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We argue that groundwater regulatory policies frequently overlook the key features of the reservoir that the resource comes from, i.e., the aquifer, the host and conveyer for this water. We consider this omission is an underlying reason for the widely recognised chaos and 'silent decline' in the resources of many intensively used aquifers.
An 'aquifer' is a rock formation containing water – 'groundwater'. Equally, 'groundwater' occurs in rock pores of 'aquifers'. But the two terms are not interchangeable and together they express the hydrogeological continuum in the subsurface space - terms that have been well defined in the 70's (Walton 1970), with which we concur.
The enthusiastic slogan of 'groundwater to the rescue!' of the 1960s, especially for intensive agricultural expansion, was the figurative call for the fire engine to put out the fire. Yet this call overlooked the critical importance of the fire station and all the backstopping that goes with it. Policymakers of those times, and even today, conceptualise groundwater without regard to the properties of the aquifer. The focus is simply on utilising the resource, disregarding the protection, conservation or sound management of the aquifer itself. While some policy attention is now paid to the aquifer in response to depletion and other threats, the focus is still largely on the 'flux' (groundwater), neglecting the 'stock' reserves (the aquifer, its storage properties and quality). Having for so long overlooked the stock dynamics of aquifers, the trajectory seems to be set for the likely 'resources collapse' of some aquifers beyond the 2030s.
Since the 1970s, 'groundwater management policies' were mainly attempted through (unsuccessfully) regulating well owner behaviour with regard to water abstraction. We argue this has inadvertently led to many, though not all, past groundwater policy frameworks to be unsuitable for purpose, an observation also supported by the OECD (2015).
The evidence today for failure of the outmoded regulatory approaches is clear from the many aquifers being depleted, degraded, or affected by subsidence, for example in the Indo-Gangetic basin, Mexico, North China Plains, and US High Plains, with the coincident breakdown of their dependent aquatic ecosystems and socio-ecologies.
Some say 'regulate groundwater', others say 'govern aquifers'. Borrowing from the song in the title of this blog  – many say: 'Let's call the whole thing off', as it's too complicated. But we say: 'No, let's make sure that each of the terms groundwater and aquifer are used appropriately, and in the right context' to enable policymakers to appreciate the full significance of the terminology.All too often, the adoption of a 'groundwater management policy' has in fact been about 'management of the utilisation of groundwater' after its abstraction. This is far removed from 'sound management of the aquifer'.
To many policymakers, such distinctions are seldom clear when they frame water-related financing and governance measures. Sound utilisation of groundwater, once drawn from its subsurface host, is not vastly different from water withdrawn from a river, stream, glacier melt, or indeed collected rainwater. Consequently, the principles for all sound water use for any aspect of our socio-economy, whether it comes from an aquifer or from a surface source should have the same scope (i.e., use it wisely, do not waste it, do not discharge it untreated).
Unless properly informed, policymakers cannot be expected to absorb too much hydrogeological nuance; they unsurprisingly conceptualise groundwater as they do river water – in its allocation, its regulation, and its treatment – relying on recurrent annual flux. The notion of a dam refilling each year is simplistically and unrealistically transposed to groundwater replenishment. Consequently, valuable features such as stock reserves, the unique multi-annual buffer storage, the protected subsurface environment, and dependence of ecosystems on aquifers are neglected. This may also explain why conjunctive management, involving multi-annual rational planning of interlinked surface water and aquifer resources, is rarely explicit in policy frameworks.
We deduce from the recent Global Diagnostic on Groundwater Governance that synonymous reference to the terms 'groundwater' and 'aquifer' has left policy implementers distracted from the required attention to land use and enhancing policies intended at aquifer replenishment, protection, as well as measures shielding natural aquifer contributions to dependent rivers or other surface waters.
Groundwater, as a resource in aquifers, has been cast as the Cinderella of water polices. This has significant consequences. Once policymakers have formulated policy, they feel confident that all water, including groundwater (and in their mindset, also the aquifer) has been covered. Sadly, the management of an aquifer (such that the groundwater in it would be sustainable for abstraction and for ecosystem services) like Cinderella before the ball, remains significantly out of sight and out of mind.
