Main Issue

Groundwater resources account for 99% of Earth’s freshwater, yet only a fraction of this is accessible without exceedingly large pumping costs and without over-pumping the aquifer. Hence, although the volume of groundwater stored on our planet is huge, only a small portion can be used annually without depleting this vital resource. Yet, global groundwater abstraction has increased more than fourfold in the last 50 years. This pumping uses huge amounts of energy, but that energy is often heavily subsidized, so the true costs of groundwater extraction is hidden.

Groundwater provides for all the daily water needs for one-third of humanity and is the only source of freshwater for all human needs in many parts of the world, especially in remote and dry areas. Groundwater provides a buffer to climatic variability, and acts as storage during droughts. It also significantly contributes to river flow. Today groundwater is estimated globally to provide 36% of potable water, 42% of water for irrigated agriculture, and 24% of direct industrial supply. Groundwater is also an increasingly important source of drinking water for cities. Some major urban centers are largely or entirely dependent on groundwater.

Groundwater governance has been neglected, often due to its invisible nature. The lack of effective groundwater governance is one of the root causes of groundwater depletion and degradation of aquifers. Furthermore, the interaction between groundwater and surface water systems (rivers, wetlands, lakes) has not been adequately considered nationally or in most transboundary river basin management initiatives. At the same time, as water needs increase, users often turn to groundwater without a clear management strategy. There is a substantial gap in knowledge on the groundwater resource base and its linkage with surface water and its uses and aquatic ecosystems. Surface and groundwater needs to be managed together – what is often termed "conjunctive management of surface and groundwater" - to increase resilience and counteract critical depletion.

What We Do

Urgent action is needed if the current trends in the state of groundwater resources are to be reversed. The cost of inaction can be tremendous. To consolidate global knowledge and formulate action needs, the GEF partnered with FAO, World Bank, UNESCO, and the International Association of Hydrologists to analyze and consult across the world on the state of groundwater resources and on solutions to address it in the Global Groundwater Governance project. On global level, a 2030 Shared Global Vision for Groundwater Governance was prepared through a worldwide process of consultation to act as an urgent call for collectively responsible action. To achieve the Vision, the GEF and its partners also launched a Global Framework for Action for groundwater governance that comprises the enabling framework and guiding principles for a coordinated action across all levels of governments, private sector, municipalities, civil society, and international organizations and professional associations.

The GEF has and is supporting a range of groundwater related projects across all regions. For example, in Southern Africa groundwater plays a significant role for drinking water both in rural and urban areas, agriculture, energy and mining. GEF, along with its partners, supports the sustainable management of groundwater at national and transboundary levels and GEF support facilitated the establishment of the SADC-Groundwater Management Institute (SADC-GMI), a center of excellence for the region. The SADC-GMI is an important platform of engagement on broad regional issues related to water conservation and integrated water resources management, including groundwater, in the Southern African region. With combined GEF and CIWA project financing, the SADC-GMI is carrying out analytics that support SADC member states, singularly and in a regional context. SADC-GMI is hosting thematic conferences, workshops and trainings, and is currently engaging all SADC member states for the preparation of pilot small grants focused on groundwater management capacity and infrastructure. Following recent restructuring the project is scheduled to be completed by December 31st, 2020.


There are only roughly a half-dozen agreements on the management of transboundary aquifers worldwide. The Guarani Aquifer system, for example, is a transboundary body of groundwater present in large portions of the subsurface of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The Guarani Aquifer system represents one of the largest groundwater reserves of the world. The GEF International Waters project Environmental protection and sustainable development of the Guarani Aquifer System contributed to both the formulation and adoption of a strategic action plan aimed at the long term sustainable use and protection of this huge freshwater resource as well as to the completion of the Guarani Aquifer Agreement (GAA) in 2010. The agreement entered into force in 2018.

Another example, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS), covering approximately 2.6 million km2 in Chad, Egypt, Libya, and Sudan, is one of the largest fossil freshwater aquifer systems in the world. The four countries face similar problems of arid climate, scarce surface water resources, persistent droughts, and fragile ecosystems. The aquifer is a critically important source of water in this arid desert region and will be increasingly in demand, based on population growth and increasing pressures on alternate water sources driven by increasing demands and combined with further pressures from climate change. Recognizing the importance of this shared resources, an important advancement in the management of the NSAS was the establishment in the 1990s of the Joint Authority for the Study and Development of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System. GEF support lead to the formulation of a Shared Aquifer Diagnostic Analysis – SADA - and adoption of Strategic Action Program (SAP) by the ministers from each country in September, 2013. In 2018, GEF endorsed another project to support the implementation of priority actions of the SAP.

Looking Ahead

Emerging hotspots where water needs for cities, food and energy combined with increasing extreme events may lead to critical water scarcity are predicted to become most prominent in parts of Africa, Middle East and North Africa and sub-regions of Asia. The water challenges in these areas are aggravated by increasing severity of floods and droughts intensified by increasing climate variability and change (e.g. rising sea levels), population growth, urbanization, and associated increasing needs for food and energy. Cooperation on water is imperative in these regions to support the need for water, food, energy, and ecosystems security and related dimensions for each nation.

GEF-7 will focus on the following priorities in order to support enhanced regional and national cooperation on shared freshwater surface and groundwater basins:

  • Common, participatory fact-finding and agreement on cooperative opportunities and shared constraints and a vision for a shared future (such as via the formulation of a common TDA/SAPs);
  • Capacity building efforts to level the playing field across countries, including for example negotiation skills and international water law;
  • Processes to formulate and formalize cooperative legal and institutional frameworks;
  • Identify and leverage resources for investments addressing SAP identified priorities;
  • National reform of policies, strategies, and regulations in accordance with regional agreements and MEA commitments;
  • Improved policy formulation processes and conjunctive management of surface and groundwater resources on national and regional levels;
  • Periodical update of existing TDA/SAPS or their equivalents; and
  • Engagement with national, regional and global stakeholders to increase collaboration and cross support to investments and processes, through IW-LEARN.