Main Issue

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.

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.

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 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.

Looking Ahead

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:

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 regional 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.

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.