UNEP and the GEF: Going forward with the Global Environment Facility!

October 20, 2016

Band-e-Amir National Park, Afghanistan
Band-e-Amir National Park, Afghanistan

By Erik Solheim, Executive Director
United nations environment programme (UNEP)

From the azure lakes of Band-e Amir to the snow-capped peaks of the Shah Foladi, Bamyan Provence in the central highlands of Afghanistan is one of the most stunning landscapes on Earth. Unfortunately, something so breathtaking for one person can be heartbreaking for another.

Khair Begum lives in the village of Jawkar, which nestles in the side of the mountains. Her softly spoken words and grey hair conceal the strength of character needed to survive for so long in such a harsh environment. Like most of the community, Khair gets by on what the village is producing locally. Or, to be precise, what they are producing between the avalanches and floods that crash through their lives with the spring snow melt. Now in her twilight years, Khair sees the annual loss of houses, roads, livestock and even people as the normal rhythm of life: take a hit, rebuild, hope and repeat. With global temperatures increasing, so is the frequency and ferocity of that cycle. It’s hardly a promising future for Khair, the people of Jawkar or the other villages clinging to existence on the slopes of Bamyam Province.

Thirteen thousand kilometres away, a similar cycle is gathering pace in Lesotho; the tiny kingdom in the sky above Southern Africa where more than half the population is below the age of 24. In the town of Maseru, close to the Western border with South Africa, Matsepo Taaso is the Principal at Hoohlo Primary School. The school’s 300 students are part of a whole generation enjoying free, compulsory education until their teens. Then, many will join the two-thirds of the country who survive on small scale farming. Others will move away in search of work to send money home. Some of the boys will turn to the diamond mines of Lesotho or South Africa. Girls will try their luck in the country’s garment industry, which exports more iconic US brands like Gap, Levis and Wal-Mart than any other in the region.

However, the economic crisis in America and Europe hit the demand for clothing and diamonds. Extreme droughts, tornadoes and hail storms repeatedly hit the vulnerable communities in the mountains. And 85% of Lesotho livelihoods are at risk from climate change, despite it contributing little to global warming and generating practically 100% renewable energy.

Half a world apart and unlikely ever to meet, Khair, Matsepo and their communities share the dangers of climate change. But they also share something else.

It’s something they share with fishermen from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean; with artisan gold miners from Guyana to Mongolia; with cocoa farmers from Costa Rica to Ghana; with transport planners from Portugal to China; and even with anti-poaching patrols in South Africa. It is something incredibly unique and, although they share it with millions of people around the world, many of them will never know.

Quite simply, they share hope for a better future, thanks to the Global Environment Facility, or GEF to its friends.

In my first few weeks at UN Environment, people talked to me about GEF with so much affection, on so many occasions, that I was wondering if I’d made a rookie mistake. Perhaps it was actually some incredible philanthropist I was passing in the corridor without realizing? But it’s not surprising that people talk about the Global Environment Facility like that when you look at how much they have helped the three founding agencies during the last 25 years.

Since we created it with the World Bank and UN Development Programme, the results have been outstripping our expectations. The Global Environment Facilty support to teams in UN Environment is as energizing as it is unstinting. It would be easy to dismiss that statement as referring to the $1.6 billion they have entrusted to us over the years. Yet that would grossly underestimate the true value of our relationship. It is giving our teams so much more than funding. It is giving them the freedom to work with social and environmental experts who can improve life for millions of people and to protect this planet for future generations. You cannot measure that in currency.

Thanks to the Global Environment Facility we work with some amazing partners around the world. We help over 140 nations tackle climate change, mercury poisoning and chemical pollution. We help hundreds more to manage green technology, international waters, desertification and the loss of biodiversity. Our work embraces everything from shaping global treaties to measuring, reporting and implementing them on the ground.

Weaving this global web of life is not always very glamorous. It’s more like quietly paying taxes: a steady stream of reliable investment, building the foundations that underpin the entire infrastructure of environmental governance.

But, when government, academics, civil society and the private sector work together like this, the benefits for people like Khair and Matsepo are huge.

Khair and half a dozen villages in Bamyan Provence are protecting themselves from that cycle of avalanches and flooding. And they are doing it thanks to support from the Global Environment Facility, the European Commission and the National Environmental Protection Agency. By sharing expertise and efforts on biodiversity, climate and chemicals the partners are transforming ecosystems, natural resources and life in the mountains. If you are fluent in UN-speak, this is “Developing Core Capacity for Decentralized Multilateral Environmental Agreements Implementation and Natural Resources Management”. If you are Khair, this is planting 140,000 tree cuttings, creating half a dozen community fruit nurseries and moving homes, farms and roads away from risk areas.

Over in Lesotho, Matsepo and the kids at Hoohlo Primary School are back in class after their winter break. Like schools across the country, they are using a toolkit that makes climate change part of more traditional subjects like agriculture, geography and science. But Lesotho’s kids are not the only ones starting to include climate change in their everyday activities. There is training for journalists to provide better climate change reporting in the newspapers, radio and TV. There is training for technicians to share data from new weather stations that will provide early warnings on climate change. And, as we see so often with the Global Environment Facility’s projects, the role of additional partners like Lesotho Meteorological Services is essential for success.

Partnerships, diversity and local knowledge are a winning combination. It’s one that the Global Environment Facility and its partners excel in using to support communities who know that protecting natural resources also protects livelihoods.

I may be new in UN Environment, but I am incredibly proud to be part of the team sharing this adventure. Because these are not big sexy stories that grab headlines; these are stories that change lives.

So Global Environment Facility! Happy 25th birthday from everybody at UN Environment and, as the motto of Hoohlo Primary School puts it: “Forward We Go.”