Groundwater, key to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Webinar opening note by: Prof. David Kreamer, President of IAH

Opening note by Prof. David Kreamer, President of IAH at the webinar on: Groundwater, key to the Sustainable Development Goals (27/05/2021) 

Prof. David Kreamer (IAH)

"The need for having sustainable groundwater is a key element in global resilience to climate change, as a shield against ecosystem loss, and as a defense against human deprivation and poverty. Groundwater is the underpinning of irrigated agriculture and energy production. It therefore supports food security and economic development. It is essential to the health of all living things. Groundwater provides drinking water to at least 50% of the global population, and worldwide, approximately 2.5 billion people depend solely on groundwater resources to satisfy their basic daily water needs (UNESCO, 2012). In these times of Covid-19, groundwater promotes hand washing in isolated rural communities.

But there is a lack of information on groundwater. Groundwater is a hidden and vulnerable resource and is not physically visible, which can make it difficult for the general population and decision-makers to connect up with the challenges affecting this resource. Appreciation of groundwater is not taught in elementary schools. Many university programs do not have hydrogeology courses in their undergraduate curricula. Many people do not know that surface water and groundwater are closely connected, that pollution of one can pollute the other, that rivers and lakes derive water from underground baseflow. Many decision makers do not know that, in drylands, slight changes in groundwater levels, due to over-pumping or climate change, can diminish or eradicate springs and wells. To paraphrase the words of Gil Stern,

“Humans are complex beings; they make deserts bloom – and springs and ecosystems die.”

Many of these vulnerable wells, springs and wetlands have been hydro-refugia and depended on, for millennia by both people and groundwater dependent ecosystems. Many people do not know that an estimated 20% of the world’s aquifers being over-exploited (Gleeson et al., 2012), leading to serious consequences such as land subsidence and saltwater intrusion (USGS, 2013). Saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers due to rising sea-levels has been called the leading edge of climate change. 

But groundwater, wells and springs are more than this. They are more than our present-day challenges. We don’t often speak about how groundwater is linked with us in fundamental ways. This subsurface treasure is intertwined with human history, conflict, religion, art, music, in many cultures. It has inspired poetry and embodies verdant byways in the most inhospitable deserts of the world and of the human spirit.

Castalian Spring near Delphi

Groundwater is much more than our present-day challenges. In ancient Greece, visitors typically stopped at the Castalian Spring near Delphi, which rests in a narrow valley between the “shining” cliffs near the Temple of Apollo. Roman poets traveled great distances to receive inspiration at the spring, as did the contestants in the precursors to the modern Olympic Games, the Pythian Games.

Atacama desert in bloom

In the Americas groundwater is precious and valued by many. In the Atacama Desert in South America, the driest desert on earth, wells and wetlands help unlock secrets of paleoclimate while serving as a valuable resource for people and ecosystems alike. Ancient and modern-day Native Americans regard springs as central to their religious beliefs and practices. In the Grand Canyon of the southwest United States, Blue Spring issues into the little Colorado River. The Hopi Native American Tribe considers the nearby Sipapu the place where humans first emerged from the earth. In the arctic regions of the far north American continent, the Inuit community one of the first nations in the Nunavit province of Canada are seeing their frozen groundwater – permafrost – melt with the onslaught of climate change – filling underground tunnels historically used for refrigeration with meltwater and causing houses to sink. 

But groundwater is interwoven with life in many other ancient ways and traditions. It is sustenance. For example, in Australian deserts the Aboriginal peoples would scoop out the sand or mud, often to a depth of several metres, until clean water gathered in the base of the hole.

Wadi Bani Khalid in Oman

Groundwater-fed springs, oases and wadis often function as keystone ecosystems playing disproportionally large roles providing essential water, food, and habitat resources for large numbers of invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and some mammals.  

Groundwater advancements are linked with our history. In the First Century B.C. Han Dynasty salt miners in China were the first to build churn drills with cast iron bits to dig holes as deep as 1,500 meters into the Earth in search of brine. In Europe because of a lack of contact with China, percussion drilling methods were developed separately – in Flanders in 1100 AD, and a few decades later in eastern England and northern Italy.

Qanat Boshrouyeh in Iran

Kanats, which are long underground tunnels that collect groundwater, were dug as much as 2500 years ago in Iran and are still used today. Kanat diggers were the most exalted members and heroes of their communities because their work was so dangerous and essential. 

Roman aqueduct systems were built over a period of about 500 years, from about 300 B.C to conduct groundwater from springs to towns and villages. Sheik Abu Raihan al-Biruni from the 10th century was a brilliant Iranian philosopher and scientist who wrote about artesian water among his many other accomplishments. 

Roman aqueduct in Tarragona, Spain

But groundwater is also infused in the darker sides of human history. Wells, springs and wetlands have served as focal points of hostilities, national ambition and war, as both an object of conflict, and a strategic tool. For example, Gihon Spring outside the walls of what was to become the city of Jerusalem were stopped up to impede the advance of Assyrians were advancing in 701 BC. In another example, during the Crusades in mid-summer of 1187 AD, Muslim forces were approached by an army of Crusaders at the Horns of Hattin (near Tiberias in present day Israel) having been lured away from springs and wells. When the thirsty Crusaders set out at mid-day, the Muslim leader Saladin ordered two wings of his army to take the springs and wells and cut off the retreat and water source of the advancing army. The Crusaders veered toward the springs of Hattin, and they were met and stopped in fierce battle. Throughout history wells and springs have been poisoned, isolated and destroyed to advance military objectives. 

Gihon Spring

Providing groundwater of quality has been a constant challenge throughout human history and persists today. With worldwide mortality attributed to lack of clean drinking water approximated at roughly 3.4 million preventable deaths per year, saline water being a historical impediment to the development of agriculture, deep wells being used to inject waste liquids into the ground, and natural high background concentrations of arsenic and fluoride threatening many communities, there is much to do. Europe’s present but persistent groundwater challenge is high concentrations of nitrates, and many emerging contaminants are being now being recognized for the first time such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

So where are we today and how does this inhibit our advancement toward realisation of Sustainable Development goal 6?

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The lack of systematic communication and data information on groundwater is one of the most significant impediments to its sound management and governance. For example, our information on Sustainable Development Goal 6.5.2 Transboundary Water Cooperation, shows that there are few agreements and international understanding on the management of transboundary aquifers, as contrasted to progress made on surface water. There are over 150 countries with transboundary groundwater systems. This lack of groundwater progress does not support future international stability.

There is a lack of investment in the sector, and without basic studies, it is impossible to know the role that groundwater plays for society and the environment, and lack of data to support, informed, evidence-based decision making. Huge data gaps exist for both groundwater quantity and quality.

So, it is up to us, groundwater professionals, with a long and storied history of moving the world forward, to step up to our challenges. The Sustainable Development Goals set a framework for this advancement. My time is up. We have many great speakers in this important meeting so I will end and take the advice from American cowboy humorist Will Rogers when he said, Never miss a good chance to shut up."