Blog: Learning and sharing at the 7th GEF International Waters Conference

Blog by Stefano Barchiesi. As participants of the 7th GEF International Waters Conference started arriving in Barbados for the 4-day event, I got a better feeling of why we had been asked to support the pre-conference technical workshop on the economics of ecosystems.

Stefano Barchiesi, IUCN Water Project Officer

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) unites 182 member governments — in partnership with international institutions, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector — to address global environmental issues. The GEF International Waters (IW) focal area targets transboundary water systems, such as shared river basins, lakes, groundwater and large marine ecosystems. The IW portfolio comprises 242 projects to date and some US$1.4 billion of GEF grants invested in 149 different countries.

The GEF IW Conference is a signature learning event for the GEF IW focal area and is organized to facilitate cross-sectoral learning and experience sharing. It strives to solicit advice from the existing GEF IW projects on key issues, and to assist in building participant capacity in related management and technical areas. Participants sum up progress achieved and also look to the future of programming within and beyond the GEF IW focal area.

The IWC7, which took place from 26-31 October, had a special focus on reviewing the valuation of ecosystems in international waters as a tool to bridge the science-policy gap that often occurs when scientific advice -such as the outcomes of an economic study- needs to be translated into policy-relevant recommendations. For this reason, a coalition of experts was assembled, including IUCN Water, to deliver some training and present best practices illustrating progress and shedding light on what might lie ahead for GEF in this area.

A number of key words echoed during the 3 days of work and interaction with the GEF IW constituency, such as that economic-based instruments represent no ‘silver bullet’. A fair amount of resistance and skepticism was encountered against the potential for ecosystem valuations to be applied or even accepted in some contexts. But the interest in doing more is there, and certainly more support is needed to fully adapt these approaches to the processes and scale typical of GEF IW projects.

Ways forward were identified in the need to incorporate broader socio-economic considerations and multi-criteria decision-support tools, as well as to produce specific guidance on how to apply different methods in various circumstances. This should build on the work carried out by the IUCN West and Central Africa Office and the WANI toolkits VALUE and PAY. These resources were presented during the pre-conference workshop along with a IUCN video from the Sourou Valley in Burkina Faso.

The proposed strategy for the 6th GEF replenishment was presented, which defines in what kinds of projects the IW focal area will be investing for the 2015-2018 period. Besides continuing to foster regional water cooperation, the strategy aims to support approaches in transboundary basins that integrate management of river flows to meet the needs of people, agriculture, industry, energy and ecosystems.

Building on BRIDGE (Building River Dialogue and Governance project) and the use of Environmental Flows as a tool for managing water allocation in the water-energy-food nexus, IUCN is well positioned to continue supporting the GEF with structured learning and capacity building. IUCN Water has been doing so through the IW:LEARN project and coordination of a Surface Freshwater Community of Practice.

Why was Barbados the choice of location for IWC7? It was chosen because GEF wanted to highlight the issues of water security that Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face. Barbados provided useful examples of how SIDS are managing challenges of water supply, land-use planning, groundwater management, wastewater treatment, coastal zone management, marine protected areas, coastal tourism, population growth and shipping-based sources of pollution.

SIDS have unique physical, demographic and economic features that contribute to the vulnerability of their water resources. These include relatively limited surface area and natural resource bases, greater sensitivity to natural disasters such as hurricanes and volcanic activity, and isolation from mainlands. Also the threats posed to water security on account of rising sea levels, saline intrusion of coastal aquifers, rainfall variability and reduced catchment recharge present serious challenges.

Whether GEF IW projects learned something in Barbados or not, now awareness raising and cooperation at the project and multi-country basin levels has to be coupled more with demonstrations in sub-basins including of applicable economic-based instruments for ecosystem services. WANI has consolidated principles of what works on the ground around themes of water governance and sustainable river basin management, and how to link that to national and regional processes.

IUCN has many practical lessons to offer. We went to the IWC7 to reiterate this message and my sense is that we did that. At the end of the day, we want to help the GEF help themselves with scaling up their results and close the implementation gap.


Blog article written by Stefano Barchiesi, to contact, please email

Work area: 
Global Policy
Social Policy
Environmental Law
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