OPINION: It’s time to rethink groundwater management

by Shammy Puri & Hassan Aboelnga | @Hassan_Water | Middle East Water Forum
Friday, 18 December 2020 12:49 GMT

A man pumps water from a borehole to feed his wilting crops as the region deals with a prolonged drought in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Managing aquifers more wisely could significantly shore up water, food and energy security

Shammy Puri is director of the Centre for Sustainable Solutions Through Applied Hydrogeology in Oxford. Hassan Aboelnga is vice chair of the Middle East Water Forum and a researcher on water security. 

The neglect in effective management of aquifers in the pre-COVID- 19 era cannot be allowed go on.

Management of aquifers, which freely deliver an invisible resource and which supply about 2 billion of the world’s population with their daily need for freshwater, has to move to a new and different architecture from the present one. Otherwise, around the world, chaotic or disorganised withdrawals from aquifers point only one way – toward exhausted and dry underground reservoirs.

The question being posed by half the global population that is already living in areas where water scarcity occurs in one month (or more) in every 12 is: What will it take for farmers and many rural communities to navigate coming water crises, given that present regulatory instruments and markets are ineffective?

More simply put: How is it that policymakers keep missing obvious opportunities to achieve water security and sustainable development?

Regions of the world, where life-giving water was already a scarce commodity two decades ago today face two contrasting ‘imbalances’- over-abstraction and underdevelopment.

In Asia, groundwater is overused, while sub-Saharan Africa lacks finance to develop its available water resources. But does the new normal of the COVID-19 era and its economic and social threats carry new opportunities?

At the heart of these imbalances is the chaotic withdrawal of groundwater from aquifers – an incredibly valuable resource occurring in the subsurface, easily tapped by pumping from unregulated private and public wells.

This freely extracted water helps to ease the problem of drought. But in Asia it is too often used to grow water-thirsty crops, and much is wasted through overuse. Subsidised energy and now cost-free solar pumping mean pumps can run too long and speed up exhaustion of water in aquifers – and because aquifers are out of sight and so out of mind, they don’t draw the attention of policymakers until wells run dry.

In sub-Saharan Africa, finance to access available aquifer resources has been difficult and late coming, leaving rural populations at gradually increasing risk.

In both regions sustainable governance of aquifer resources is moribund, or inadequately addressed at national policy levels.

Water drawn from aquifers is the world’s most extracted raw material, with 70% of it used for agriculture. The available aquifer resources are huge – but they are being used up faster than they can be naturally replenished, with barely any efforts put to urgently needed water harvesting, replenishment and conservation.

The United Nations 2018 SDG report indicates that even in high Human Development Index (HDI) countries only 2 out of 46 have a well-developed water resources management plan, which is fundamental to achieving water sustainability.

Human pressures on freshwater resources, when coupled with growing drought frequency, indicate about 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live in areas where severe drought is having catastrophic impact on crop and pastureland once in every three years, devastating livelihoods.

And yet there are more-than-modest aquifer resources in this region – the amount available each year is equivalent to 15 years of average flow of the river Nile, but only a tiny share is being used. Compare this with the consumption from aquifers in India, which 10 times higher per capita.

Neither the overuse in India, nor the neglect in sub-Saharan Africa is conducive to sustainable development.  This should be a new and urgent wake up call for policy makers.