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What is the future of ground water?

March 15, 2019  By Alfonso Rivera

Few people in Canada have thought more deeply about ground water than Dr. Alfonso Rivera, the Chief Hydrogeologist of the Geological Survey of Canada. Dr. Rivera shared with us his thoughts on the past, present and future of ground water.

“The problem of finding water for the needs of man is not new. What is new is the magnitude and extent of the acceleration of demand.” (International Hydrologic Decade-UNESCO, 1965-1974)

More than 40 years later, this axiom is today more relevant than ever.


This essay tells a brief story of time relative to hydrogeology with lessons from the past, what we are going through now and prospects for the future. All these are, of course, my own perspectives.


During my career that spans more than 35 years in five different countries, I have seen the science of hydrogeology developed from a purely physical science to a multidisciplinary science: a physical-chemical-social-political science.

That has obviously changed the context and the perception of how I see and how I react when I imagine and then carry out hydrogeological studies.

Here are the five most important lessons I’ve learned over the years as a hydrogeologist:

Lesson 1: Recognition that ground water constitutes the greatest resource of fresh water on Earth, mainly because aquifers have large storage capacity and offer protection against evaporation.
Lesson 2: Hydrogeology is a science of co-operation.
Lesson 3: Communication is essential at all levels: scientific (journals, books), management (decisions), political (we must feed and educate the elephant) and, more recently, social media (information and impact).
Lesson 4: Ground water is essential for water resources and food security, public health and socioeconomic well-being, as well as to maintaining the environment and ecosystems.
Lesson 5: The continuous adoption of themes and innovative research strategies (applied Earth observation) have substantially advanced the science of hydrogeology.


1. The assessment of aquifers and the construction of conceptual models are made independently, without links to the social and political needs.
2. Aquifer assessment, monitoring and flow models are still not integrated in the management of ground water resources.
3. Most governments take decisions based on political duration periods, regardless of the ground water time scale (much slower).
4. International co-operation on transboundary aquifers is still very poor.
5. In the American hemisphere, 24 countries adopt a common regional strategy for assessment and management of the transboundary aquifers of the Americas.
6. There is still a large gap of data, information and knowledge on aquifers and ground water in many countries.
7. Gravity measurement of the land mass by means of satellite images (GRACE) now allows for quantification of ground water storage changes in aquifers.
8. There are a large variety of codes and numerical models of ground water in the market, yet their implementation is far from being followed by monitoring programs and management based on the results of the models.
9. Continued overexploitation of ground water proves that this is a common resource subject to the classic tragedy of the commons.
10. Good governance of ground water is still lacking. There is a huge gap in public and private institutions dedicated to ground water, which does not allow a proper governance of this valuable resource.


My perspectives on the future of ground water are at the same time philosophical and quantitative: they are my best guesses based on common sense and my own experience.

1. Ground water will have a very important role to play in scenarios of changing climate and in Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) strategies.
2. Ground water will have an equally important role in poverty reduction and in the scope of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): SDG6 on drinking water and sanitation by 2030; and SDG6.2 on the implementation of water management integrated at all levels, including through cross-border co-operation when appropriate.
3. Knowledge gaps in ground water continue to exist in many countries around the world, leading to the lack of adequate policies on water and the uninformed management of ground water resources.
4. There will be greater investment in innovative technologies that will fill those gaps more quickly.
5. There will be more common awareness to improve the communication on ground water between society, scientist and government. This will indirectly influence society to pressure government to improve sector policies and to invest in acquisition of knowledge of ground water.
6. The increase in knowledge, communication and transparency will influence more concrete and efficient decision-making and management actions.
7. The notion of aquifers (geological boundaries) is slowly disappearing, and nested (multi-scale) ground water-flow systems are becoming the units of study.
8. Ground water databases around the world will be interoperable.


In science and technology:

1. Automatic update of conceptual models of aquifers. This could be done through the acquisition of in situ and in-laboratory analyses, and using environmental tracers to adjust the monitoring of ground water using a constellation of satellites.
2. Increase in the integrated water management practices with a set of satellite images and databases constantly updated, recoverable in real time and free of charge.
3. New innovative methodologies for estimating river flow using radar (RADARSAT) images developed; for example, Teledebit will be applied in the evaluation of rivers’ flow in places not measured with any hydrometric stations. These surface water flows could be linked to couple ground water-surface water models in real time.
4. SAR, or Synthetic Aperture Radar, is used to measure ground water levels and make measurements of subsidence in real time induced by pumping and monitored by satellite.
5. Use of GRACE-FO (gravity fields measured by follow-on GRACE mission) to calculate ground water storage changes in aquifers, recharge or discharge, combined with the use of quantitative indicators for ground water management.
6. Use of non-invasive Proton Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) methods that will allow us to directly access the hydrodynamic parameters of the aquifer.

These actions sound like science-fiction today, don’t they?

And, what about social and legal actions? In the social and legal areas:

1. Creation of a strong North-South partnership. A continuous and rapid growth of the population; trends in migration from the North (cold) to the South countries (warm).
2. Integration of models. Hydrogeological models will be integrated into economic and social models to create a unique model.
3. Telework and networking (conferences through the web) will increase and will become the normal way of working.
4. A “trialogue” for ground water will be created, that is, a dialogue between three groups of actors around ground water: government, society and science. This trialogue will create pressure among the three actors, as well as an increase in co-operation among them, resulting in better governance of ground water resources. As a result, a political drive will emerge to take action on ground water.

In brief and as a summary, we will need to identify the most critical technical-scientific, social and legal factors, as well as problems relating to science, society and the environment. These must be taken into consideration to quantify the amount of required ground water that is available in a sustainable way. Information acquired in real time with advanced technology, will be the backbone that supports any water management scenario, whether or not it includes climate change.

Alfonso Rivera, PhD, is the Chief Hydrogeologist of the Geological Survey of Canada and adjunct professor at the INRS-ETE, Université de Québec. Dr. Rivera is the editor and author of two books: Canada’s Groundwater Resources (2014) and Regional Strategy for the Assessment and Management of the Transboundary Aquifer Systems in the Americas (2015). He has published dozens of scientific articles in journals and more than 90 publications in conferences, symposia and forums where he participated around the world. Dr. Rivera provides scientific and technical advice to various institutions and governments in Canada and internationally.

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