By Vincent Casey*
WaterAid’s newly released water security research has uncovered an alarming lack of global governance and grave mismanagement of the world’s precious groundwater reserves, needlessly putting millions of lives at risk.
Hundreds of millions of people rely on groundwater for their daily water needs. As global populations continue to grow and climate change threatens water security, groundwater extraction seems the obvious answer to boosting food production and industry.
Groundwater is found almost everywhere and represents by far the largest component (30%) of the world’s fresh, unfrozen water resource. It 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, due to its resilience to drought and low susceptibility to evaporation.
Out of sight, out of mind
To planners, policymakers and governments, groundwater is too often out of sight, out of mind leaving it vulnerable to over-extraction and unregulated pollution. It is the world’s most extracted raw material, tripling since the 1940’s due largely to the Green Revolution and booming industry.
Overuse erodes groundwater’s natural ability to even-out the problems of cyclical drought and provide a reliable back-up supply of freshwater, and it threatens to reverse the hard-won progress made in water supply and sanitation provision.
Our new multi-country research has uncovered a dire lack of data coupled with a lack of provisions for sustainable management of groundwater reserves. We commissioned the research on groundwater and sustainability issues in five countries where work – Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Nepal and Nigeria.
165 million people in the countries we studied don’t have the luxury of accessing clean groundwater close to their homes and many are reliant on unsafe surface water sources such as polluted rivers and ponds.
Requiring little or no treatment to make it safe for human consumption, groundwater is widely considered to be the long-term solution to the world’s water security crisis. Its role will escalate as water service providers respond to population growth and the acceleration of climate change.
However, reliance on groundwater will be impossible unless efforts are made to better understand, value and protect this vital resource, making it a central feature of climate change adaptation strategies. Otherwise, we face a very bleak future.
Our research 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 lack the information needed to make informed policy choices and 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.
Lack of legal control
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 and efforts to address the issue are lacking.
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 unless groundwater is protected. This chronic lack of enforced groundwater policies embeds the risk of over-exploitation and pollution.
Broader, smarter use of water, where available, could help countries achieve a global goal to ensure that everyone has sustainable access to water and sanitation by 2030.
The HSBC Water Programme and WaterAid’s new research report
The HSBC Water Programme, launched in 2012, was a collaborative partnership with Earthwatch, WaterAid and WWF. The eight-year US$150 million programme has provided 1.72 million people with clean water, over 2.7 million with sanitation and 3.5 million with hygiene education in six countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria. The Water Security Research Report, discussed in this press release, was undertaken as part of our contribution to the programme.
WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. The international not-for-profit organisation works in 28 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalised people. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 27 million people with clean water and 27 million people with decent toilets. For more information, visit www.wateraid.org, follow @WaterAidUK or @WaterAidPress on Twitter, or find WaterAid UK on Facebook at www.facebook.com/wateraid.
- 785 million people in the world – one in ten – do not have clean water close to home.
- 2 billion people in the world – almost one in four – do not have a decent toilet of their own.
- Around 310,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That’s around 800 children a day, or one child every two minutes.
- Every £1 invested in water and toilets returns an average of £4 in increased productivity.
- Just £15 can provide one person with clean water.
The Water Security Research was undertaken with funding from HSBC, you can download the full report here.
*The writer is Senior WASH Manager – Water, WaterAid UK
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 Prüss-Ustün et al. (2014) and The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2018)
 World Health organization (2012) Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage