Future considerations for transboundary aquifer projects

The transboundary aquifer project evaluations discussed here provide evidence of an evolving international support effort spearheaded by the GEF and its implementing agencies. It is not an exhaustive study of the results of international support to transboundary aquifer management, yet the findings from the evaluations of these projects raise important issues and lessons for future effort to protect these critical water resources.

The five transboundary aquifers considered have all demonstrated success building greater awareness of groundwater system boundaries, extraction rates and pollution risks.The projects have also helped raise international awareness of the presence and importance of transboundary aquifers and have helped to enhance governments’ capacities to determine risks to groundwater systems. Over an extended period of time, and including follow on projects, the transboundary aquifer projects have also achieved legally binding agreements (Northwest Sahara and Nubian) or are close to achieving agreement (Guarani, Iullemeden) on strategies and action plans aimed at reducing pollution and excessive drawdown risks.

There is a clear progression in the sequencing of these aquifer projects, with medium size projects (under $2 million in grant funding), used to establish the transboundary diagnostic analysis and draft Strategic Action Plan, being followed by a larger SAP-approval and implementation project.This progression has become a hallmark of the GEF International Waters programme, including also for fresh surface waters and coastal marine systems. This recognizes the tendency for the portion of the project focused on transboundary diagnostic analysis to dominate most of the initial project period. Most of the projects have required a year or more extension to complete, and the use of‘no-cost’ extensions is common.This suggests the need for more realistic project outcome expectations, longer timeframes for project implementation and a push for greater commitment from participating governments to start earlier on the difficult negotiations to achieve SAP agreements.

GEF transboundary aquifer projects typically call for the creation of joint committees among the countries involved. This mirrors the approach taken in GEF transboundary surface-water projects.The formation of self-standing transboundary aquifer commissions is a slow and difficult process, and those that do form tend to lack the power and capacity to influence national land and water use laws. Many remain viable only so long as international financial support continues.

While technical training in groundwater assessment and awareness-raising initiatives are helpful, many developing countries face significant practical operational difficulties that limit their ability to carry out conservation and protection measures for aquifers at the national and local levels. Many need to improve use and efficiency and reduce pumping in transboundary aquifers through regulatory and fiscal policy changes and through improved water resource management. Although some attention has been paid to resource substitution and augmentation, this area needs increased support. Ultimately, water-scarce nations will need to greatly expand the use of grey water and brackish water for non-potable uses and expand their access to resources through desalination, artificial recharge,3 conjunctive use of groundwater and surface water and the use of aquifers for surface water storage (Galloway et al. 2003).

These projects have yet to achieve systemic changes in water and land use policies and, ultimately, reductions in environmental stresses and pollution risks. There is an assumption that participating countries will act on policy and management recommendations from the project and agreed to in strategic action programmes. Conflicting use demands among actors within each country often stand in the way of such actions. Results from the aquifer projects highlight the difficulty in forging political agreements on complex resource sharing arrangements, where it may take decades before positive environmental impacts can be discerned.

This review of the results of GEF transboundary aquifer projects also points to the need for greater attention to the equitable use of groundwater resources. It is the poor and disenfranchised who suffer the most when water is scarce, yet few of the transboundary aquifer projects focused attention on access rights and equitable allocations. Of the five evaluated projects, only the SADC Groundwater and Drought Management Project focused specific attention on communities at risk (female-led households, landless labourers, pastoralists and displaced persons; World Bank 2011). Each of the seven pilot drought and groundwater management studies in the SADC project focused on communities at risk as the prime beneficiaries. As water scarcity becomes more acute in many regions, due to increasing consumption coupled with climate change-impacted variability, it will be important for transboundary aquifer projects to pay greater attention to the equity aspects of groundwater access.

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