The 2022 United Nations World Water Development Report is titled, “Groundwater: Making the invisible visible”. The purpose of this year’s report is to shine a spotlight on groundwater and its specific roles, challenges, and opportunities in the context of water resources across the world.
Groundwater accounts for approximately 99% of all liquid freshwater on Earth and provides half of the water withdrawn for everyday use by the global population. Despite this, it is still an undervalued resource that is often mismanaged and abused. With the growing water scarcity crisis, organizations, individuals, communities, and governments will need to work together to ensure this critical resource is properly managed and protected to ensure long-term sustainability and survival.
Here’s what else you need to know about groundwater from the latest UN Water Report:
1. Policies Addressing Agriculture Are Much Needed
According to the report, agricultural pollution has overtaken contamination from settlements and industries as the major factor in the degradation of inland and coastal waters. The report also found evidence that suggests current laws and regulations to prevent or limit groundwater pollution from agriculture are generally weak.
As the global population continues to grow, so will our need to utilize groundwater resources for domestic and agricultural purposes. Without proper policies in place, this valuable resource is at risk of misuse, mismanagement, and abuse. Governments and institutions need to come together to create policies and regulations that will balance global need with responsible stewardship.
The report recommends governments create policies addressing water pollution in agriculture as part of an overarching agriculture and water policy framework at the national, river basin and aquifer scale. With these water systems being integrally connected, the policies implemented need to be comprehensive in scope to ensure proper monitoring and management across all water systems. These types of policies and regulations will help guide the sustainable use of this precious resource for future generations.
2. Climate Change Influences Groundwater
The impacts of climate change have multiple effects on groundwater resources. The intensification of precipitation is one observed, widespread impact. The report states that in areas with inadequate sanitation, heavy rainfall events can flush microbial pathogens and chemicals through shallow soils into groundwater.
Persistent contamination of groundwater can:
- Impact human health through increased spread of diseases and food supply contamination
- Diminish environmental quality through soil contamination and degradation of land quality
- Lead to water shortages which may become a factor causing conflicts among populations
The nitrate used in chemical and organic fertilizers is the most prevalent contaminant in groundwater globally. This type of pollution can be reduced with proper regulations and oversight of water users, agricultural and industrial runoff, and the use of land in aquifer recharge areas.
The report also recommends that countries develop water supplies that are resilient to climate change by managing groundwater resources conjunctively with rivers, lakes, and other surface water reservoirs. Organizations, institutions, and governments that take action to reduce the impacts of climate change on groundwater and surface water resources, and properly manage these resources, can reduce the risk of water shortages in their communities.
One of the first steps companies, communities, and governments can take is tracking and reporting on how groundwater and surface water resources are utilized and impacted. Comprehensive ESG reporting on water impact metrics provides these water users with the critical information needed to create action plans focused on sustainability and water stewardship.
3. Groundwater Monitoring Is Necessary
Dependence on groundwater is intensifying as demand grows with our increasing global population, such that nearly 50% of the global population today is estimated to be supplied from groundwater sources. Despite this, the report found there is a lack of groundwater data and monitoring initiatives.
Groundwater data and monitoring are needed to create policies and regulations around usage as well as provide a history of quantity and quality over time. This data is required by institutions, governments, and policymakers to learn about the behavior and state of aquifers, and to identify potential negative changes such as pollution, over-abstraction, and reduced recharge.
Currently, groundwater recharge is usually estimated rather than directly measured, which makes it difficult for institutions and governments to create accurate policies and regulations around the use of these resources.
The report recommends companies, institutions, and governments work together to implement groundwater monitoring and for private companies to disclose relevant data and information concerning water-related parameters that would improve groundwater assessment and management.
One example the report cited was the geophysical and borehole data acquired by the energy sector during oil and gas exploration. This data could improve knowledge of aquifer extent and parameters as well as improve the accuracy of area-specific groundwater assessments and scenario analyses.
With an estimated four billion people around the world living in areas that experience severe water scarcity for at least one month per year, comprehensive groundwater and surface water monitoring and reporting are needed to ensure their continued availability.
4. Groundwater Pollution Is Costly
In the USA, pesticide contamination of groundwater and excess nutrient load from fertilizers in freshwater are estimated to cost US$1.6–2 and US$1.5–2.2 billion per year, respectively. According to the report, the most sustainable and cost-effective approach to managing groundwater quality is to ensure its adequate protection, thus avoiding contamination. This can be achieved through:
- Vulnerability mapping
- Development of groundwater protection zones
- Land use planning
Groundwater monitoring is a wise investment despite being relatively expensive. By identifying problems before they happen, organizations, institutions, and governments can introduce mitigation measures before serious resource deterioration takes place. This can save the potential costs of pollution or contamination-related issues while simultaneously helping inform the sustainable use of water resources.
Both the private and public sectors can benefit from reducing groundwater pollution and contamination if they work together to create policies, regulations, and action plans focused on groundwater management, aquifer sustainability, and water stewardship.
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