Is the solution to water crises hiding right under our feet? With groundwater resources underneath increasing pressure due to human activities and climate change, water experts and scientists make a call on States to commit themselves to developing adequate and effective groundwater management and governance policies.
With water use projected to grow by roughly one per cent per year over the next 30 years, the UNESO report “Groundwater: Making the invisible visible“. pointed out the overall dependence on groundwater is expected to rise as surface water availability becomes increasingly limited due to climate change.
Groundwater presently provides half of the volume of water withdrawn for domestic use by the global population. This includes drinking water for the vast majority of rural population who do not get their water delivered to them via public or private supply systems, and around 25 per cent of all water used for irrigation.
Meanwhile, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said “more and more water resources are being polluted, overexploited, and dried up by humans, sometimes with irreversible consequences. Making smarter use of the potential of still sparsely developed groundwater resources, and protecting them from pollution and overexploitation, is essential to meet the fundamental needs of an ever-increasing global population and to address the global climate and energy crises.”
Gilbert F. Houngbo Chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) noted “improving the way we use and manage groundwater is an urgent priority if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Decision-makers must begin to take full account of the vital ways in which groundwater can help ensure the resilience of human life and activities in a future where the climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable.”
SOCIAL, ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS AND OPPORTUNITIES
Groundwater is often the most cost-effective way of providing a secure supply of water to rural villages. Certain regions, such as Saharan Africa and the Middle East for example, hold substantial quantities of non-renewable groundwater supplies that can be extracted in order to maintain water security. However, consideration for future generations and for the economic, financial and environmental aspects of storage depletion should not be overlooked.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the opportunities offered by the vast aquifers remain largely under exploited. Only 3% of farmland is equipped for irrigation, and only 5% of that area uses groundwater, compared to 59% and 57% respectively in North America and South Asia. As the report points out, this low use is not due to a lack of renewable groundwater (which is often abundant), but rather by a lack of investments in infrastructure, institutions, trained professionals and knowledge of the resource. The development of groundwater could act as a catalyst for economic growth by increasing the extent of irrigated areas and therefore improving agricultural yields and crop diversity.
UNLOCKING GROUNDWATER’S FULL POTENTIAL – WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
1. Collect data: The report points out the lack of groundwater data. It also stressed that groundwater monitoring is often a ‘neglected area’. To improve this, the acquisition of data and information, which is usually under the responsibility of national (and local) groundwater agencies, could be complemented by the private sector particularly, the oil, gas and mining industries already possess a great deal of data information and knowledge on the composition of the deeper domains underground, including aquifers. As a matter of corporate social responsibility, private companies are highly encouraged to share these data and information with public sector professionals,
2. Strengthen environmental regulations:
The report calls for avoiding groundwater pollution as it is irreversible. Enforcement efforts and the prosecution of polluters, however, are often challenging due to groundwater’s invisible nature. Preventing groundwater contamination requires suitable land use and appropriate environmental modulations especially across aquifer recharge areas. It is imperative that governments assume their role as resource custodians in view of the common good aspects of groundwater to ensure that access to – and profit from – groundwater are distributed equitably and that the resource remains available for future generations,
3. Rainforce human, materid and financial resources:
UNESCO also points out to the lack of groundwater professionals among the staff of institutions and local and national government. It also points out to insufficient mandates, financing and support of groundwater departments or agencies.
The report is published by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water and its production is coordinated by the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme The report gives insight into the main trends concerning the state, use and management of freshwater and sanitation, based on work by members and partners of UN-Water. Launched in conjunction with World Water Day, the report provides decision-makers with knowledge and tools to formulate and implement sustainable water policies. It also offers best practice examples and in-depth analyses to stimulate ideas and actions for better stewardship in the water sector and beyond.