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The International Watersheds Initiative (IWI) promotes an integrated, ecosystem approach to issues arising in transboundary waters through enhanced local participation and strengthened local capacity.

The initiative was conceived to facilitate the development of watershed-specific responses to emerging challenges such as intensified population growth and urbanization, global climate change, changing uses of water, pollution from air and land, and introductions of exotic species.

The underlying premise is that local people, given appropriate assistance, are those best positioned to resolve many local transboundary problems.


The idea of an International Watersheds Initiative (IWI) was introduced by the Commission in its 1997 report The IJC and the 21st Century (PDF 7.9 MB). In letters dated November 19, 1998, the governments of Canada and the United States of America asked the International Joint Commission to "further define the general framework under which watershed boards would operate, including, but not limited to mandate, scope of activities, and operating principles, recognizing that boards would be modified to meet the special circumstances of each watershed."

In consultation with the two federal governments, the relevant states and provinces, tribes and First Nations, and local interests, among other, the concept was further developed. IWI activities would compliment the activities of the Commission, which retains its full authority under references and orders. The IJC presented the concept in two reports to the Canadian and U.S. Governments: Transboundary Watersheds (December 2000; PDF 306 KB) and A Discussion Paper on the International Watersheds Initiative (June 2005; PDF 1.3 MB).

In 2005, the Commission identified boards in the watersheds of the St. Croix River (New Brunswick, Maine), the Red River (principally North Dakota, Minnesota, Manitoba) and the Rainy River (Minnesota, Ontario) as pilots for the IWI concept. In 2007, the Souris River (Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Manitoba) was added to the list of pilot boards.

IJC Commissioners and staff have been working to strengthen the capacity of these boards, providing catalytic funding for selected projects involving activities such as developing harmonized transboundary watershed maps and geographic information system (GIS) data; modeling river and reservoir hydraulics; and expanding outreach to the public. The St. Croix River board has made the greatest progress so far, and in April 2007 was designated the first full-fledged International Watershed Board.

The IJC is exploring ways to gradually expand the watershed approach, where suitable, along the entire length of the border. The Commission believes that more can be done to strengthen local participation, foster a more strategic approach, share information and lessons learned, and pick up the pace of implementation. These and other questions were discussed by Board members, IJC Commissioners and staff, and other stakeholders at the International Watersheds Initiative Workshop, held in Vancouver, B.C., on March 18-19, 2008 and in Ottawa, Ontario, on October 27, 2008. These discussions were the basis for further Commission proposals to enhance and strengthen the IWI contained in the January 2009 Third Report to Governments on the IWI, titled International Watersheds Initiatives: Implementing a New Paradigm for Transboundary Basins.

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