Strategies & Innovations
Time for action is now to prevent a groundwater crisis
March 25, 2022 By Don Holland
Groundwater is an essential foundation for sustaining the environment, our communities, and our economies. As our population grows, industry demand increases and the effects of climate change worsen, this easy-to-access clean water resource will be depleted faster than it can be replenished. Without action now, our needs will cause our supplies to run dry – and sooner than we think.
Groundwater is the world’s largest freshwater resource; hidden below our feet, the signs of over-consumption are not always visible. With up to 20 per cent of groundwater wells worldwide at risk of running dry, our groundwater resources have never been more vulnerable.
A growing crisis
Convenient and inexpensive groundwater access has boosted agricultural economies and underpinned growth and sustainability of food and energy supply for regional and urban communities for many years. With supplies diminishing those same communities need to shift their reliance to alternative supplies, water transfers or better manage withdrawal and recharge balance. Sectors like tourism, where clean groundwater supports natural environments as attractions or provide base flow to rivers for recreation, also rely on groundwater security.
Depletion of aquifers can not only result in lack of water supply and land subsidence – both damaging to communities and infrastructure – but also damage to complex groundwater systems, ecosystems and our ability to recharge sources.
As the population grows, world agriculture will need to produce 50-60 per cent more food globally, and to do so means that reliance on groundwater pumping will increase. Without sustainable management, a groundwater crisis is inevitable.
The case for change is more urgent given that climate change has become a “risk multiplier,” according to a UN human rights expert1 for impacts on human rights. Urgent, proactive action, all over the world, is necessary to avoid disruption and even disaster.
The climate change accelerator
The latest IPCC report re-emphasized that the frequency and intensity of all extreme weather events, including droughts, has been increasing – and these climate hazards and contamination risks will continue to compound if we are unable to limit global temperature rise.
The impacts of these risks are already testing the resilience of vulnerable communities where water quality is an issue, for example remote or underserved populations such as many Indigenous communities.
Effective water management is becoming a priority for these at-risk areas, but we need to work more proactively to embed this approach in less at-risk areas before scarcity becomes a distinct possibility.
We are already seeing the effects of increasing occurrence of drought in arid areas such as California. Many underground aquifers in California’s Central Valley have been identified as critically over-drawn basins. Alarmingly, NASA scientists are projecting that some basins could run out of groundwater as early as the 2030s.
We can’t afford to wait for this to happen. To effectively change our course, we need to act now and use strategic and adaptive planning approaches widely, to manage what we do have more effectively and to minimize the investments we will inevitably have to make to prevent a crisis from becoming a reality.
A future of integration
Policymakers and industry will need to work hand-in-hand with industry and communities to integrate water recycling and groundwater replenishment strategies that work for all. An Integrated Water Management (IWM) approach allows us to consider the entire water cycle, identify a mix of solutions and ensure we are bringing maximum benefit at an affordable cost to both consumers and commercial water users.
This approach could deliver resilience and sustainability across our water systems and especially help communities meet the challenge of unsustainably depleting groundwater resources in an equitable manner. Prioritizing integration of groundwater and surface water regulation and management; and selecting projects that address both community and utility goals, are two potentially effective approaches.
We are also looking for pathways to leverage data, innovation and modern technologies for continuous future-proofing efforts. Some ways in which utilities and governments can do this include using GIS mapping processes, and digital tracking systems to increase understanding and capability of groundwater systems to stop depletion and degradation, at the same time paying careful attention to quality. Utilities can now view the performance of their assets in real-time – enabling fast action and forward planning – via a fleet of devices connected to utility infrastructure.
The future of water
The effective, holistic management of all water resources, including groundwater, means starting to plan before a crisis occurs. We need to move from a reactive approach to a proactive one. We can no longer use 20th century tools and approaches to solve 21st century challenges.
We must test, diversify and invest if we are to avoid the future economic and social implications of water shortages on a global scale.
Reliable data is providing the foundation for decision-making. With this in mind, we progress frameworks that enable adaptive responses to a wider range of possible futures. This accelerates effective, holistic management of water resources without compromising future generations and places water utilities and organizations in a far better position to make decisions.
In this way, addressing groundwater management is incorporated within the wider context and integrated into a sustainable water system – a system that will allow us to generate more economic value from the water we use and address future stressors such as climate change. Ultimately, promoting and protecting the well-being of the environment and communities in which we all live.
GHD is a global professional services company that leads through engineering and architectural skills and experience. GHD’s approaches connect and sustain communities around the world. Delivering social and economic outcomes, GHD is focused on building lasting relationships with its partners and clients. The firm was established in 1928 and remains wholly owned by its 10,000+ diverse and skilled employees, connected by more than 200 offices, across five continents – Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America, and the Pacific region.
Don Holland has more than 20 years of experience in wastewater process engineering, conveyance, organics management, construction management, and project management. With a diverse technical background, he has been involved in several projects as a project director, senior process design engineer, and quality assurance (QA) manager. He also brings experience as a project engineer (predominantly process design and controls) for design, and as a resident engineer for construction projects, at numerous treatment plants across Canada, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia.
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