'From Source to Sea': embracing the complexity of international waters work

Christian Severin is the GEF’s Coordinator for the International Waters focal area. In an interview in advance of World Oceans Day, he charted his academic and professional path spanning all aspects of water management, from sanitation to irrigation to problem-solving around transboundary rivers and oceans. He also reflected on the power of a vibrant community of practice in the international waters space.

When did you first become interested in environmental issues?

I have fond memories spending time at sea fishing with my grandfather and father – already then as a young boy I was captivated by the power, magnificence, and endless opportunities of the vast ocean. Stark images from refugee camps in Africa in the early 1980s also played a central role in informing my educational and professional choices. As a child, I had a profound feeling of wanting to help and assist these people in such dire need of help. Later, I realized that focusing on ensuring access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation and increasing the resilience of natural ecosystems that support essential human needs was a contribution I could provide to help prevent similar future crises across the world.

By studying environmental sciences at university, I was able to connect these dots and pursue my growing interest in water, wastewater, and food production in relation to the development agenda. I had an opportunity during my undergraduate studies to undertake an assessment of the deployment of nature-based wastewater technologies in a SOS Children’s Village in Mussoorie, Northern India – this reinforced my interest in water-related development issues. Following this, during my master’s studies I undertook field work in a multidisciplinary, international team related to integrated water resource management in Sabah, Borneo. Finally, my master's in science thesis focused on a low-tech irrigation system and its adoption in South Africa’s Eastern and Western Cape. These experiences all spelled out the importance of identifying solutions, which are appropriate both from a technical and socio-economic point of view. 

How does the GEF approach environmental challenges in international waters?

The mandate that informs the Global Environment Facility’s investments in International Waters is unique. It aims to ensure that work on transboundary ecosystems occurs in a cooperative and collaborative manner, at a scale that is appropriate for the freshwater or marine resource in question. The GEF provides funding for this international conservation work in order to ensure that one country does not “undo” the work another is doing, intentionally or not. In many cases, the support we provide would not have been available from any other financing source. This work is by its nature grounded in partnership – transboundary water projects and programs bring together governments, civil society organizations, the private sector, and other stakeholders interested in using science-based approaches to avert harm to a given riverlakegroundwater resource, area beyond national jurisdiction or large marine ecosystem.

[VIDEO: IW:Learn: Celebrating Results of the GEF International Waters Investments (2013)]

One of the most important issues that the GEF’s international waters portfolio deals with is building capacity to improve the management capacity of transboundary marine and freshwater resources to achieving lasting results. This is complex business, as water, in all its forms, cuts across multiple economic sectors while at the same time functioning as societal glue. The quantity and quality of freshwater resources needs to be addressed, taking into consideration the entire nexus and working from the most local level until the water resources find their way to the ocean. Such ‘Source to Sea’ linkages are engrained in the GEF international waters portfolio, as surface water eventually will impact the integrity of coastal habitats, impacting spawning grounds, fisheries, local livelihoods of coastal populations, and ultimately the wider ocean that captures all the impacts from land-based activities.

We are also working on shared marine and freshwater ecosystems to find ways to capture and share best practices. Textbooks and scientific articles are a good venue for doing so, but we have realized in the international waters focal area it also helps to facilitate portfolio learning and experience sharing. Our platform IW:LEARN not only provides self-identified management tools, topical guidance and discussion fora, but also captures stories from the investments and brings the entire community together in face to face events. All of this is essential in building a community of practice around the discipline of transboundary management of freshwater and ocean resources.

Is there someone you have met through your work who has had a lasting impact on you?

I have been fortunate enough to work with, and meet through my work, a long list of unique, inspiring, insightful people. Working from home during the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown, I have been thinking about the interactions that I have had with all these fabulous people who not only bring light to my work days but also make it possible for us to continue delivering results according to the GEF-7 replenishment cycle strategy, and to smile while doing so.

I would like to take the chance to highlight a few of the many talented, energetic, and wonderful local project managers I work with around the world – including those working on a river basin adaptation project in Fiji; tackling nitrogen pollution in Romania; on an integrated water resource management effort in Lake Victoria; on transboundary governance and integrated natural resource management in the Caribbean Sea and the Amazon River Basin; on a set of Pacific tuna initiatives; and on a global effort that led to a new convention on ballast water. Without these project managers and their many talented colleagues and networks of stakeholders and supporters, it would have been impossible to make the progress that we have. Their incredible work inspires me to keep pushing to ensure that environmental resources will continue to support human well-being for current and coming generations.