A new report from WaterAid published today raises the alarm about the threat to the world’s groundwater reserves, which are relied upon by millions of people for their daily water supplies. This hidden resource provides a vital buffer against climate change, but is not clearly monitored and is gravely mismanaged, needlessly putting millions of lives at risk.
Hundreds of millions of people depend upon groundwater for their daily needs, health and livelihoods. It is also the main source of water for food production and industry. Groundwater – water that is found underground in gaps between soil, sand and rock – is found almost everywhere, is tolerant to drought and so acts as a buffer in times of water scarcity. However, to planners, policy makers, and governments groundwater is too often out of sight, out of mind leaving it vulnerable to over-extraction, unregulated pollution and unchecked contamination.
WaterAid commissioned the research into groundwater security and sustainability issues in five countries where it works – Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Nepal and Nigeria – where collectively, more than 165 million people still lack access to clean water close to home. These countries depend almost entirely on groundwater for domestic water supply, especially in rural areas.
Key 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 are blindly making policies that are ill-informed of their current groundwater situation, meaning that 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 it can’t be relied on by millions of people who depend on it for their daily water supply.
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, over 35 million people in Bangladesh are exposed to dangerous concentrations of naturally-occurring arsenic in their drinking water, vastly exceeding legal maximum levels, yet this is persistently ignored by authorities.
Unless groundwater is protected, 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. This chronic lack of enforced groundwater policies embeds the risk of over-exploitation and pollution.
Vincent Casey, WaterAid’s Senior WASH Manager for Water – International Programmes said: “Groundwater 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. The climate clock is ticking and if efforts are not made to better-understand, value and protect this vital resource, making it a central feature of climate change adaptation strategies, then we face a very bleak future.”
Author of the report and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist, Jude Cobbing said: “Specific problems around local groundwater quality, lack of data, and concerns around sustainability, can also be more easily addressed with this new information. As demand on water resources increases alongside growing climate uncertainty, this kind of collaborative, and transdisciplinary research on groundwater resources in the developing world has never been more important.”
The Water Security Research was undertaken with funding from HSBC, you can download the full report here.