Transboundary: Oppportunities and Challenges for the Shared Management of Watersheds; the Trifino Plan for the Upper Lempa (#394)

The Lempa River is shared by Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, making its management a good example of transboundary cooperation. To reach consensus, action was taken to develop a treaty as part of a regional process.  However, since the treaty was not accompanied by strategies designed by local actors, it is somewhat weak. Nonetheless, this case illustrates that political willingness is crucial for advancing towards IWRM in transboundary watersheds. 


The upper watershed (Cuenca Alta) of the Lempa River is shared by Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Its management represents an innovative experience for Central America. It clearly reveals the advance made in the management of a transboundary watershed stemming from the political willingness of the three countries.

This has been possible due to an agreement at the uppermost levels to institutionalize the cooperation among the countries through adoption of an International Treaty which materialized into a new form of institutionalization. Simultaneously, the Trifinio experience exposes the limitations of top-down processes not accompanied by strategies designed by local actors. Such a process would ensure the support and endorsement necessary to guarantee functionality and sustainability of actions in the long term.

Action taken

An initiative called Trifinio Plan was formed as part of the regional peace process which culminated in the signing of the Esquipulas peace agreements in 1987. Later, with the support of the General Secretariat of the Organizations of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Co-operation (IICA, by the Spanish acronym), the Trifinio Plan was developed.

The Trifinio Plan allowed for joint actions of cooperation to be carried out among Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in a natural area of great value. At the same time, it served as an example of practical efforts being carried out in Central America toward integrations of river basin management. This led to establishment of an international park shared by the three countries taking into account all aspects of IWRM.

Lessons learned

This case shows that political willingness (at the highest level) from the countries involved is crucial for advancing toward an integrated water resources management of transboundary watersheds in Central America.

The lessons are summarized as follows:

  • The establishment of common institutional framework is indispensable for managing the territory of a shared basin.
  • Mechanisms for formulating coordinated interventions are needed and ensuring efficient mechanisms for local participation in decision making, planning and action is crucial.
  • Invest in processes to build local capacities for the management of natural resources;
  • The lack of sustainability and efficiency of actions planned in a top-down approach and a centralized management relying solely on the involved Ministries.
  • Protectionist approaches impede to advance in the management of resources with an IWRM approach in the watershed.
  • The limitations of incorporating vulnerability and risk in the management of a shared watershed. 

Relevance of the case for IWRM

The case reflects the importance of political will in the building of frameworks for institutional transboundary river basins. At the same time, it also reveals the obstacles which arise when a top-down approach moves towards a process involving strategies arising from local actors.

Strategies by local actors lead the necessary support to the functioning and sustainability of actions which, in the long run, lead toward integrated water resources management in transboundary rivers basins. Finally, the case focuses more on natural resources management for river basins than on the integrated management of water.


Photo credit: Javier Martell