Hydrogeologists should commit to communicating clearly to policymakers. They must be explicit that the hosts and sources of various waters are distinct, while interconnected, and they need to be managed by targeted, yet complementary/ conjunctive measures. As recently stated by Prof David Kreamer, President of the International Association of Hydrogeologists (IAH), "….. the lack of systemic communication …. on groundwater …. is one of the most significant impediments to sound management and governance…" (emphasis added).
Sustainable management of aquifer resources entails, in addition to regulating well withdrawals, addressing the regulation of lands under which aquifers are found; ensuring that land use is compatible with natural or managed aquifer replenishment and does not compromise quality. It also entails safeguarding ecosystems services by sustainable natural discharges.
It is high time for policy reforms. Policymakers deserve practical guidance on aquifer management policies as well as complementary groundwater utilisation policies. The first aims to keep the container 'healthy' in terms of quantity and quality for intended uses (clearly a priority in the face of climate change), the second ensures that users desist from exhausting/ contaminating the container (critical for adaptation to climate change). Policymakers must better connect science to sound practical policy, and hydrogeology professionals must present understandable science, to enable policymakers to formulate effective, sound and practical policies.
Shammy Puri and Karen Villholth
Shammy Puri - has over 45 years of experience in most aquifer typologies. He has worked with over 30 national governments on their investment planning for water / environment priorities,giving him an in depth perspective on the global status of these resources. His present work is to inspire sustainable solutions through practical hydrogeology.
Karen G. Villholth has 30 years of experience in water research and management. She is a Principal Researcher and Groundwater Focal Point at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Southern Africa. She coordinates the Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP).
Photo credit: Shammy Puri; Karstic spring in Montenegro
Ansems, N., Khaka, E., and Villholth, K., 2014. Ecosystem-based Adaptation in Groundwater Management. IGRAC, July 2014. https://www.un-igrac.org/sites/default/files/resources/files/Ecosystem%20Based%20Adaptation%20in%20Groundwater%20Management.pdf.
Dickens, C., Smakhtin, V., Biancalani, R., Villholth, K.G., Eriyagama, N. and Marinelli, M., 2019. Incorporating Environmental Flows into 'Water Stress' Indicator 6.4.2. Guidelines for a Minimum Standard Method for Global Reporting. FAO. Rome. 32 pp. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO. ISBN 978-92-5-131724-2. http://www.fao.org/3/CA3097EN/ca3097en.pdf
Diefendorf, A. F., 1995. Groundwater, a Century of Word Evolution. Environmental Sciences Division, publication no 4446. Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Tennessee.
Global Diagnostic, 2015 – Global Groundwater Governance, Special Edition for World Water Forum 7. https://groundwaterportal.net/sites/default/files/Governance3.pdf .
Margat, J. and van de Gun, J., 2013 Groundwater around the World – a Geographic Synthesis. Taylor & Francis, CRC Press ISBN 9780367576509.
McKay, J., 2007. Groundwater as the Cinderella of water laws, policies and institutions in Australia. International Symposium on Groundwater Sustainability. http://aguas.igme.es/igme/isgwas/Ponencias%20ISGWAS/21-Mackay.pdf.
OECD, 2015. Drying Wells, Rising Stakes: Towards Sustainable Agricultural Groundwater Use, OECD Studies on Water, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264238701-en.
Scanlon, B.R., Faunt, C.C., Longuevergne, L., Reedy, R.C., Alley, W.M., McGuire, V.L., and McMahon, P.B., 2012. Groundwater depletion and sustainability of irrigation in the US High Plains and Central Valley. | PNAS, 109/24, 9320–9325.
Villholth, K.G., Ross, A. et al. 2018. Groundwater-Based Natural Infrastructure. http://gripp.iwmi.org/natural-infrastructure/overview-on-groundwater-based-natural-infrastructure/.
Walton, W.C., 1970.Groundwater Resource Evaluation. McGraw Hill Publishing, New York.
See also Water Alternatives Special Issue on: The local- and national-level politics of groundwater overabstraction https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let%27s_Call_the_Whole_Thing_Off