 2023

According to the United Nations (UN), transboundary waters shared by two or more countries account for more than 60 percent of all freshwater flows in the world, and more than 3 billion people depend on them. This makes bilateral and multilateral cooperation essential to ensuring global access to clean water.

On World Water Day, celebrated annually on March 22, delegates from many of the 153 countries with transboundary waters convened in New York City to accelerate cooperation and sustainable development. Commissioners and staff from the International Joint Commission (IJC) were honored to attend this benchmark global event and showcase the important contributions of those who make up IJC boards along the Canada-United States boundary.

A Momentous Gathering

The UN 2023 Water Conference was the second of two high-level conferences on freshwater hosted by the UN. The first was held in 1977 in Argentina, and culminated in the Mar Del Plata Action Plan—a roadmap of commitments aimed at “providing safe drinking water and sanitation for all human settlements by 1990.”

While this 1990 goal was not met, the international community has repeatedly committed to universal access to clean water and sanitation. Perhaps the most notable expressions of this occurred in 2015, with the UN’s adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as in 2016, with the adoption of the 2018-2028 International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development (Water Action Decade).

The three-day conference officially marked the halfway point of the Water Action Decade and provided an opportunity for the global community to assess and accelerate progress toward the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. SDG 6, the goal to ensure access to water and sanitation for all, was particularly top of mind, including for those interested in transboundary cooperation. SDG 6 is comprised of eight targets and 11 indicators; these are the foundation for assessing progress.

delegates 2023 un water conference

Delegates participate in the Interactive Dialogue on Transboundary and International Water Cooperation. Credit: IJC.

Assessing Progress

Leading up to the conference, the UN warned that “at current rates, progress towards all the targets of SGD 6 is off-track."

From the transboundary perspective, Target 6.5 is of particular importance, as it aims to “by 2030, implement integrated water resources management (IWRM) at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.” Progress on this target is tracked via two indicators which monitor the degree of IWRM implementation and the “proportion of transboundary basin area with an operational arrangement for water cooperation.”

The IJC is essential to Canada-US transboundary water cooperation and achieving progress on Target 6.5. This is suggested, for example, in a 2020 submission to the UN by Canada and in the UN World Water Development Report 2023.

Though the UN does not identify eligible operational arrangements for Canada-US aquifers, the proportion of the Canada-US transboundary area with an operational arrangement was last assessed as being high overall, at about 80 percent. Only 24 of the 153 countries for which data is available have 100 percent of their transboundary basins covered by cooperation arrangements.

Integrated water resources management (IWRM) implementation is also of interest to the Commission, as it aligns with its commitment to applying an ecosystem approach, including through its International Watersheds Initiative (IWI).

Though Canada’s implementation of IWRM has not been quantified due to a lack of data, the U.S. was last assessed in 2020 as having “high” IWRM implementation, with an overall value of 77 out of 100. Canada and the U.S. have an opportunity to provide updated data on progress, as the 2022/23 round of global data collection on the SDG 6 indicators is ongoing. Countries have until the end of June to submit data on transboundary cooperation and the end of September for IWRM.

Accelerating Progress

The UN 2023 Water Conference brought together more than 2,000 people and culminated in the adoption of the Water Action Agenda, currently made up of over 800 voluntary commitments to help advance the 2030 Agenda. Chief among them is the Transboundary Water Cooperation Coalition: a commitment to advance collaboration between countries that share boundary waters. Notably, it does so by encouraging states to sign onto two UN conventions which enshrine the duty to cooperate in international law. The coalition was the subject of an official side-event and highlighted by speakers in a number of other events. To date, it is supported by more than 30 governments and organizations.  

The governments of Canada and the US highlighted the importance of transboundary cooperation in official statements, and made a number of important announcements in conjunction with the conference.

For example, Canada’s national statement highlighted that “Canada and the United States share a long history of successfully managing our shared waters,” and described collaboration via the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement as an “outstanding achievement.”

In addition, speaking as part of the Interactive Dialogue on Transboundary and International Water Cooperation on Day 2 of the conference, the US highlighted the importance of fostering transboundary surface and groundwater management agreements, and the potential for transboundary cooperation to reduce the risk of interstate conflict. Day 3 of the conference coincided with an official visit to Canada by US President Joe Biden, during which Canada and the US jointly committed to greater transboundary water cooperation—specifically in the Great Lakes, Columbia River and Elk-Kootenai/Kootenay watersheds.

The Role of the Commission

Canada and the US share the longest international border in the world, and the IJC has more than a century of experience advancing transboundary cooperation through science-based fact-finding and community partnership. The IJC’s experience was highlighted in the concept document underpinning the Interactive Dialogue on Transboundary and International Water Cooperation. More specifically, it identified strengths exemplified by IJC boards across the continent, including clarity, inclusiveness and the ability to evolve.

The IJC is well-placed to support transboundary cooperation at a global scale by sharing its learnings in watershed management and drawing from experiences gleaned in other transboundary contexts. The Commission’s participation in the 2023 conference follows on its attendance at the 1977 conference.

In an official side-event hosted by the IJC, Canadian Chair and Commissioner Pierre Béland joined Philip Weller of the International RiverFoundation, Vladimir Arana of the International Secretariat for Water and Mark Fisher of the Council of the Great Lakes Region to emphasize the importance of cooperation in fostering resilience to climate change in transboundary waters.

Commissioners Merrell-Ann Phare and Henry Lickers and US Chair and Commissioner Rob Sisson also shared their perspectives during and on the margins of the 2023 conference.

All three participated in a symposium co-convened with IJC and led by the Women in Water Diplomacy Network, underscoring the need to elevate the voices of women, Indigenous People and other groups traditionally underrepresented in decision making. As highlighted in the network’s 2022-27 Global Strategy, A Path Forward for Women, Water, Peace, and Security, “ensuring inclusive water governance practices increases the likelihood of developing sustainable, long-lasting, and equitable solutions.” In years to come, the Commission looks forward to continuing to increase the diversity of its boards and applying an ecosystem approach across its affairs.

Photo of Oliver Dumville
Oliver Dumville

Oliver Dumville is a senior policy adviser with the IJC’s Canadian Section in Ottawa, Ontario.

Avni Solanki

Avni Solanki is an engineering adviser with the IJC’s US Section in Washington, D.C., and a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.