Danube Watch 3/2018 - International Waters Learning Exchange and Resource Network - IW:Learn

International Waters Learning Exchange and Resource Network - IW:Learn

The objective of Global Environment Facility International Waters Learning Exchange and Resource Network (GEF-IW:Learn) is to strengthen transboundary water management by facilitating the collection of data, information and knowledge required to sustainably manage shared water resources among stakeholders. These stakeholders include managers, governments, partners, implementation agencies and NGOs.

What the GEF IW:Learn project is about
The IW:LEARN project was established by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to strengthen transboundary water management around the globe by collecting and sharing best practices, lessons learned, and innovative solutions to common problems. Based in Paris, it promotes experience sharing and learning among the GEF International Waters projects and partners. The project is implemented by the UNDP and UNEP, and executed by IOC-UNESCO.

The GEF is an independent financial organisation which was established on the eve of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to help tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems. It provides grants and also deploys non-grant instruments to developing countries and countries with economies in transition, for projects related to biodiversity, climate change, international waters, land degradation, the ozone layer and persistent organic pollutants. Over the past 27 years, the GEF has developed into an international partnership of 183 countries. It has provided over $17.9 billion in grants and mobilised an additional $93.2 billion in co-financing for more than 4,500 projects in 170 countries.

The GEF and the ICPDR
By the mid-1980s, the need for urgent action in the Danube Basin had become clear. Over the previous 150 years, growing human populations and booming industries had wreaked serious environmental havoc. Around 80 percent of the Danube’s wetlands and floodplains had disappeared since the end of the 19th century, threatening key species – ranging from pelicans in the Danube Delta to sturgeons, in the Lower Danube and beavers in the Upper Danube – and leading to worsening floods across the basin.

Pollution, especially from organic substances and nutrients, posed a major long-term threat to the environment. The GEF therefore began its work in earnest with a single goal: to build the willingness and capacity between a diverse group of riparian nations to work together. The working hypothesis of the GEF’s International Waters intervention was to get countries to realise the benefits of shared water resources through cooperation with their neighbours. Everyone in the Danube Basin needed to understand the benefits of working together to share and improve transboundary resources.

By the early 1990s the European Union had replaced the Soviet Union as the region’s dominant economic engine and the promise of EU accession and the subsequent need to meet its stringent environmental directives provided the driving force for environmental change in the Danube Basin. The GEF and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided countries with significant assistance to help build their capacity to meet the EU’s accession and legislative challenges.

In 1994, 11 Danube countries and the European Commission met in Sofia to sign the Danube River Protection Convention. This agreement provided the overall legal framework for the protection and sustainable use of water and other shared ecological resources in the Danube Basin. The Convention came into force four years later, and just a few days after this important event the ICPDR and its Permanent Secretariat was created to act as the main implementation body of the Danube Convention.

The GEF’s experience in the Danube illustrates the necessity of working at various spatial, temporal, and political levels. It’s involvement began with a regional focus, supporting steps toward a binding, international convention. Once this framework was in place a top-down approach was adopted, ranging from basin-wide agreements, the implementation of bi-national, national and local measures, through to working with individual farmers to improve their practices. The lessons learnt from the GEF are now being applied to other transboundary waters, such as the Benguela Current off the southern African coast, Lake Victoria, and the Guarani Aquifer located beneath the surface of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as Orange-Senqu River Basin.

The support provided by the GEF and the UNDP has turned the Danube into a model of integrated river basin management, enabling the ICPDR to implement the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which has now become the benchmark for European transboundary water bodies. The GEF has also supported the Commission in its philosophy of adopting a holistic approach to the pressures facing the river, including eutrophication problems caused by agricultural inputs, the importance of flood buffering attributes of riverine wetlands, and the critical need to improve tariff and charge schemes for water and sanitation systems.

Ultimately, GEF and UNDP efforts in the Danube and Black Sea area have become a model for expanding public awareness of the need to embrace integrated water resource management as a way of ensuring that economies can grow without environmental destruction.

This Strategic Partnership serves as an example of how the GEF can be a catalyst for addressing serious transboundary environmental water problems by leveraging significant additional funds from key European Union institutions. It is also successful because of its ability to work with key implementing agencies – including the World Bank, the UNDP and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – to develop complex, multi-faceted projects.

