The fair and efficient management of water resources and the protection of water quality are some of the most pressing issues in international policymaking. Today 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe water and 2.4 billion people lack access to basic sanitation. In developing countries, 90 percent of all wastewater still goes untreated into local streams. An estimated forty-seven countries are suffering medium to high water stress. Some five million deaths a year are caused by polluted drinking water. While an estimated $75 billion a year will be needed for water service infrastructure, the total development assistance allocated to the water sector is $3 billion per year.
The international facets of water management are multiple. First there are issues of water allocation. Many freshwater resources are under the control of more than one country. The majority of countries share some of their water resources with other countries. How to allocate shared water resources has been a thorny issue and the cause of conflict in some regions. Another issue concerns water quality. Most international agreements that deal with water allocation do not address issues of water quality. Water quality, though, cannot be separated from allocation decisions. A lot of water of doubtful quality (because of pollution) is unlikely to alleviate the needs of states that share water resources.
Various ideas have been proposed on how to manage water resources in a way that incorporates issues of water quality and quantity, the integration of land use planning into water management (as most pollution that ends up in waters is generated from sources on land, i.e. agriculture, industry) and the interests of various users as they collide or intercept. Such ideas are encapsulated in the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). While this principle sounds good in theory its application in practice has been limited because of the demands it makes on the integration of various policy fields (such as land use planning, agricultural management, industrial discharges control and water management). An effort to apply the principle of IWRM on a transnational scale is now undertaken through the Water Framework Directive issued by the European Union.
At the international level the Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses adopted in 1997 sets some of the parameters for the allocation of water resources and the protection of such resources. Various regional instrument have been adopted as well that manage more or less effectively transboundary water resources. A paramount concern in most of these regional instruments is how to generate an agreement that all parties will perceive as equitable and, thus, willing to implement. The constitutive elements of equitable sharing of the uses of water resources are still severely contested in some regions while other regions have found a modus operandi for the management of shared water resources.