Overview shot of natural spring in Croatia
Photo credit: Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock

As much as 97 percent of the world’s water is underground – this “groundwater” originates from rain, melting ice, and snow which has soaked into the soil and is stored in the pores and cracks between sand, rocks, and soil particles. Hidden under our feet, this source of water is unfortunately often overlooked and abused. To increase attention to this valuable source of water, the United Nations has declared 2022 the Year of Groundwater. A new report on the subject - Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible - is being released at the World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal.

While groundwater is not visible to the eye, its value is essential for people, development, and nature. Groundwater is often the only source of water in rural areas. Already about 50 percent of water for human consumption, 40 percent of irrigated land, and half of the world’s urban population is directly dependent on groundwater for daily life.

With increasing climate variability and change, it is also critical for resilience as an underground reservoir of freshwater and a source of water that can aid to buffer the effects of droughts and floods. Good access to groundwater is also critically important for public health. As we now have entered the third year of the global COVID pandemic it is also clear how essential clean water is to health and hygiene. It remains a sad reality that more than 2 billion people around the globe lack access to safely managed drinking water services and more than 4 billion do not have safely managed sanitation services, based on WHO and UNICEF estimates.

Groundwater is not visible in more than one dimension. When asked “who knows where their water is coming from?,” people tend to be unsure and the answer would rarely be “groundwater.” Yet for example in Germany, where I am from, roughly 70 percent of drinking water is derived from groundwater. The lack of public awareness about this source of life and sustenance is something we need to address.

Being “hidden” also results in the governance of groundwater lagging far behind that of rivers and lakes; even the ownership of groundwater is often unclear, and access is all too often not separated from the land that it is under. This provides few incentives to private land owners to think beyond the borders of their land. And even where groundwater is a public good, and permits for pumping are needed, these are difficult to monitor and enforce. Additionally, policies across sectors unintentionally lead to overuse of the resource, such as through subsidized energy which does not incorporate the costs of pumping and water use into food or other products. It is time to “make the invisible visible” in physical, social, developmental, and environmental terms and give good water management the prominence it needs. 

Another consideration is the lack of data about groundwater. It is often complex to assess how much water is actually available, or to flag when users are collectively withdrawing too much. This over-use will over time result in wells running dry, wetlands vanishing, crops failing, and river flows and connected groundwater sources waning. The impacts of groundwater uses are also felt across borders. There are vast amounts of water stored in transboundary groundwater “aquifers” whose use needs to be coordinated between countries and for sustainability in the long run.

Still, even groundwater is not always the clean and clear source of a spring we envision. With increasing amounts of fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture, growing industries, and expanding cities, there are creeping threats to this water source in the form of pollution. For example, groundwater levels of nitrate, originating from fertilizers, are increasing and pose a threat to human health and ecosystems even in countries with well-resourced institutions. High levels of nitrate are especially dangerous to infants, causing Blue Baby Syndrome as well as other ailments. Nitrate is only one of the many widespread sources of naturally occurring and anthropogenic sub-surface contaminants which are increasingly being detected in groundwater – others including salinization, pollution from pesticides, fracking fluids, and even residual pharmaceuticals from human and livestock uses. Groundwater pollution is an especially urgent challenge because the clean-up of groundwater and soil is very slow and very expensive, and almost never returns the subsurface to pristine conditions. Yet in most countries, there are no quality standards for instance regarding pharmaceuticals in groundwater and drinking water, and limited capacities for meaningful sampling and analysis of many contaminants often do not exist.

The good news? Consistent policies across agriculture, energy, and other industries can create incentives across sectors to use water efficiently and prevent its contamination. At the Global Environment Facility, we are taking such a systems approach and working across sectors to address challenges to water and ecosystems and supporting countries to balance water needs across food, urban, energy systems and production and consumption of goods and services. Specifically with regard to groundwater, the GEF international waters program is bringing together countries with a structured approach to support cooperation on the management of water flowing underground from one country to another.

The international waters focal area is also helping countries tackle the assessment of and cooperation on transboundary ground and surface waters as well as shared marine systems. To do so, the GEF provides regional level grants to enable countries to work together with their neighbors in a structured approach to build trust and foster transboundary cooperation. For example, GEF-supported projects enabled the transboundary agreement on the Guarani aquifer between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay; are supporting shared groundwater challenges in Small Island Developing States; and in dry regions in southern Africa, such as through the SADC Groundwater Management Institute (SADC-GMI) and with community level investments. The GEF International Waters Learning network IW:Learn provides an overview and access to details of GEF-supported transboundary waters projects since the GEF’s inception. To date, the GEF has provided more than $900 million in grant financing for projects in 62 transboundary rivers, 15 transboundary aquifers, and 16 shared lakes straddling two or more countries.  By continuing this support to countries in the next GEF funding cycle and working with implementing agencies and other development partners, we aim to work to protect groundwater from overuse and pollution, and maintain this “invisible” but critically important resource for future generations. 

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