Groundwater – towards its sustainable management

Development Policy26 Feb 2013Kathrin Knüppe

The important role and value of groundwater calls for global sustainable groundwater management.

For centuries, groundwater has possessed a certain mystery to people around the globe, because water below the surface is invisible and relatively inaccessible. Groundwater has often been regarded as a simple underground reservoir that supplied water either to people or to surface ecosystems. Today we are aware that groundwater produces multiple ecosystem services that are interrelated in complex dynamic ways.

In many countries groundwater is the main source of freshwater and is, therefore, particularly important to society’s ability to meet basic human needs (e.g., water for cooking and drinking, sanitation and health) as well as socio-economic development and growth. Furthermore, groundwater plays a crucial role in maintaining ecological processes and functions. The traditional hierarchical and technocratic focus of groundwater management has led to major shifts in the landscape water systems of many regions of the world and the consequent degradation of ecological flows. Guaranteeing sustainable resource management is, therefore, one of the central tasks of the 21st century.

Ensuring sustainability with respect to groundwater poses a number of challenges. Not least of these challenges is how to interpret the concept of sustainability – an issue that appears to be poorly understood as far as groundwater is concerned. Various international agencies and programs have looked at ways and approaches to promote groundwater sustainability, including studies of how over-exploited aquifers, falling water tables, and seawater contamination threaten the world’s underground reservoirs, upon which two billion people depend for their well-being. Furthermore, within the last fifty years groundwater has commonly been used for irrigation and other industrial uses all over the world and has served to improve standards of living and socio-economic development. However, the intensive use of groundwater is having a significant effect on aquifer conditions, including a decrease in water quantity and quality and the modification or loss of many ecosystem services. Unlike surface water systems, much of this loss is irreversible and, therefore, much more critical. Additionally, groundwater planning and development has occurred worldwide with little appreciation of how societies and economies organize themselves to take advantage of the opportunities groundwater presents and to respond to management needs as they emerge.

To tackle these challenges I propose that certain management and governance characteristics must be fulfilled and implemented on the ground, including:

  • A shift towards participatory management and collaborative decision making, including both governmental and non-governmental actors at all levels.
  • Greater integration of different research issues and interdisciplinary sectors such as agriculture, water, fishery, tourism, environment, mining, and forestry.
  • Decentralized and more flexible management approaches that take uncertainties and surprises, such as climatic variability, into account.
  • The putting in place of widely accepted and clear water laws and rights or, in their absence, a practicable system of incentives.
  • The incorporation of ecological goals and values, and their inclusion in formal legislation to be implemented at all levels.
  • The provision of access to information, as well as the planned collection of data and monitoring of groundwater quality and quantity.

Very first steps which must occur when talking about sustainable groundwater management are to change mindsets and to make people aware of groundwater as a source of freshwater that is just as valuable as surface water. In doing so it is crucial to revise negative perceptions of subsurface resources by means of regular public awareness-raising campaigns, training and education programs. The role and value of groundwater must be emphasized by managers and scientists by integrating groundwater into overall river basin management. In order to provide adequate policy advice both natural and social scientists must continue to report their findings beyond only the scientific literature and be proactive in discussing the implications of their work with water managers and policy makers.