Global Environment Facility

Global Environment Facility

GEF Council adopts Operational Strategy for the International Waters Focal Area

The Global Environment Facility (GEF), a financial mechanism for global environmental improvements, is also a catalyst. It helps to integrate international waters issues into national development plans, encourage the transfer of environmentally sound technology and knowledge, and strengthen the capacity of developing countries seeking to play a full part in resolving transboundary environmental issues. The goal is to help groups of countries employ the full range of technical, economic, financial, regulatory and institutional measures needed in varying sectors to apply sustainable development strategies for international waters and their basins.

Water shapes the face of the Earth, not only as a geologic agent, cutting valleys and canyons, but also as a major influence contributing to the rise and fall of civilizations. It has often been a source of conflict and tension between nations, and where water supplies failed or were improperly managed, great civilizations collapsed.

For decades, international waters have been seen as a convenient repository for all kinds of human waste. People assumed that oceans and large freshwater systems had the capacity to sufficiently dilute the volume of man-made substances that found their way, deliberately or inadvertently, into the environment. People also assumed that supplies of fish from the oceans were endless and that improvements in technology would meet human needs for protein. Wetlands were often regarded as unproductive swamps that should be drained for agriculture and urban development; many were converted to shrimp ponds to provide income for residents of coastal zones. We now know dilution is not the answer to pollution; overfishing has damaged the oceans; and wetlands are highly productive ecosystems that we cannot do without.

We also know that water sustains life, it sustains our environment; and it sustains our culture. But the global demand for water is skyrocketing, along with the world's population, and destruction of water-related ecosystems continues at an alarming pace. Almost a quarter century after the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, there is more intense pressure on our environmental support system and this pressure is having global implications.

Cross-sectoral approach needed

cityscapeThe intense degradation of international waters also signals that the carrying capacities of transboundary freshwater basins, coastal areas and marine ecosystems have been exceeded by inappropriate sectoral development policies and projects, as well as misuse of water resources. An international consensus has emerged that a more comprehensive, cross-sectoral approach is needed to protect water resources - an approach that integrates ecological and development needs, and is based on holistic analyses of the carrying capacity of the water environment. In this approach, a river basin, groundwater system, coastal area or large marine ecosystem typically serves as a management unit on which to base constructive changes for sectoral development policies and activities, as well as for how priority environmental interventions are made. In many instances, action programmes are needed to restore proper functioning to water-related ecosystems or to remedy major human health risks. A comprehensive approach that integrates such actions across sectors is new to most countries, difficult to implement, and even harder to achieve when actions must be coordinated among countries to address transboundary concerns.

As a consequence of the Earth Summit in Rio, a host of institutions have accepted new roles to ensure that precious water resources are managed in an environmentally sustainable manner. The GEF is one of those institutions with a very special role to play. GEF resources are intended to complement traditional development funding and facilitate effective responses by other entities to address global environmental issues. They are also intended to help mobilize resources from the regular programmes of the three GEF Implementing Agencies: the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Bank. In October 1995, the GEF Council adopted an operational strategy, which represents the strategic framework for actions of the permanent GEF in its four focal areas. According to the strategy's principles, the GEF will fund projects and programmes that are country-driven and based on national priorities designed to support sustainable development.

International action

In the international waters area, the GEF's objective is to contribute primarily as a catalyst to the implementation of a more comprehensive, ecosystem-based approach to managing international waters and their drainage basins as a means of achieving global environmental benefits. The GEF implementing agencies will assist countries to find means of collaborating with neighbouring countries so that they change the ways human activities are undertaken in different economic sectors. The goal is to help groups of countries use the full range of technical, economic, financial, regulatory and institutional measures needed to operationalize sustainable development strategies for transboundary water bodies and their contributing drainage basins.

The GEF Operational Strategy outlines priorities to be addressed in this focal area. GEF activities focus on threatened transboundary water bodies and the most imminent threats to their ecosystems. Five types of actions are targeting these hazards:

- Control of land-based sources of pollution that degrade the quality of international waters. Prevention of releases of persistent toxic substances and heavy metals, as well as nutrients and sediments, into basins of international waters with rare and endangered species or unique ecosystems is of particular importance.

- Prevention and control of land degradation where transboundary environmental concerns result from desertification or deforestation.

- Prevention of physical and ecological degradation of critical habitats (such as wetlands, shallow waters and reefs) that sustain biodiversity and provide shelter and nursing areas for threatened and endangered species.

- Improved management and control measures that better guide the exploitation of living and non-living resources and stem such problems as overfishing and excessive withdrawal of fresh water.

- Control of ship-based sources of chemical washings and non-indigenous species which are transferred in ballast water and can disrupt ecosystems or adversely affect human health.

The GEF Operational Strategy calls for an initial clustering of funded activities into operational programmes. In the international waters area, three initial operational programmes will provide for the design, implementation and coordination of sets of projects. Each operational programme will emphasize varying interventions, certain types of water bodies and particular projects that can combine as more comprehensive approaches for constructing positive changes in sectoral policies and activities.

The Waterbody-Based Operational Program will support activities aimed at helping groups of countries resolve specific transboundary environmental problems. The GEF will look for a certain geographic distribution of regionally important transboundary freshwater basins (including river basins, lake basins and groundwater aquifer systems) or large marine ecosystems that have significant environmental problems. The Black Sea is an example of such an ecosystem, and the Black Sea Pilot Phase Project illustrates how ongoing work will be incorporated into an operational programme.

