Main Issue

Clean and sufficient water is essential for human health and livelihoods and ecosystems alike. Nevertheless, still roughly one of three people lack access to adequate sanitation and one out of ten lack access to safe drinking water. Globally, agriculture accounts for about 70% of freshwater withdrawals; 42% of this comes from groundwater. Groundwater resources are being exploited at an alarming rate and abstraction has increased more than fourfold in the last 50 years. By 2050, 70-100% more food will be needed to meet demand, assuming current projections of around 9 billion people. Energy accounts for roughly 75% of all industrial water withdrawals and equals about 15 % of total water withdrawals. With these increasing demands and additional pressures from increasing climate variability and change in many countries – especially many of these with high hydroclimatic variability in lower latitudes –  will need to examine sustainable development scenarios to address trade-offs across sectors in the planning of water uses.

What We Do

In shared basins cooperation can assure greater water, energy, food, and ecosystems security compared to unilateral development options. Realizing benefits from cooperation through national and regional investments with visible impacts enhances stability of country relations and support to sustainable finance of regional cooperative institutions. Enhanced economic ties and multi-level interactions among countries sharing a basin/sub-region lessen the likelihood of conflict.

The GEF International Waters focal area helps countries jointly manage their transboundary surface water basins, groundwater basins, and coastal and marine systems to enable the sharing of benefits from their utilization. Through the International Waters focal area, the GEF attends to a unique demand in the global water agenda: fostering transboundary cooperation and building trust between states that often find themselves locked in complex and long-lasting tensions over water use. Realizing that the water-energy-food-ecosystems nexus dimensions can be both a source of tensions and an entry point for cooperation, GEF support is aiming to change the vicious circle of increasing competing demands to a virtuous one of dialogue, trust, and cooperative development leaving all countries with greater benefits than if pursuing unilateral action.

GEF supports processes among countries in shared basins to examine opportunities for cooperation that can benefit the long-term development goals of all basin countries. GEF supports countries that share a water body to build trust and even capacities, engage in joint fact-finding missions, and jointly analyze cross-sectoral opportunities and trade-offs. Together, they invest in regional and national policy reforms, and joint projects. In this way, GEF support strengthens effective and efficient water use, and enhances delivery and sharing of environmental and socio-economic benefits in transboundary basins.


The GEF has supported countries in shared basins to develop a Joint vision for cooperation, develop joint, cross-sectoral action plans, and support their implementation. Experience shows that Shared Vision statements often reach far beyond cooperation on water to embrace regional integration, stability and peace.

Realizing the increasing demands for water, food, energy, and addressing ecosystems needs in achieving the SDGs and sustainable use of resources on global, regional, national and local scales, GEF is increasingly engaging in integrated approaches across sectoral and focal area dimensions. For example, GEF in partnership with UNIDO, as implementing agency, and International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) is engaging in a ground-breaking study into sustainable solutions to jointly meet water, energy and land demands at the global level, and also zooming into two large transboundary basins facing multiple development and environmental challenges. The Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land (ISWEL) project explores cost-effective solutions to jointly meet water, land and energy demands under different development and climate pathways. The project takes a global approach, but it also zooms into two large transboundary basin facing multiple developments and environmental challenges. In these basins it works with technical governmental and non-governmental entities in countries in supporting them in the development of a range of development scenarios and explore their implications on national, regional and global levels and develop approaches and tools that are transferrable to other regions.

Another example from the GEF portfolio of projects addressing cross-sectoral coordinating needs is the support for cooperation on the Drina River Basin. About one million people reside in its 20,000 km2, which span the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Montenegro. Together with partners, GEF is helping countries to balancing the needs for flood regulation and protection in downstream flood affected/prone areas and the operation of existing hydropower installations. The project also strengthens national capacities and regional collaboration in forecasting and warning, across the Drina and Sava River basins.

Looking Ahead

Priority investments anchored in agreed basin-wide strategic action plans span both national and multi-country support to investments, e.g. in improved information and information exchange, institutional, policy and strategy reforms on regional, national, and local levels, and in innovative technologies.  GEF-7 will specifically address the inclusion of the ecosystem dimension into the Water, Energy, Land, and Ecosystem nexus and increasing environmental security. GEF will finance the incremental costs of creating regional benefits and also engage – in cooperation with both the public and private sectors - in de-risking innovation to address water security both in terms of quality and quantity/availability. International Focal Area investments will seek enhancement and complementarity with resources and investments in other focal areas and Impact Programs.

GEF-7 Investments in the water, energy, land, and ecosystem nexus will support:

  • Supply chain approaches for increased water efficiency and reduction of ecosystems pressures, such as through industry roundtables and interest groups;
  • Efforts to increase water efficiency, reuse, and reduce point and non-point sources of pollution addressing both primary and emerging pollutants, along the source to sea continuum;
  • De-risk innovation in development through incremental finance and piloting of innovative technologies, e.g. for scalable water-reuse, water efficiency, and water pollution abatements technologies and regulations;
  • Nature-based approaches to improve infiltration, avoid sedimentation and erosion through integrated watershed management and sustainable land management;
  • Protect and rehabilitate aquatic ecosystems, especially wetland areas, river banks, mangroves, and other key habitats with multiple ecosystems services;
  • Establish minimum environmental flows to maintain healthy ecosystems and aquatic biodiversity;
  • Sustain freshwater fisheries and aquaculture via improved management strategies and policy formulation processes, including measures for prevention of IUU; and
  • Support fragile and/or conflict affected countries, via a country-based pilot to fully engage in the transboundary process.

GEF-7 will also support environmental security by allowing investments in a small number of fragile and/or conflict affected countries within transboundary basins both in foundational processes and SAP implementation. This aims to support actions by which decreasing natural resource pressures and water stress can contribute to decreasing fragility and allowing fragile areas and/or countries to stabilize and fully engage in regional processes, hence contributing to preventing larger regional conflict.