Deteriorating river basin health was the catalyst for transboundary cooperation in Southeastern Europe.  In 2011, Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Greece signed an agreement to help solve problems that were threatening the health of the Drin River Basin – impacting both the environment and livelihoods.

The Drin Basin comprises the White Drin, Black Drin and Buna/Bojana Rivers and the Prespa, Ohrid and Skadar/Shkoder Lakes.  The Drin River connects lakes, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and the receiving Adriatic Sea into a single, yet diverse, ecosystem of major importance for nature and economic development. This complex and extensive water resource system provides a wealth of services and benefits to more than 1.6 million people living throughout the five countries.  However, deterioration of water quality, variability of hydrological regime, biodiversity degradation and disturbance of the natural sediment transport regime were becoming major issues which prompted the riparian countries to come together and take action.

The GEF Drin Project was established through the Drin 2011 memorandum of understanding. Its aim was to promote joint management of shared water resources in the extended transboundary Drin River Basin. The project was financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), implemented by the United Nations Development Programme and executed by the Global Water Partnership – Mediterranean in cooperation with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

In April 2020, the Drin Strategic Action Programme was endorsed by ministers and high-level representatives of the Drin riparians during an online ceremony. This negotiated policy document establishes clear priorities for action to resolve the key transboundary problems that have been identified.

Several lessons can be learnt from the success of the GEF Drin Project and how it managed to catalyse action towards transboundary cooperation in order to save a common natural resource.

Joint political body

Established in 2008, the Drin Core Group (DCG), is comprised of representatives of the Drin riparian countries with the mandate to:

  • Promote joint action for the coordinated integrated management of the shared water resources in the Drin Basin.
  • Safeguard and restore the ecosystems and services they provide.
  • Promote sustainable development across the Drin Basin.

The DCG also became the steering committee of the project; considered to be a key contributing factor to its success. It allowed the countries to have full control of project implementation, increased trust and led to increased capacities for transboundary cooperation. A culture of cooperation was cultivated and as a result the DCG became the forum to discuss and seek solutions for transboundary problems in sub-basins.

Decentralised Project Management Unit

A Decentralised Project Management Unit (PMU) was set up with a dedicated project officer for each country. The officers had daily contacts with local stakeholders, listened to their problems and worked together to identify feasible solutions. This was key in swiftly addressing unexpected changes in the project’s environment, such as political events, economic crises and the Covid-19 pandemic. The officers supported the DCG in its work and implemented the GEF Drin Project’s activities on the ground.

Effective communication and engagement

At the very start of the project, a detailed stakeholder analysis was undertaken, providing the basis for a strategic communication and engagement plan that analysed which stakeholders were to be informed, with what tools and at which point in time. Throughout project implementation stakeholders participated in all consultations, provided input and were informed about all on-going and planned activities. The result was that stakeholders’ had a strong sense of ownership of the project and its outcomes; this was a crucial element that brought agreement on the Drin Strategic Action Programme. The project managed to raise awareness on critical water resources problems in the region as well as to raise capacities in terms of addressing these problems.

Simple and achievable project design

Design simplicity is an essential prerequisite for the successful implementation of such a project. The project was designed in line with the content of the Drin MoU with an aim to enable its implementation. While designed to address transboundary issues, the outcomes and outputs were aligned with national priorities. This kept the interest even of stakeholders that were reluctant at the beginning of project implementation towards transboundary cooperation. By doing this, the likelihood of achieving replication effects increased.

Pilot demonstration

As part of the GEF Drin Project, a number of pilot demonstration activities, designed to address transboundary issues, were implemented. These allowed stakeholders to have first-hand experience of technologies, practices and organisational settings novel to the region, allowing them to test their cost effectiveness and feasibility in the regional context, and ultimately feed into the Strategic Action Programme formulation process. These activities, achieving tangible results, raised the interest of stakeholders who were actively engaged in their implementation, and presented clear benefits that in turn ensured increasing engagement by the political leadership.