The Integrated Land, Water, Multiple Focal Area Operational Program addresses transboundary concerns needing broad interventions to address international waters concerns that stem from, or are interlocked with, problems in other focal areas. Land degradation and integrated coastal area management provide examples. Components of this operational programme will include projects that target: land degradation and drylands issues, the special needs and conditions of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and water bodies that yield benefits for several GEF focal areas (such as the biodiversity found within an ecologically important transboundary wetland).

Finally, the Operational Program on Contaminants aims to develop and implement projects that demonstrate how to overcome barriers - barriers to best practices that prevent the release of priority contaminants. Such barriers include improper or inadequate policies, lack of awareness of alternative, environmentally sound technologies, and insufficient cooperation between countries.

cargo ship Some toxic pollutants persist after being discharged, and can be considered 'global contaminants' because they are transported long distances and accumulate in living organisms. One component of the operational programme will include projects to address these contaminants. Another component develops projects that address ship-related wastes, principally non-indigenous species in ballast water, and demonstrations of modern technology for preventing accidents, discharges and releases are therefore planned. Another component will contain projects that address land-based activities which degrade marine waters. A Global Programme of Action was adopted by governments in November 1995 and now serves as a component that supports technological demonstrations on how to address these issues.

Cooperating to succeed

A fundamental feature of all GEF-financed international waters projects is close cooperation between the respective GEF implementing agency and groups of countries involved. In addition, the GEF plays a catalytic role with its grant financing by helping countries leverage other funds for the efforts at hand. The GEF further aims to garner the involvement of the 'regular' programmes conducted by the implementing agencies to help solve transboundary environmental problems. In order to accomplish this, the GEF often assists countries prepare what is known as a Strategic Action Programme (SAP), which helps to define the transboundary priority concerns and determine the array of baseline and additional action programmes needed to solve priority problems. The boxes on this page and the previous one outline how to initiate an international waters project through the GEF, if several countries have expressed interest in cooperating.


In the Arctic, a place where there are no chemical-producing industries, polar bears carry among the heaviest burdens of persistent toxic substances of any creatures anywhere on the globe. In remote reaches of the North Pacific Ocean, Laysan and black-footed albatrosses have sufficient levels of furans and dioxin in their systems to cause negative health effects in their populations. In the middle of pristine national reserves, certain isolated lakes contain fish bearing levels of persistent toxic substances sufficient to impair their reproductive capacities, despite the absence of any obvious source.

Each of these examples illustrates the ubiquitous, even sinister phenomenon of the increasing spread of dangerous Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) to even the remote reaches of international waters. These POPs resist physical, biological and chemical degradation; they bioaccumulate and biomagnify in living tissue; can readily move over long distances in a semi-volatilized state; and, tragically, are known to cause hazards or risks to the environment generally and to humans specifically. Once released into the environment, which occurs intentionally and unintentionally, POPs cannot be retrieved; thus they circulate until they come to rest in the bodies of living things, including humans.

While there is continuing research on the exact nature and breadth of the damage that POPs cause to living organisms, scientists are now convinced of a number of specific effects. Scientists and others familiar with POPs convened in November 1995 at an International Experts Meeting in Vancouver, Canada. They concurred on a number of sobering realities regarding POPs in the broader environment. They know, for example, that a greater incidence of immune system dysfunction, reproductive deficits, developmental abnormalities, neurobehavioural impairments, and cancer and tumour induction or promotion have been recorded in humans as a result of chronic exposure to certain POPs, such as dioxin and PCBs.

That knowledge has led the International Forum on Chemical Safety Working Group on POPs to conclude that available scientific evidence was sufficient to demonstrate the need for international action on 12 specific substances: Aldrin, Chlordane, DDT, Dieldrin, Dioxins, Endrin, Furans, Heptachlor, Hexachlorobenzene, Mirex, Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Toxaphene.

These are all good and important reasons for the GEF's Operational Programs for the International Waters Focal Area to have included the broad issue of contaminants, and the specific issue of chemical contaminants, as a programme priority in the International Waters Portfolio. Working with and through UNEP, one of the GEF Implementing Agencies, the issue of POPs will be receiving special emphasis in the overall GEF agenda.


The GEF was set up as a pilot programme in 1991 to provide grant and concessional funds to developing countries for projects and activities that aim to protect the global environment. In March 1994, participating governments successfully concluded negotiations to restructure the Facility. The Core Fund of the GEF was also replenished with over $2 billion to be committed over a three-year period. GEF resources are available for projects that address climate change, biological diversity, international waters and depletion of the ozone layer. Activities addressing land degradation, primarily desertification and deforestation, as they relate to the four areas, are also eligible for funding. The GEF is jointly implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.

For further information on the Operational Strategy for International Waters, please contact Alfred Duda at the GEF Secretariat, 1818 H Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20433, Fax: (202) 522-3240/5.

Alfred Duda, Principal Environmental Specialist
at the GEF Secretariat.

Edited by Laura A. Edwards,
Writer and Editor at the GEF Secretariat.

Contents Next Article


Home | Contributors | Hot Links |
Feedback - Environment Forum | Subscription | Mailing List

In case of difficulties with this site please contact the webmaster at:

Copyrightę1999 Banson
All rights reserved.