Main Issue

Ballast water is fresh or saltwater carried by ships to keep them stable and manoeuvrable in rough seas. It can also help ships to sink low enough to pass under bridges and other structures. Globally, ships transfer an incredible 3-5 billion tonnes of ballast water each year.

But ballast water can carry thousands of different species of marine plants, microbes and animals at any given time. When these species are discharged into new environments, some of them adapt to their new homes and multiply.

Invasive alien species (IAS) can disrupt the natural ecology of an ecosystem, threaten local economies and livelihoods, and cause disease and even loss of human life. Most importantly, once introduced and established, they are virtually impossible to eradicate. This underscores the critical importance of preventing IAS from ballast water releases in the first place.

Tackling a global environmental issue such as aquatic invasives has been challenging for several reasons: the cross-boundary character of shipping; lack of institutional and legal frameworks at national levels; lack of available cost-effective ballast water treatment technologies; lack of awareness; limited financial resources; and poor and inconsistent regional cooperation. 

What We Do

Since 2000, the GEF, UNDP, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have been working together to foster unprecedented international and public-private cooperation in the arena of ballast water management. A pilot project built a strong foundation for regional cooperation in six countries: Brazil, the People’s Republic of China, India, Islamic Republic of Iran, Ukraine and South Africa.

These pilot countries played an instrumental role in accelerating the development of the Ballast Water Management (BWM) Convention. They have also transformed themselves into centers of excellence; their expertise and capacity were subsequently drawn on for global scale-up efforts.

Building on these successes, the GEF supported a follow-up project in 2008 known as the GloBallast Partnerships Programme. The program is helping developing countries and their maritime industries to further reduce the risk of IAS through ballast water and prepare for implementation of the 2004 BWM Convention.

More than 80 partnering countries are participating in the program. These partnerships have led to the formation of regional task forces, as well as regional strategies and action plans in ballast water control and management in all five focus regions (i.e. South-East Pacific and Argentina, Mediterranean, West and Central Africa, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, and Wider Caribbean).

Ballast water is only one of the major vectors for the transfer of invasive species. In “hull fouling,” harmful organisms can also attach themselves to the outer hulls of ships and boats. They are then carried and released into new environments. The GEF is exploring a strategy that tackles threats posed by both ballast water and hull fouling to minimize the risk of marine invasions.


The partnerships formed through the various GloBallast initiatives have generated both environmental and economic impacts. The Ballast Water Management (BWM) Convention, adopted in 2004, offers a protocol for controlling and managing the transfer of IAS. As of July 2015, 44 member states had ratified the convention — nearly enough for its entry into force. The collective efforts have also spurred the creation of a ballast water treatment industry expected to grow into a US$35 billion.

The threat of invasive species will continue to pose a global environmental challenge; however, there are many positive signs that the occurrence of invasive alien species transfers will start to dramatically decrease in the coming years.

The GloBallast partnerships have helped 70 developing countries improve their capacity in various areas. These include reform of national ballast water management policies, legislation and institutions, global advocacy and awareness raising, and ballast water risk assessment and training. The countries prepared, and in many cases adopted and implemented, national legal, policy and institutional reform.

By mid 2016, the GloBallast Convention was only 0.18 percent of the global shipping tonnage from being put into force. When the convention does enter into force, it will represent a major impact from a series of GEF investments. It will also transform the entire shipping sector, unlocking private sector investment in compliance estimated at $50 billion.