An ‘invisible’ solution to water shortages lies beneath our feet

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Water shortages, which already affect billions of people around the world, are set to worsen in coming decades – linked to drought, pollution, rising sea levels and poor management – but an “invisible” solution could be hiding underground.

While water use will increase by 1% every year for the next three decades, a UN report predicted on Monday that so-called groundwater will grow in importance as climate change and human exploitation would reduce surface supplies such as lakes and reservoirs.

Today, according to United Nations World Water Development Report 2022.

Worldwide, 3.6 billion people had insufficient access to water for at least one month of the year in 2018, and this figure is expected to reach 5 billion by 2050, according to the researchers.

“What if the solution to the world’s water problems was right under our feet?” said Richard Connor, editor of the new report published by UNESCO.

“There is a huge opportunity if we can manage and exploit all of this groundwater in a sustainable way,” he said.

As the world’s population grows, increasing pressure on water supplies, here’s why we should pay more attention to the enormous potential of groundwater and take steps to manage it properly:

Why is groundwater important and what are its benefits? Only about 1% of the water on Earth is fresh water – mostly found in ice caps – the rest being saline, in the oceans.

A maintenance worker takes a groundwater sample for analysis at Ta’ Kandja underground galleries, operated by the Malta Water Services Corporation, outside Siggiewi, Malta, in 2018. | Reuters

Of the planet’s liquid fresh water, 99% is found underground, where the quality is generally good. It can therefore be used safely, inexpensively and without the need for advanced treatment.

Water stored above ground, such as in reservoirs and dams, is a finite resource, often expensive and vulnerable to pollution and the impacts of climate change like severe drought – and the way it is tapped can have ecological and social consequences.

By comparison, between 10 and 20% of groundwater renews itself naturally and is found at shallow depths, making it easily accessible.

The rest is ‘fossil water’ that has been in the ground for thousands or even millions of years and, although it is not renewable, it is abundant.

Groundwater systems are important for supporting nature-rich landscapes such as forests, and provide about a quarter of all water used for agriculture, according to the UN report.

Underground supplies also account for about half of the water used nationally by the world’s population and are the cheapest source of drinking water for rural villagers, most of whom are not connected to public water systems. public or private supply.

How are groundwater supplies abused and what are the consequences? Over-extraction can have disastrous consequences, including land subsidence and conflict over scarce supplies.

In 2018, when India suffered what was considered the worst water crisis in its history, a report by a government think tank predicted that at least 40% of its 1.3 billion inhabitants would have no reliable access to drinking water by 2030.

Droughts are becoming more frequent as the climate warms, creating problems for rain-dependent Indian farmers, while state disputes mount.

In Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, meanwhile, rapid urbanization and the disappearance of water catchment areas mean that most residents depend on wells that drain underground aquifers, forcing the megacity to sink about 5 to 10 centimeters each year.

The world’s groundwater can be contaminated by inadequate sanitation and pit latrines, as well as industrial pollution from tanning, mining and agricultural chemicals.

The UN report’s editor, Connor, noted that groundwater is less susceptible to pollution than surface supplies.

But once that happens, contamination is hard to reverse, he said, calling for more action to protect groundwater by strengthening environmental agencies, regulation and enforcement.

Egyptian boys jump into the Ain El-Sira underground water lake to cool off on a hot summer day in Old Cairo, Egypt, in 2016. |  Reuters
Egyptian boys jump into the Ain El-Sira underground water lake to cool off on a hot summer day in Old Cairo, Egypt, in 2016. | Reuters

What are the challenges of tapping more groundwater and how can they be overcome? A region like sub-Saharan Africa has poorly developed water infrastructure and little irrigation for agriculture, making it dependent on increasingly erratic rainfall and vulnerable to drought – which can fuel famine, poverty and mass migration.

The region, along with the Middle East, holds significant groundwater reserves that are largely untapped and, if extracted in a controlled manner, could help maintain water security.

Governments must invest in water infrastructure and institutions and train professionals in order to access these reserves in a sustainable way, according to the UN report.

Developing groundwater sources could catalyze economic growth by expanding irrigated agricultural land and improving crop yields and crop diversity, he added.

Outside of Australia, Europe and the United States, little data exists on groundwater, including the quantity available at different depths, its quality and salinity level.

But companies involved in oil, gas and mineral exploration often collect huge amounts of information about the subsoil, including the water it contains.

Corporate responsibility promises from these companies could include sharing groundwater information with agencies responsible for managing it, to support sustainable use, Connor said.

“You need knowledge and data to know how much water (there is), what is its quality… but also where is it and how fast is it recharging?” he added.

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