International Waters learning Exchange & Resource Network

2.2 - Setting the scene for the new Project Manager


The GEF International Waters Focal Area targets transboundary water systems. These include: river basins where water flows from one country to another, multi-country lake basins, groundwater resources shared by several countries, or large marine ecosystems (LME) bounded by more than one nation.

The goal of the GEF International Waters Focal Area is the promotion of collective management for transboundary water systems and subsequent implementation of the full range of policy, legal, and institutional reforms and investments contributing to sustainable use and maintenance of ecosystem services.

In other words, GEF-funded IW projects are concerned with water-related environmental problems that transcend the boundaries of any one country, hence transboundary. Graphic examples of transboundary water systems are shown below.

Transboundary waters cover “boundary” water resources where the boundary between two or more sovereign states is formed by an LME, an international lake or river, and “successive” water resources where an international river (or underground aquifer) flows from one sovereign state to another.

Transboundary water systems

Examples of transboundary water systems include:

  • The Black Sea
  • The Yellow Sea LME
  • Lake Chad
  • The Guarani Aquifer
  • The Mekong

See examples from the GEF IW Visualization Tool

Why are Transboundary Waters so important?

Nearly half of the world’s population is located within one or more of the 263 international drainage basins shared by two or more states. Even more striking than the absolute number of international drainage basins, is a breakdown of each nation’s land surface which fall within these watersheds.

  • At least 145 nations include territory within international basins.
  • At least 21 nations lie in their entirety within international basins including 33 countries which have greater than 95% of their territory within these basins.
  • 19 international drainage basins are shared by 5 or more riparians countries.
  • The Danube alone has 17 riparian nations.
  • The Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine and Zambezi are shared by between 9 and 11 countries.
  • The remaining 13 basins have between 5 and 8 riparian countries.

Groundwater resources, which account for more than one hundred times the amount of surface water, and cross under at least 273 international borders are even more challenging and it is critical to co-manage such water systems sustainably. Furthermore, all LME’s are ultimately affected by both surface water and groundwater systems.

The GEF International Waters Strategy

The goal of the International Waters focal area is the promotion of collective management for transboundary water systems and subsequent implementation of the full range of policy, legal, and institutional reforms and investments contributing to sustainable use and maintenance of ecosystem services.

To achieve this goal during the 5th funding cycle the GEF (otherwise known as GEF-5), the following objectives are being pursued:

  • Objective 1: Catalyze Multi-State Cooperation to Balance Conflicting Water Uses in Transboundary Surface and Groundwater Basins while Considering Climatic Variability and Change
  • Objective 2: Catalyze Multi-State Cooperation to Rebuild Marine Fisheries and Reduce Pollution of Coasts and Large Marine Ecosystems while Considering Climatic Variability and Change
  • Objective 3: Support Foundational Capacity Building, Portfolio Learning, and Targeted Research Needs for Ecosystem-based, Joint Management of Transboundary Water Systems
  • Objective 4: Promote Effective Management of Marine Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

These enabling activities also focus on capacity building and technical assistance for legal and institutional aspects of multi-level governance reforms for transboundary water systems needed not only at the transboundary level but also at the sub-basin, national, and local levels.

In general GEF IW projects can be summarised as addressing:

  • To seek sustainable means to address complex ecosystem problems in transboundary waters situations
  • A range of water types
  • A range of geopolitical situations (mix of countries – development level, size, etc.)
  • Complex situations, but not necessarily complicated.

In addition:

  • Each project is different but there are HUGE amounts of experience within each region and from completed and on-going projects
  • IW projects utilise GEF funds catalytically by ensuring significant gearing from co-financing sources to assist with longer-term sustainability
  • To ensure that projects are not ‘one offs’ in solving problems but looking to change approaches in governance of water systems, new technical approaches and through demonstration activities.
  • Ultimately the goal is to prove principals that can then be replicated regionally/globally. The key message here is the need to capture (continuously) experiences / good practice etc that can be disseminated and be used to illustrate the achievements of the project (also important to track these – Process, Stress Reduction or Socio-economic/Environmental Status indicators)


The following are some of the key principles underlying GEF IW Projects:

  • Incremental costs
  • Adaptive management
  • Ecosystem approach
  • Sustainable development
  • Poverty reduction

Incremental Costs[1]

GEF funds the "incremental" or additional costs associated with transforming a project with national benefits into one with global environmental benefits; for example, choosing solar energy technology over coal or diesel fuel meets the same national development goal (power generation), but is more costly. GEFgrants cover the difference or "increment" between a less costly, more polluting option and a costlier, more environmentally friendly option.

