Challenges to Groundwater Management

The fact that groundwater use continues to grow on a global scale, only occasionally levelling off as a reactive rather than proactive response to perceived severe impacts in some areas, portends poorly for the overriding question, as raised in the introduction, of whether groundwater can be managed.

In developing countries, farmers make up the majority of the population. When their livelihoods, and sometimes their very lives, depend on groundwater, they understandably resist uncompensated measures to curtail use. In developed countries, though the number of groundwater-using farmers is lower, the continued operation of their farms, and the value of their often substantial investments, can sometimes only be maintained if the groundwater continues to flow. From another perspective, groundwater can fall within broader political agendas, making efforts to manage use secondary to other concerns, such as supporting a certain population or political group irrespective of obvious natural resource encroachments (see Allan, Chapter 4, this volume). To various degrees in each of these cases, the social and political will as well as the economic backing for effective groundwater management may not be in place.

As an alternative to direct management, water-saving irrigation techniques have been promoted to improve food production per unit of water input, but it is questionable whether such approaches significantly reduce stress on groundwater resources. This is because such methods are often associated with the shift to more intensive cultivation, using more water-intensive crops, higher levels of chemical input and better soil-conservation techniques. So crop yields increase per area under cultivation and per water input. But overall, groundwater use may have actually increased because of the intensification. The fundamental problem of how to feed an ever-increasing global population while at the same time maintaining or even decreasing the water requirements is one that puzzles planners as well as scientists (Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture Synthesis Report, forthcoming 2006).

In a sense, much wealth creation and poverty reduction has been derived on a loan that will never be directly paid back. There is a danger that the poverty-reducing potential of groundwater will be lost, making societies more vulnerable to climate changes and extreme events. There is a major challenge in securing basic water needs to people in developing countries who depended to a large extent on sustain-ably replenished shallow wells that are now out of reach. The primordial role of drinking water needs to ensured, for example, by having deep, protected wells for drinking and shallow wells for irrigation (and not the other way around as is often the case today in rural areas), or by zoning of areas with precedence for drinking water.

The link between groundwater use in agriculture and for urban areas is also becoming increasingly apparent and needs much more research and management focus. Realizing that irrigation generally poses less strict requirements on water quality compared to urban use (for domestic and industrial uses) obviously suggests prioritizing urban water use and making irrigated agriculture the second in line in a cycle of water reuse. The challenge in many cases becomes one of sending treated wastewater back upstream in the catchment as irrigation areas are often upstream while cities are located downstream along rivers or in coastal areas. Obviously, this is a complex and costly intervention, but one that can be further explored when economic and socio-economic conditions are right (see Turral and Fullagar, Chapter 15, this volume, for an example from Australia).

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