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IDB – Coming together in the Trifinio region of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras


Instituto de la Defensa Pública Penal de Guatemala

Country (ies):

45 Municipalities from the three countries that comprise the Trifinio region's Upper Lempa River Basic, , the Plan Trifinio Commission, the three national governments through their vice-presidencies offices, the 13 National League of Municipalities (Mancomunidades), the Tri-national Federation of Municipalities' Leagues (Mancomunidad Trinacional) , Municipal Environmental Units, other national, departmental (state) and municipal education units, associations and unions in the private sector, local NGOs and civil society.

Country (ies):

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras


This initiative seeks to develop and promote tri-national mechanisms for integrated and sustainable water management as a regional public good in the Upper Lempa River Basin (ULRB) by promoting strong horizontal cooperation among the participating countries –El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The project involved three components: the generation and management of information on water resources, human resource training in water management, and tri-national institutions for water management.


Although not the largest in Central America, the Lempa River basin is the largest on the Pacific slope and the only tri-national one. The basin comprises an area of 18,311 km2 shared by El Salvador (56%), Guatemala (14%), and Honduras (30%). At 335 kilometers, the Lempa River is the longest river to run its full course within Central America.

An estimated 4.7 million people (2001) already live in the basin and its population is expected to double in the next 25 years. The anticipated population growth will exacerbate the problem of access to safe water. El Salvador depends heavily on this watershed. More than 50% (10,255 km2) of that country lies within the basin, including the San Salvador metropolitan area and Santa Ana, the country's two largest population centers. San Salvador relies on the Lempa River for 40% of its water needs.

The development challenges facing this initiative relate to both the quality and quantity of the water of the ULRB. By the time this initiative was formulated, the ULRB was already showing signs of degradation: low supply, high pollution, and overall poor management.

The project was expected to produce a Multisectoral Water Network, a Tri-national Water Agenda, and an increased capacity for the league of municipalities of the ULRB to deal with governments and NGOs at the national and tri-national levels in managing the water as a regional public good.


The Trifinio initiative is based on a horizontal partnership involving three countries in similar conditions and with a common purpose. The first step towards the horizontal partnership was the signing of a treaty for the execution of the Plan Trifinio, acknowledging that the problems of the ULRB could only be resolved through joint action.

This initiative was demand-driven and it set the basis for a more efficient and effective partnership, through the development of municipal normative for the management of natural resources, the establishment of Multisectoral Water Network, and the development of a Tri-national Water Agenda. These outputs are products of the discussions and agreements reached by the partner countries.

Making the trilateral partnership work went beyond simply signing the treaty. All stakeholders, led by the local municipalities that share the basin, had to work in a coordinated way. To do that, forty-four municipalities formed national leagues called "Mancomunidades Nacionales" and later a federation of those leagues in a Mancomunidad Trinacional. These innovative organizational arrangements were the key to implementing the collective management of these shared resources through the coordination of policies, programs and projects. National, state and local institutions, as well as the private sector and civil society, have added their value to the partnership.

This partnership has required the managers of the Mancomunidades to meet periodically with various stakeholders to discuss the problems of the ULRB, identify opportunities and devise solutions. During these exchanges, the parties shared experiences, methodologies, knowledge and technologies for preserving water and soil, as well as managing protected natural areas, tourism, water quality monitoring and water usage (for both human consumption and farming).

The initiative not only enabled integrated and sustainable water management in the field with the active collaboration of the communities that benefit from it, it also supported environmental education in the classroom in grades first through nine. Ministries of Education for the three countries came together in a workshop to present and exchange their education plans and materials regarding environmental education. This experience created a dialogue involving the three ministries, teachers and the Plan Trifinio Tri-national Commission. Together, these actors prepared an education plan and materials to support environmental education within the Trifinio Region. Several of these innovations developed for the Trifinio region have been integrated in the regular environmental education curricula in the three countries.


Although no analysis has been carried out on the cost effectiveness of the initiative, it is clear that the promotion of a horizontal cooperation between the three countries to resolve the problems affecting the ULRB was more cost-effective than single country initiatives would have been. More has to be done to assess the direct effects of the project, specifically its environmental impact and the use of natural resources.

As acknowledged above, the main intermediate outcomes of the initiative are: i) a Multisectoral Water Network, ii) a Tri-national Water Agenda, and iii) an increased capacity for the Mancomunidades of the ULRB to deal with governments and NGOs at the national and tri-national levels to manage water as a regional public good.

A specific example of this increased capacity is the creation of a Land Management and Planning Office for the Trifinio Region (LMPO) with the support and leadership of the Mancomunidad Trinacional. The LMPO was created as a result of cooperation among the countries through study tours, sharing and studying land management experiences from some municipalities in El Salvador, and adapting those experiences to municipalities in the Trifinio Region. This is an example on how the countries recognize the comparative advantages among themselves and how these can be used for South-South knowledge exchange and capacity development. Another example and achievement was the standardized monitoring of water quality. The three countries jointly acknowledged the importance of having access to accurate, consistent , timely, verifiable and comparable indicators on water quality to feed the decision making process. They worked together to identify standard indicators, measurement protocols, locations and timeframes to assess and monitor water conditions, and identify possible solutions.

