Equity considerations

Especially in areas with relatively shallow aquifers, groundwater is a very equitable resource. For instance, the expansion of the treadle pump in India and Bangladesh in recent years shows that low-income farmers can benefit from easy access to groundwater and increase their productivity and economic well-being (Shah et al., 2000). In large areas of Africa and South Asia, people dig their own shallow wells or are able to invest in relatively shallow boreholes.

However, when many people do the same in a given area, the many incremental uses can eventually lead to the negative impacts of overabstraction mentioned earlier and reverse the equity effect that originally existed. The first groundwater users who have to abandon their wells as groundwater levels sink can be expected to be the poor who do not have the financial resources to afford pumping water from increasing depths, or to invest in new wells. They are also the first to be hit if their wells turn saline or when their domestic well runs dry or gets polluted. As a consequence, they may have to abandon farming, turn to the city to seek their livelihood or - if they are urban dwellers - start purchasing more expensive water from private vendors (given that the public water supply system frequently does not reach the poor). Even the somewhat richer farmers may experience serious indebtedness if they overinvest to chase a falling water table in shallow aquifers - since their wells are unlikely to generate sufficient income to meet the interest on their loans.

While development efforts and the literature have focused on the access to groundwater and the potential benefits of its use as an equity issue (Kahnert and Levine, 1993), an increasing number of overexploitation and pollution scenarios are now entering the global groundwater agenda. Unfortunately, up to now very few studies have been carried out with regard to the equity impacts of groundwater overexploitation. Such research should provide clues on the costs and benefits of groundwater management actions from a societal point of view. With the prevailing attitude among many groundwater developers that groundwater is a freely exploitable resource, it is always more complex to put simple management measures in place once problems have already arisen. By then vested interests have already developed among users (e.g. relating to amounts of water used and perceived as entitlements, or provision of access to privately developed wells for monitoring purposes) that may make it difficult to develop a clear picture of an aquifer's characteristics and to put in place measures such as monitoring and agreements for more efficient use of the resource. At the same time, groundwater management does entail costs to society and to the users, so a balance needs to be found between the cost of management investments compared to the benefits of long-term sustainability of groundwater use (Kemper, 2003).

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