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Groundwater: The Elephant Underfoot

Posted by Sasha Richey following World Water Week 2013. This is the second in a series of three posts. The first, called Moving Towards True Collaboration, was posted by Kate Voss in Stockholm.

www-logo-2013The Hidden Resource

Groundwater is often called the “Hidden Resource.” Buried a few meters beneath Earth’s surface, or a few hundred depending on where you live, lies the water table. Below the water table, beyond where kids dig holes and plant roots find water, “groundwater” fills in all of the space between soil particles. It is this water that provides drinking water for approximately two billion people globally and irrigation water for hundreds of millions of hectares of land. In many places, the volume of groundwater may be more than 100 times greater than the annual sustainable supply of surface water (e.g. rivers), and is critical to the survival of local populations, especially in drought years.

Despite the incredible importance of this water resource, groundwater is typically more than just hidden. It is forgotten too. Our UCCHM team at World Water Week (WWW) in Stockholm was reminded of this, most poignantly in the first session of the conference. The session was called Cooperation to Address the Complexities of Water Management, and had a panel full of experts. As they discussed what water security means, how to mitigate against water induced conflict, and how to form water governance infrastructure across geo-political boundaries, “groundwater” was never once mentioned. So it was time to prompt the panel.

“What is the role of groundwater in thinking about governance, especially with climate change impacting surface water supplies?” I asked. “How can groundwater be involved in quantifying water security?” Blank stares. Silence. We soon realized that ignoring groundwater was common practice in almost every session at WWW. But why?

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

We kept coming back to a quote by Mr. Angel Gurria, Secretary-General of OECD, during WWW’s Opening Plenary: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Nowhere is this statement truer than with groundwater. Groundwater is complicated. You can’t see it. Groundwater is driven by a complex combination of pressure and gravity, unlike surface water that flows mainly by gravity alone. The complexity of groundwater makes it hard to measure and monitor over large areas. Is it because there is no statewide monitoring for groundwater in California (and the rest of the world) that there is no statewide groundwater policy?

Just because groundwater is complicated, does not mean it is less important than surface water in the anthropogenic water cycle. Regulated or not, groundwater continues to be used at an increasing rate globally. It can be argued that groundwater is water security because it provides a buffer against droughts, floods and pollution on the surface, all of which will be exacerbated by climate change and continuing population growth. Groundwater’s ability to provide water security into the future depends on how well we manage it today. But, we can barely talk about it, let alone manage it sustainably.

Dr. Jay Famiglietti pointing out trends of groundwater depletion from NASA's GRACE satellite in a sessions on "Groundwater Information Reliability and International Cooperation."
Dr. Jay Famiglietti pointing out trends of groundwater depletion from NASA’s GRACE satellite in a sessions on “Groundwater Information Reliability and International Cooperation.”

There were a small handful of sessions that recognized the importance of groundwater. Dr. Jay Famiglietti, Director of the UCCHM, presented in two sessions on groundwater monitoring. These sessions emphasized the importance of monitoring and managing groundwater at multiple spatial scales and with a range of technologies and expertise. However, data can only push the need for management so far. Leaders must enter the equation to transform hard data into action and policy.

Sustainable Groundwater in Africa

The day long Africa Focus sessions were the most inspiring example of harnessing data and local action for management and multi-scale transboundary cooperation. First, in the session on Trans-boundary Groundwater: Opportunities for Cooperation in Africa, Dr. Alice Aureli (UNESCO) reminded us of the need to begin by studying an aquifer and then to define its vulnerabilities. After these steps have been taken, the level of sustainable activities that can be supported by the aquifer can be defined. It is then that governance infrastructure incorporates these findings into a management plan, thereby connecting measurements to management.

Dr. Alice Aureli (UNESCO) introduces her talk on "Trans-boundary Groundwater: Opportunities for Cooperation" during the Africa Focus day. Photo credit: Sasha Richey.
Dr. Alice Aureli (UNESCO) introduces her talk on “Trans-boundary Groundwater: Opportunities for Cooperation” during the Africa Focus day. Photo credit: Sasha Richey.

In my favorite session of WWW, the water ministers from nine African nations participated on a panel entitled, Cooperation and Hydro-Diplomacy: Successful Approaches to Optimize Transboundary Water Management. H.E. John Agyekum Kufuor, former President of Ghana, introduced this session that highlighted positive outcomes from transboundary entities within Africa, including the Africa Groundwater Network and the African Ministers’ Council On Water (AMCOW). It is important to note that the United States has neither a Minister of Water nor a national groundwater network. Not yet at least.

Africa Focus: High Level Ministerial Panel with members of the African Ministers' Council On Water from (left to right) South Sudan, Comoros, Kenya, (Moderator), South Africa, Burundi, and Libya. Photo credit: Sasha Richey.
Africa Focus: High Level Ministerial Panel with members of the African Ministers’ Council On Water from (left to right) South Sudan, Comoros, Kenya, (Moderator), South Africa, Burundi, and Libya. Photo credit: Sasha Richey.

The Value of Groundwater

We can only hope that groundwater’s value (and water levels) continues to rise, leading to proper monitoring and governance in the United States and abroad, before it is too late. There are lessons to be learned globally, maybe starting with those from WWW’s Africa Focus day. After all, “Sharing groundwater is a business but the profit is not money,” as Dr. Salem Mohamed Rashrash, Minister for Water in Libya, said. “It is life.” The time has come to reflect these sentiments with action.

Comments

  1. Anne Petaja-Ronkainen
    Finland
    October 5, 2013, 7:07 am

    This is so true. I have been working with WFD groundwater issues in Finland for about 10 years. Groundwater is continually ignored. People involved in groundwater protection are getting more and more frustrated. I hope the situation will change soon. What should be done?