Recognition of Groundwater Problems

There is a large gap in the level of information and documentation of the national and subnational state of groundwater between developed and developing countries (see van der Gun, Chapter 16, this volume). Furthermore, literature from developing or transition countries is more often in local languages as in China and Latin America (see Wang et al., Chapter 3; and Ballestero et al.,Chapter 6, this volume) or in the grey literature as in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America (see Masiyandima and Giordano, Chapter 5; and Ballestero et al., Chapter 6, this volume), impeding general access to it. Nevertheless, literature on groundwater problems around the world is increasingly reflecting the general upward trend in use and its impacts. Rather than repeating these here, a reference to summary papers is given which covers both developed and developing countries (Burke and Moench, 2000; Danielopol et al., 2003; FAO, 2003; Llamas and Custodio, 2003; Moench et al., 2003; Morris et al., 2003; Moench and Dixit, 2004; Shah et al., 2006; see also the five regional chapters in this volume).

Most of the scientific community agrees that there is a problem with present-day groundwater use in many regions around the world, basically because of the way the groundwater resource itself, the environment and poor segments of the societies, especially in developing countries, are adversely affected. The latter refers to the inability of poor or disadvantaged people, in general, to cope with degradation of natural resources, both because they are often more directly dependent on them for their livelihood and because they are less capable of adapting to the increased competition for the resources and are most often left with poor access to poor-quality water, even for their basic needs.

It is interesting to consider the fact that intensive groundwater use over just one generation, or essentially the last 3-4 decades, has drawn down underground water resources to an unprecedented level in human history, and there is no likelihood that water management in the future will make it possible to revert to earlier levels, or even maintain status quo. Basically, this blue underground treasure, which is only partially replenishable, is permanently lost and with it, valuable wet ecosystems as well as an important buffer capacity against droughts. Again this impact strikes harder in already marginal and resource-stressed areas and regions of the world where poor people already tend to accumulate.

Groundwater pumping most often occurs in an uncontrolled and indiscriminate manner, be it in developed or developing countries. Entitlement to groundwater is most often associated with access to land and financial resources (for drilling and pumping costs) more than formal rights and regulations to the resource itself. This can result in the classic 'tragedy of the commons' problem often associated with groundwater, but also misuse from other perspectives. For example, high-quality groundwater might be used for agriculture while poor people seek drinking water supplies from contaminated surface sources.

Despite the recognition of the problems associated with intensive groundwater use in many countries among the scientific community, there may not be the same consonance regarding the groundwater problems among decision makers and actual groundwater users, and even then it may be very difficult to reach agreement on primary problems, root causes and key issues responsible for the problems,1 let alone the remediation measures to put in place. This clearly illustrates that the management of groundwater needs to consider the whole spectrum of users as well as direct and indirect stakeholders, including the 'silent' or subordinate users, namely the environment and the disadvantaged groups of society (often represented only through international environmental organizations, e.g. IUCN, WWF and Ramsar, or local or national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) ). It also illustrates that knowledge of the processes and the cause-effect relationships are required at all levels, as well as participation, communication and negotiation.

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