Unexpected outcomes included Plan Trifinio's recognition throughout Central America as a model for integration that foresees and resolves potential conflicts related to water through dialog among the partners. Also, residents of the Trifinio region have acquired an identity in many cases more rooted than their national identities. Plan Trifinio is a symbol of peace and integration, increased participation by civil society organizations at the tri-national level in planning, decision-making and implementation of programs and projects focused on the preservation and sustainable use of the water resources. Further, producers from the three countries have adopted at least two technologies friendly to the environment into their production system (8,000 producers located in the region have established practices for the preservation of soil and water, as well as cleaner farming practices.

Most of these benefits are sustainable, but need to be continued and in some cases further developed to gain additional benefits and to increase coverage. Mutual learning and consensus capacity are being be fostered with a view to consolidating the process. Some benefits might diminish without the presence of a third party/honest broker; such might be the case of the increased participation of civil society, but actions such as participatory decisions and local committees are being implemented to reduce the risk of disengagement.

The benefits of this initiative could be replicated in similar contexts. The Inter-American Development Bank played a relevant role in coordinating the three components of this initiative. Qualitative evidence supports the notion that an honest broker such as the Bank contributes to the efficiency and effectiveness of these kinds of initiatives until their practices are well-established and sustainable. Nevertheless, in the long run the Bank should withdraw to avoid creating a dependency and to promote capacity building among the partners.

Aid Effectiveness:

The Plan Trifinio levels the ground for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to treat each other as partners and therefore as equals. It opens a space for dialog, decision-making, coordination and the transfer of knowledge. The IDB has not only respected this horizontal partnership arrangement, it has enhanced it by promoting the ownership of the initiative by the local actors. More specifically, it encouraged local actors to develop and implement their own plan of action by identifying, prioritizing and budgeting for the main issues to be resolved within each component. These plans were used to allocate other resources from national government environmental agencies, the Mancomunidades, and GTZ (the German aid agency). In addition, during the formulation and design of the initiative, the Bank aligned the action strategy for the initiative to the treaty and Plan Trifinio, honoring existing organizational and institutional arrangements. On the other hand, it was not possible to use any country system (procurement, accounting, auditing, monitoring and evaluation) due to the complex nature of dealing with a three-country initiative.

During its execution the initiative was coordinated with other initiatives being executed in the Trifinio region, avoiding duplication of efforts or countermeasures. Specifically the initiative has coordinated with: i) the Tri-national Program for Sustainable Development in the Upper Lempa River Basin (financed by the Bank and the three countries' National Stakeholders Committees); ii) the Trifinio Association for Sustainable Development; iii) the International Atomic Energy Agency's technical cooperation program entitled "Sustainable Development of the Environment and Water Resources in the Upper Lempa River Basin" (RLA/8/038); iv) the Mancomunidades in the Upper Lempa River Basin; v) the Project for the Integrated Management of the Montecristo Tri-national Protected Area; and vi) development associations working in the region. In addition the partners encouraged the participation of a broad range of regional actors in setting priorities, including the national governments, Mancomunidades, civil society and private sector. Finally, even though disbursements were not tied to the accomplishment of any specific result, the initiative did carry out evaluations and develop reports that are results-oriented, using the logical framework as the guiding tool to monitor progress and achievements of key cost effective indicators.

This experience emphasizes the potential of horizontal cooperation when it is enhanced by the aid effectiveness principles of leadership, ownership, managing for results and, due to its multinational nature, mutual accountability. The cooperation among the partner countries would not have been as effective if these principles had not implemented.

Capacity Development:

As mentioned before, the initiative contributed to strengthening the capacity of the partner countries in several ways. Water monitoring and educational plans and materials for the Trifinio Region both improved with the exchange of knowledge and experiences. Such examples were described in detail earlier in the document. Horizontal learning improved the capacities and interest of the different actors in improving their policy design and implementation. Yet, the principal contribution to their capacity development goes way beyond peer-learning; it focuses on building the capacity to tackle development issues by themselves and in coordination with the other partners. Capacity development to take informed and responsible decisions and to reach consensus throughout the Trifinio region is the main value added in this regard.


Execution Period: 36 months Disbursement Period: 39 months

Budget (Optional):

IDB – US$ 830,000 Local Counterpart US$ 110,100 Total US$ 940,100

Name of Primary Contact Person:

Laura Bocalandro

Title of Primary Contact Person:

Coordinator, Regional Public Goods Program, Inter-American Development Bank

City: Washington, DC