Water, an essential ingredient for life on this planet, is experiencing tremendous pressures. Water is a prerequisite for human and ecosystems survival, is the base of many economic activities, and underlies the majority of the Sustainable Development Goals.
As income levels have risen globally, so has the demand for freshwater. Development is a thirsty business: water is interwoven into the national economic fabric in obvious ways, such as for drinking water, irrigation of crops, and hydropower; and less obvious ways by being embedded in production of feed stock, consumer goods, mining operations, and most kinds of energy. Climate change, urbanization, increasing food demand, and population growth all add to existing pressures on water resources.
Consequently, freshwater scarcity and stress is increasing in most regions. Approximately 80% of the world’s population is already exposed to high levels of threat to water security, and approximately 1.2 billion people live in river basins where human water use has surpassed sustainable limits. These pressures will disproportionally affect the world’s poor, particularly women, who are often responsible for the health and welfare of children, the elderly, and the infirm. Water scarcity events, such as large floods and droughts, if combined with weak governance and other factors also can become risk multipliers contributing to destabilization, violence, and migration.
Pollution further reduces the water available for human use, which is accelerating the water crisis. Globally, more than 80% of collected and discharged wastewater is not treated. Non-point pollution sources, such as from fertilizer application and animal farming, are also major contributors to pollution. Other land-based pollutants, such as high sediment loads, heavy metals, and organic pollutants further reduce water that is suitable for use, impact aquatic life in rivers and lakes, and end up in our oceans.
What We Do
The Global Environment Facility has financed transboundary water cooperation across shared fresh and marine water systems since its inception in 1991. Globally, more than 300 watersheds and an even greater number of aquifers cross the political boundaries of two or more countries. These watersheds, which cover about half of the Earth’s land surface, are home to about 40 percent of the global population. Cooperation on water, therefore, is a must in most international basins to support the need for water, food, energy, and ecosystems security and increase resilience for each nation. Read more+
Sound management of freshwater basins and aquifers, particularly those shared across political boundaries, is largely about balancing the water needs across different sectors and nations. Shared freshwater resources comprise a special case for cooperation – water can be a driver for cooperation when countries embark on a path of trust and realizing the benefits of cooperative development and sharing benefits beyond the river with large potential spillover and global impacts.
The GEF International Waters focal area seeks to create a common understanding on competing water needs on the one hand and the gains from cooperation for each country on the other. Sustainable, integrated management of water resources requires cross-sector collaboration and sector reforms in each country to avoid tensions among countries sharing river basins or aquifers. Countries have to keep their national interests at heart – yet dialogue and developing cooperative options and scenarios for development can lead to realizing that through coordinated or cooperative action they have a much greater capacity to address mounting resource needs and pressures and to avoid or resolve conflicts.
Addressing multiple stresses across large-scale water systems and the complex history and processes of multi-county dialogue often takes more than a decade. In many cases, it takes years – supported via an initial, foundational GEF project – just to help countries reach a common understanding of water and related natural assets, pressures, and opportunities and agree to work together. This process of common and participatory fact finding – the “Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis” - and developing a common strategic action plan – which needs ministerial endorsement to be actionable – is typical for a step-wise GEF support. Foundational GEF projects also demonstrate benefits of cooperation early on through early warning systems, local demonstration projects, and to enhancing institutional capacities on regional and national levels.
The GEF International Waters focal area helps countries balance water uses in transboundary surface and groundwater basins. The GEF’s work has shown that countries collaborate successfully when they realize the benefits of working together are greater than pursuing unilateral investments. Read more+
Focusing on transboundary freshwater, the GEF, together with its implementing and executing partners, has financed projects related to 47 rivers, 13 aquifers, and 15 lakes. These investments totaled $735 million USD in grant financing, leveraging $3.9 billion USD in co-financing.
One of the earliest large GEF investments, for example, addressed the interaction between the management of the Danube river and the Black Sea. Nutrient and organic pollution from agriculture fertilizer, livestock waste, and human sewage discharged to the Danube basin ultimately reaches the Black Sea. Pollution levels reached a peak in 1990 when a lack of dissolved oxygen resulted in a massive loss of aquatic life in about 40,000 km2 of the Black Sea.
Through a series of targeted investments, 16 Danube basin countries worked together through the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River with support by the GEF, UNDP, World Bank, and the European Union to sustain regional collaboration and undertake a series of cross-sectoral nutrient pilot demonstrations, including trapping nutrients in restored flood plains. With the GEF increment being crucial towards facilitating regional collaboration, and unlocking finance from finance institutions, outcomes have been favorable in terms of on-site nutrient loading reduction and sustained regional cooperation under the umbrella of a sustained River Basin Approach. The Black Sea environment has responded with improved water quality, less oxygen depletion, and improved biodiversity and fisheries to support local communities.
In the Mediterranean Sea, GEF International Waters investments have enabled the development of a comprehensive regional policy framework including strategies, plans, and guidelines that serve as guidance for the regional and national efforts in the Mediterranean. Capitalizing on this baseline, a new series of GEF investments under the “Mediterranean Sea: Enhancing Environmental Security” program, has gained strong buy-in from countries, International Finance Institutions, and European Union partners towards improving the health and quality of life of millions of people in the densely inhabited coastal areas of the Mediterranean.
GEF support will focus on interventions in shared basins where water stress creates a challenge but also can be a driver and opportunity for cooperation. Interventions will prioritize preventative actions in transboundary basins facing multiple stressors and hence potential for conflict on national and regional levels. Investment in cooperation among countries in shared basins can be one avenue to increase interaction among countries and enhance trade and transport of goods and services. These investments can, consequently, create common interests and provide an entry point for regional integration and peaceful country relations. In GEF-7, the IW focal area will seek to enhance water security in freshwater ecosystems by investing in three key areas: Read more+
Advancing information exchange and early warning. Disaster risk management is often an early entry point for cooperation among countries by creating trust and establishing a track record of cooperation on a wide set of issues. Flood and drought early warning systems can be instrumental for countries and the international community alike to intervene early and increase resilience before the onset of destabilizing social conditions and out-migrations, with obvious humanitarian benefits. GEF support will be designed to enhance the availability of sound data and information for science-based policies and decisions at trigonal and global levels.
Enhancing regional and national cooperation on shared freshwater surface and groundwater basins. GEF support will focus on interventions in shared river and lake basins and shared groundwater systems where water stress - demands on water uses (quantity) and/or pollution – is already a concern, or where proactive action can support countries to consider scenarios and development paths to achieve their national development goals and at the same time maintain sustainable, healthy ecosystems in the long term.
Investing in water, energy, land, and environmental security. Cooperation In shared water basins can assure greater security of water, energy, land, and ecosystems. Realizing benefits from cooperation through national and regional investments with visible impacts enhances the stability of country relations, ensures sustainable financing of regional cooperative institutions, and promotes innovative investments that may help address increasing pressures from climate change, urbanization, and other pressures.