The approach in determining incremental cost consists of five steps that simplify the process of negotiating incremental costs, clarifies definitions, and links incremental cost analysis to result-based management and the GEF project cycle. The steps are as follows:

  1. Determine the environmental problem, threat, or barrier, and the “business-as-usual” scenario (or: What would happen without the GEF?);
  2. Identify the global environmental benefits (GEB) and fit with GEF priorities within GEF focal areas and themes as identified in GEF focal area strategies, identify the global environmental benefits (GEB) and fit with GEF-5 Strategies and priorities linked to the GEF focal area;
  3. Develop the results framework of the intervention;
  4. Provide the incremental reasoning and GEF’s role; and
  5. Negotiate the role of Co-financing[2]

[1] Operational Guidelines for the Application of Incremental Costs Principles:

[2] GEF Co-finance guide:

Adaptive management

Adaptive management can be defined as a systematic, rigorous approach for deliberately learning from management actions with the intent to improve subsequent management policy or practice.

Ecosystem Approach

Ecosystem Approach is a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. It is the primary framework for action under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and comprises 12 Principles.

12 principles have been organised by IUCN into five steps, each step involving a range of actions, all of which are fully consistent with GEF IW Projects and the TDA/SAP Approach:

  1. Determining the main stakeholders, defining the ecosystem area, and developing the relationship between them.
  2. Characterizing the structure and function of the ecosystem, and setting in place mechanisms to manage and monitor it.
  3. Identifying the important economic issues that will affect the ecosystem and its inhabitants.
  4. Determining the likely impact of the ecosystem on adjacent ecosystems.
  5. Deciding on long-term goals, and flexible ways of reaching them.

Further information can be found at:

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development underpins all GEF IW Projects. One goal of the International Waters focal area is the promotion of collective management for transboundary water systems and subsequent implementation of the full range of policy, legal, and institutional reforms and investments contributing to sustainable use and maintenance of ecosystem services. Furthermore, sustainable development is embedded in all four objectives of the IW focal area.

Further information can be found at:

Poverty Reduction

Fundamentally, poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities, and a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and clothe a family, not having a school or health clinic to go to, not having the land on which to grow food or a job to earn a living, and not having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often implies living in marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation.

Further information can be found at:


A GEF IW project is likely to have undergone several years of development prior to the ProDoc signature by the Implementing Agency. In this time it is likely that there will be many experts from the region and the GEF implementing agency staff who have significantly more experience with the issues that the project is addressing than within the new PCU. As a consequent it can be daunting to the new project team to quickly understand the requirements of the regional project demands and the needs of GEF and the GEF implementing/executing agencies reporting. However it is imperative that the Project Management team develops a rapid and comprehensive understanding of the regional setting in which the project operates. This should include:

  • An understanding of the political setting and the key actors of all the countries party to the project;
  • The geographic setting especially the water and ecosystem resources,
  • Ecosystem status and stressors;
  • Socio-economic settings of the region, including private sector drivers, interests and risks;
  • The institutional setting, including the local, national and regional administrations and the main non-governmental organisations active in the region.
  • The legal setting of key international or transboundary agreements
  • The culture and society of the countries involved to better understand the professional and cultural/religious sensitivities within the region.
  • Understanding the project management setting, including the role of all the main partners and the reporting lines (and expectations). The ProDoc will have presented the key institutions (the GEF implementing and executing agencies, National Representatives, Project Steering Committee, technical advisory bodies, Convention secretariats, private sector stakeholders, etc.)
  • Understanding and familiarity of GEF and the GEF implementing/executing agencies’ policy to region, ecosystem, water type etc.

This information will be gained as the project progresses but understanding who can provide this information at short notice and can brief the project team on developments as quickly as possible will be an asset.


The management of a GEF IW project can be divided into a number of clear phases: project start-up, inception, implementation and closure.

For GEF IW Projects there are some specific activities that are not necessarily addressed in other project management guidance and these are expanded on in Parts 3 and 4 of this manual, these activities include:

  • Indicators and baseline establishment and monitoring
  • GEF Tracking Tool
  • Reporting
  • Inception reports
  • PIRs
  • Quarterly and annual reports
  • Technical activity management, including:


While this section is mostly common sense it does not imply it is always common practice. Be aware of your project settings.