Main Issue

Healthy marine and freshwater ecosystems are critical to sustaining life on earth, and they underpin and connect ecosystems, human health, and key economic sectors. Yet they face unprecedented threats. Ocean ecosystems are under pressure from climate change, acidification, habitat loss, pollution, fishing, shipping, and seabed mining. Freshwater ecosystems face threats from climate change, urbanization, and increasing food demand.  

Marine and freshwater ecosystems are often cross national boundaries; more often than not, several nations share common groundwater aquifers, lakes, rivers, wetlands, or coral reefs. Globally, more than 300 watersheds and over 360 aquifers cross the political boundaries of two or more countries. These watersheds, which cover about half of the Earth’s land surfaces, are home to about 40 percent of the global population. 

Conserving these ecosystems and ensuring they are managed sustainably thus requires that countries coordinate actions to secure a healthy environment for present and future generations. Given the critical role of marine and freshwater ecosystem and the threats they face, strong, informed management approaches are essential. GEF experience demonstrates that sustainable environmental management of transboundary resources require a common understanding of what pressures the shared ecosystems are facing, coupled with national and regional investment plans.  

Related Topics

Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

Marine Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ), commonly called the high seas, are those areas of ocean for which no one nation has sole responsibility for management. In all, these make up 40 percent of the surface of our planet, comprising 64 percent of the surface of the oceans and nearly 95 percent of its volume.


The global ocean is central to the livelihoods and food security of billions of people around the world, with an estimated 4.3 billion people reliant on fish for 15 percent of their animal protein intake. The ability of the ocean ecosystems to support long-term economic growth and essential protein is, however, threatened by human activities.


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.

Large Marine Ecosystems

The GEF’s role towards sustainable development of LMEs is second to none in the global arena. Our International Waters finance fills a crucial niche, catalyzing the development of transboundary Strategic Action Programs (SAPs) signed at the ministerial level.


The GEF works with partners to improve ocean governance with and across nations. Through such transboundary partnerships, we help countries develop regional institutional frameworks. These policy frameworks, in turn, enable countries to implement ecosystem-based approaches to manage fisheries and other marine and coastal resources.


The GEF provides financial support to help implement regulatory instruments that address invasive alien species and ship-related accidents. Our contributions have helped reduce the frequency and harmful impact of invasive species, improve management of ports and related facilities, reduce ship waste, prevent oil spills and support contingency planning for important navigation routes in places like the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and especially Southeast Asia.

What We Do

The GEFs International Water Focal area has a unique mandate: support transboundary cooperation in shared marine and freshwater ecosystems. The GEF has proven successful in building trust between states that often find themselves locked in complex and long-lasting marine resource and/or freshwater-use conflicts and achieving long-term benefits. Setting effective policy goals, coupled with investments, requires working at all scales, with a range of stakeholders, in the public and private sectors and across the watershed from source-to-sea and beyond.  

GEF investment in International Waters has three key objectives:  

  1. Strengthening National Blue Economy Opportunities 
    The Blue Economy concept identifies the oceans as areas for potential sustainable development of existing and new sectors, including tourism, extractive industries, renewable energy production, fisheries and aquaculture, coastal development and marine transport. The GEF helps countries identify sustainable public and private national investments in the Blue Economy, through funding of collective management of coastal and marine systems and implementation of the full range of integrated ocean policies, legal and institutional reforms.  

  1. Improving Management in the Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction 
    The complex ecosystems in the Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction — commonly called the high seas, those areas of ocean for which no one nation has sole responsibility for management — making the sustainable management of fisheries resources and biodiversity conservation especially challenging. Urgent action is needed to improve conservation and sustainable use of the open oceans that covers 40% of the planet, and are increasingly threatened by over-fishing of iconic pelagic migratory species, maritime navigation, ocean energy facilities, bottom trawling on seamounts, pollution, and extraction of minerals and hydrocarbons. Building on GEFs past experience in successfully supporting an applied ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management of deep sea fisheries, including seamounts, as well as regional tuna fisheries management organizations in the high seas.  

  1. Enhancing Water Security in Freshwater Ecosystems  
    Transboundary river basins cover about 50% of the earth’s land surface and are home to about 40% of the world’s population. More than 1 billion people live in river basins where human water use has surpassed sustainable limits. Cooperation on water, therefore, is vital to most international basins to support the need for water, food, energy, and ecosystems security and increase resilience for each nation. Shared groundwater resources are especially hard to manage due to the limited knowledge of the resource and its ‘invisibility.’ With mounting pressures on water resources and increasing pressures from climate variability and change managing surface and groundwater is the only sustainable path. GEF support in freshwater basins will therefore focus on three areas of strategic action: advance information exchange and early warning; enhance regional and national cooperation on shared freshwater surface and groundwater basins; and invest in water, food, energy and environmental security. 


The GEF is the largest funding mechanism for multi-country collaboration on water and oceans with 156 GEF recipient countries and 24 non-recipient countries working together to manage their transboundary water resources. Countries participating in GEF International Waters (IW) projects have negotiated and agreed on numerous regional cooperation frameworks, treaties, or protocols, ranging from cooperation on shared freshwater resources to agreements on marine resources.  

The GEF IW investments facilitate integrated cross-sectoral approaches that engage the private sector, non-governmental organizations and multilateral institutions. They are designed to work at multiple scales — from village chiefs to cabinet ministers — and across the entire watershed from ridge to reef. 

In doing so, these projects take innovative approaches that show how regionally agreed frameworks may produce global environmental benefits. At the same time, they incorporate the market value of marine resources into national economies, resulting in sustainable economic benefits, the creation and application of new technologies, or a shared aquifer or river, among other benefits. These integrated projects demonstrate the transformative social and economic impact that sustainable management of transboundary fresh and marine water resources can have on national economies.

Looking Ahead

Over the coming years countries will need to identify sustainable public and private national investments in ocean ecosystems. The GEF will support this process through funding of collective management of coastal and marine systems and implementation of integrated ocean policies, and legal and institutional reforms.  

The GEF has an opportunity to assist countries in effectively addressing a suite of stressors such as overfishing, land-based sources of pollution, and loss and damage of key coastal and marine ecosystems through a combination of national and regional investments targeted to strengthen national Blue Economy opportunities. It will now be up to coastal nations and the global community in general to reach these initial targets. However, the real challenge will be to formulate and implement new and more rigorous science-based targets that will help ensure that coastal and marine ecosystems will continue to support local livelihoods, economic growth, and ultimately sustain human health for generations to come.  

GEF Programs


The GEF International Waters Learning Exchange and Resource Network (IW:LEARN) is a knowledge management and learning project that has been supported by the GEF since 2000 in various tranches. It is a community of practice and knowledge platform that promotes experience sharing and learning globally among GEF-financed international waters projects, country officials, implementing agencies, and other partners.

Coastal Fisheries Initiative

Through the Coastal Fisheries Initiative (CFI), the GEF supports environmentally, economically and socially sustainable use and management of coastal fisheries. This complements the GEF’s multi-country large marine ecosystem (LME) approach.