GEF projects benefit the global environment, linking local, national and global environmental challenges and promoting sustainable livelihoods. Over the past 27 years, the GEF has supported a range of notable achievements:

Protected areas: investment in over 3,300 Protected Areas, covering more than 860 million hectares, an area larger than the size of Brazil.

Sustainable land and seascape: biodiversity protection and planning for more than 350 million hectares of productive landscapes and seascapes.

Sustainable land and forestry management:103 million hectares are under sustainable land management. Support has been provided for over 380 forest-related projects, with $2.1 billion in grants that have leveraged an additional $9.5 billion.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction: support for 940 climate change mitigation projects expected to contribute 8.4 billion tonnes of direct and indirect GHG emission reductions over time.

Integrated water resource management: sustainable management of 43 transboundary river basins in 84 countries.

Safe disposal of hazardous chemicals: support for the phasing out of 29,000 tons of ozone depleting potential (ODP) materials and the sound disposal of more than 200,000 tons of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in developing countries.

Adaption to climate change: vulnerability reduction for more than 11 million people in 130 countries.

What the GEF has done for the Danube:


  • the UNDP/GEF Danube Regional Project Phases 1 & 2
  • financing of $17.35 million from GEF; co-financing of $19.48 million
  • duration of project: November, 2001 – August, 2007.

The UNDP Danube River Basin Regional Project was successful in contributing to sustainable human development and capacity building, as well as regional cooperation and coordination in the Danube River Basin and the Black Sea area. It also enabled the sustainable management of natural resources and biodiversity by defining priority actions for nutrient reduction and pollution control.

The GEF Biennial International Waters Conference (IWC) is the signature learning event for the GEF International Waters portfolio of projects and partners. IWCs bring together project managers, technical experts, participating country representatives, NGOs, private sector and GEF Agency staff from more than 700 ongoing projects in 70 countries. The IWC's principle objective is to facilitate cross-sectoral and portfolio-wide learning and experience-sharing.

Held in Marrakesh, Morocco, from 5-8 November 2018, the Ninth GEF Biennial International Waters Conference (IWC9) brought together about 300 participants from 85 countries to focus on economic valuation as a tool for protecting and managing the world’s freshwater, groundwater and major marine ecosystems.

The overriding theme of IWC9 was Sustaining International Waters Cooperation, with discussion tracks devoted to building traction for the GEF’s Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis-Strategic Action Programme process, toward 2030 and beyond, and to employing practices and tools for more informed decisions and the better management of systems. The Conference featured visionary speakers, campfire-chart style learning clinics, participant-led workshops, lightning talks, small roundtable discussions, and a film festival.

ICPDR representatives attended the conference to share experiences, learn more about the achievements of other members’ projects, and also to discuss the future within and beyond the IW community. As part of the technical workshop for freshwater ecosystem projects, the ICPDR led a workshop designed to inform interested participants on freshwater and groundwater resource management by providing a case-study analysis and replicable examples in order to:

  • identify common interests in successful projects,
  • identify solutions that work (not only for the Danube River Basin context but also beyond)
  • share lessons learned.

The workshop provided participants with a comprehensive overview of transboundary cooperation and shared water system management areas covered by the ICPDR, with specific focus on the following aspects:

  • the key attributes of an international river basin organisation (RBO) from a legal and institutional perspective
  • the key challenges for establishing a transboundary RBO
  • the challenges in rallying public opinion to acquire the necessary political support for setting-up an RBO

The aim was to enhance participants’ knowledge skills, enabling them to set-up and improve the institutional framework of their institutions based on the survey conducted by IW- Learn.

As part of its support for the GWF-IW:Learn Program, the ICPDR is committed to raising awareness and experience of adaptive management and the strengthening of basin organisations by utilising leveraging partnerships. This is embedded in the ICPDR’s engagement in ongoing exchanges with different basin organisations concerning approaches and methods for transboundary cooperation and adaptive management. This is particularly the case regarding the sharing of lessons on the legal and institutional frameworks of RBOs, methodologies for basin management and planning, and the involvement of stakeholders.

Hélène Masliah-Gilkarov
is the Technical Expert for Public Participation and Communication in the ICPDR Secretariat, and the Executive Editor of Danube Watch

Learn more about
the GEF IW initiative for the learning exchange and resource network www.iwlearn.net/

Next: Danube Watch 3/2018 - The (dis)balance of sediments in the Danube River Basin

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