Message from the GEF CEO: A Time for Action on Water

March 22, 2009

WORLD WATER DAY, March 22, 2009

 Monique Barbut

Every three years in March, some 20,000 people gather at the World Water Forum hoping that talk will turn to results. This year is no exception except for the fact that perhaps there never has been a more urgent time to commit ourselves to action.

The talk on water goes back 35 years: Mar del Plata in the 1970s to Dublin and Rio in the 1990s, The Hague in 2000, Johannesburg in 2002, and Mexico City in 2006. Now, Istanbul in 2009. Still, the crisis of poor management of water resources continues. Water is undervalued in price; service delivery for drinking water and sewage treatment is poor; national water reforms remain lethargic; groundwater is virtually ignored; and pollution discharges continue unabated.

Who loses from all this talk and inadequate action? It is always the same story: those who are the most vulnerable among us--families in poor communities that depend on wetlands, rivers, and deltas for their drinking water, livelihoods, and food security. The worsening situation means that degradation and depletion is expanding beyond national borders to downstream countries. Even coastal areas thirst for water and are choked with pollution. Now, new worries about climate change have us all concerned and confused on what to do next.

Yet let me not curse the darkness but instead light a candle of hope. The GEF mission on water is a special one. As a networked institution, GEF support is aimed at building trust and confidence among countries and our agency partners to collaborate on improved management of our planet’s large, shared water systems—the surface and groundwater basins that cross borders and their linked coastal areas and oceans. The security and community sustainability of almost two-thirds of the people on Earth depend on transboundary surface and groundwater systems that cover 60 % of its land area.

So we have a long track record of understanding what works and what does not work. Let me tell you today that GEF is serious about water and we have devoted over $1 billion in grant funding along with $4 billion in co-financing the last 15 years to encourage countries to collaborate and share benefits through collective management of these cross-border waters. At this time, 149 different GEF recipient countries are working with their neighbors on these shared water systems to reverse the decline and to sustain future benefits.


Results from a selection of these projects are contained in a new GEF publication on water, environment, and community security prepared for the Water Forum (include link). These GEF-funded activities and successful local demonstration pilots have led to new country interest for action. A key question remains however: is the world community ready to work together to scale up action?

I firmly believe the time is right to act now. The global water crisis represents a crisis of governance as well as one of capacity, political will, and finance. GEF intends to scale up our actions on integrated water and land management. We will assist countries to incorporate considerations of climate change into water management. GEF water projects are piloting the transfer of technology such as use of satellite technology to assist with efficient irrigation, reuse of sewage water for irrigation, drought management planning, clean technology to improve quality, and groundwater protection.

A strong message from the Fifth World Water Forum on the urgency of national reforms for water rights, water allocation and pricing, pollution reduction, basin institutions, and land tenure reform is critical this year in Istanbul. We also need a strong commitment from donors to recognize we must build on our words with increased support and new partnerships. With your help, sustainable use of water resources can become a reality even in the face of a changing climate.