Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Groundwater Sustainability

Professor Paul Younger, Director of the Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability, recently gave a lecture at the Geological Society of London (available here) in which he spoke on the sustainability of groundwater in a changing world. All of us, whether residents of the UK, Europe, or the rest of the world will be and have already been affected by the impacts of a changing world on our water supplies. Factors such as urbanisation, agriculture and forestry changes have resulted in many changes, at many scales.

However, as with many challenges, it is the world's poorest that will be affected most by changes in groundwater by both natural and anthropogenic causes. Professor Younger highlighted the case of small-scale farmers in India who were dependent on their small-scale, shallow handpumped wells for water. As a result of corporations drilling and machine-pumping water out of large, deep boreholes for irrigation purposes (and the Indian government stating that they will receive free electricity as it is for the noble purpose of irrigation!) the small-scale farmers have found that their wells simply don't penetrate the water table anymore.

Small Handpump (Tanzania)
This contrasts sharply with the definition of sustainability set out by Professor Younger - "Enough, for all, forever." This large-scale groundwater abstraction for irrigation has resulted in 'not enough, for the poorest, for the foreseeable future.' In the case highlighted above it is clear that either (i) geologists working on the project did not consider the effect on the small-scale handpumps; or (ii) geologists understood the impact it would have on them and ignored it or were told to ignore it by those contracting them. This combination of poor government policy, corporation greed and either an inadequate or irresponsible hydrogeological survey is desperately sad. 

Irrigation in many cases is necessary and can help subsistence farmers to survive and increase their income, and yet there are far more water-efficient and sustainable ways to irrigate crops. National Geographic, this week, highlighted the expansion of drip irrigation around the world. This method aims to direct water to each crop, thus reducing waste. 

It is essential that the geoscience community, whether working for a large multinational consultancy or undertaking a small-scale community project, takes the time to properly address the multiple users of water supplies within a given area - and considers the impact of any rapid or gradual anthropogenic changes to groundwater on these multiple stakeholders.