New research raises the alarm for our most precious buffer to climate change: groundwater

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4 November 2020
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Water
A farmer working in his paddy field. Despite the water's salinity, cultivation is possible due to the advanced crops. Saline intrusion in this coastal part of Bangladesh is extremely apparent. Both the ground water and surface water here is severely s ...
WaterAid/ HSBC/ Drik/ Habibul Haque

Our research has uncovered the poor management and governance of groundwater reserves in Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Nepal and Nigeria. Vincent Casey discusses the impacts on the millions of people who rely on these supplies, the implications and what must change.

Our water security research has uncovered an alarming lack of global governance and grave mismanagement of the world’s precious groundwater reserves, needlessly putting millions of lives at risk.

Hundreds of millions of people rely on groundwater for their daily water needs. As global populations continue to grow and climate change threatens water security, groundwater extraction seems the obvious answer to boosting food production and industry.

Groundwater is found almost everywhere and represents by far the largest component (30%) of the world’s fresh, unfrozen water resource. It provides much-needed protection against the impacts of climate change, acting as a buffer to changing water availability and quality in many parts of the world, due to its resilience to drought and low susceptibility to evaporation.

Out of sight, out of mind

To planners, policy makers and governments, groundwater is too often out of sight, out of mind, leaving it vulnerable to over-extraction and unregulated pollution. It is the world’s most extracted raw material, tripling since the 1940s due largely to the Green Revolution and booming industry. Overuse erodes groundwater’s natural ability to even out the problems of cyclical drought and provide a reliable back-up supply of fresh water, and it threatens to reverse the hard-won progress made in water supply and sanitation provision.

Our multi-country research has uncovered a dire lack of data coupled with a lack of provisions for sustainable management of groundwater reserves. We commissioned the research on groundwater and sustainability issues in five countries where work – Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Nepal and Nigeria.

165 million people in the countries we studied don’t have the luxury of accessing clean groundwater close to their homes, and many are reliant on unsafe surface water sources such as polluted rivers and ponds.

Requiring little or no treatment to make it safe for human consumption, groundwater is widely considered to be the long-term solution to the world’s water security crisis. Its role will escalate as water service providers respond to population growth and the acceleration of climate change.

However, reliance on groundwater will be impossible unless efforts are made to better understand, value and protect this vital resource, making it a central feature of climate change adaptation strategies. Otherwise, we face a very bleak future.

A volunteer checks the pH level of the water collected from a handpump in India, monitoring the quality of the groundwater.
WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
A volunteer checks the pH level of the water collected from a handpump in India, monitoring the quality of the groundwater.

Unreliable data

Our research findings reveal how unreliable data seriously impedes effective management of groundwater in all five countries. For example, in Nepal and Nigeria records are often on paper or in incompatible digital formats. Consequently, governments lack the information needed to make informed policy choices, and problems cannot be identified and addressed before they become critical.

Left unchecked, the lack of data will significantly limit the monitoring and evaluation of groundwater quantity and quality, meaning this can’t be relied on by millions of people who depend on groundwater for their daily water supply.

Lack of legal control

The findings also show how a widespread lack of legal control over how much groundwater is extracted and by whom leaves these vital reserves at high risk of exploitation. In Bangladesh, Nigeria and Nepal there are few specific laws and policies for groundwater management, or existing regulation is not enforced. For example, more than 35 million people in Bangladesh are exposed to dangerous concentrations of naturally occurring arsenic in their drinking water, vastly exceeding legal maximum levels, and efforts to address the issue are lacking.

A man shows the lesions on the palms of his hands caused by severe arsenic poisoning, or arsenicosis, caused by years of drinking water highly contaminated with arsenic found in the groundwater. India.
WaterAid/ Poulomi Basu
A man in India shows the lesions on the palms of his hands caused by severe arsenic poisoning, or arsenicosis, caused by years of drinking water highly contaminated with arsenic found in the groundwater.

Many communities risk not having enough water for their basic needs in the future, particularly as surface water sources may be altered through climate change, unless groundwater is protected. This chronic lack of enforced groundwater policies embeds the risk of over-exploitation and pollution.

Broader, smarter use of water, where available, could help countries achieve a Global Goal to ensure that everyone has sustainable access to water and sanitation by 2030.

The Water Security Research was undertaken with funding from HSBC. Download the full report here.

This blog first appeared on InDepthNews.net.

Vincent Casey is Senior WASH Manager – Water at WaterAid UK. Follow him on Twitter at @VINNYCASEY2.