The history of international water treaties dates back to around 2500 BC, with an agreement ending a water dispute along the Tigris River between the two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma. Since then, many treaties related to international water resources have been drawn up. The majority of these treaties deal with navigation and boundary issues, although the focus has shifted in recent years towards the use, development, protection and conservation of water resources.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) has identified more than 3,600 treaties relating to international water resources dating from AD 805 to 1984. The majority of these treaties are concerned with some aspect of navigation. Since 1814, approximately 300 treaties have been negotiated which deal with non-navigational issues of water management, flood control or hydropower projects, or allocations for consumptive or non-consumptive uses in international basins. However, there were no commonly accepted rules or agreements. During the 1950s and the 1960s, certain regions in the world started to witness water problems. Lack of a common law related to utilization of water resources created conflicts on use of water. Despite the lack of a global water scarcity, regional water scarcity was settled through bilateral or multilateral agreements. During the process, there was an effort to come up with certain principles related to allocation of international watercourses within the framework of international law. Requirement for legal principles in order to manage non-navigational uses of international watercourses led non-governmental international legal organizations to focus on this issue.