How to make invisible groundwater visible

Sustainable vision is key to balancing current needs and future demands

By KAS Mani
Published: Tuesday 10 May 2022
The construction of a borewell in Delhi. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat / CSE

March 22 is celebrated as ‘World Water Day’ every year. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 gave this call. Since then, this day has been celebrated globally, adopting a new theme each year.

The theme chosen for 2022 was ‘Groundwater: Making the invisible visible’. The theme appealed to governments and stakeholders to diagnose current choices in critically over-drafted countries, regions, river basins while making allocations for ecosystem needs.  

Groundwater is not merely a liquid. It is about livelihood, food, health, nutrition, economy and well-being. There can be no separation between producers and consumers vis-à-vis groundwater as none remain untouched by it, thus making everyone responsible for its sustenance.

The role of groundwater in development has come a long way, beginning with livelihood, food security and health and extending to commerce, industry and sports.

The business of creating wealth from groundwater is founded on the concept of resource exploitation. However, regeneration comes at a price affecting the profit margins. As a result, the social and ecological aspect of resource sustainability is not worth risking.   

Small farmers who ensure India’s food security through groundwater irrigation, need the protection of their resources, livelihood and destruction for wealth creation.

Classifying groundwater use could be the most impactful action for commemorating this year’s theme. Primary groundwater use needs to be restricted to irrigation and health needs.

Commercial, industrial, and other wealth generation requirements can be met through secondary and tertiary water after recycling, treatment and reuse. Such a classification can reduce the demand substantially, while improving efficiency.

Bringing ‘visibility’ to the factors that cause groundwater distress and minimising its impact could be a takeaway from World Water Day.

Global groundwater demand has, over the years, acquired new dimensions. Advanced economies strategically preserve their groundwater resources within the aquifers by becoming net importers of virtual water. Countries like India are priding themselves as exporters of food and other products, which is virtual water export. 

Thus, the term ‘visibility’ has less to do with the reserve base and more to do with its strategic management.

Visibility is thus about improved decision-making skills, whether at the farm, household, industry or policy level. Co-opting all the stakeholders in seeing the big picture is a way to set better goals for meeting current and future needs

The theme also allows us to relook at the current development paradigm. It is the right time for a strategic course correction to take stock of deficiencies and realise the larger picture of the future of groundwater, more than what meets the eye.   

Groundwater interphase with climate change, environmental degradation, commercialisation and future generations’ rights is yet to appear on the management radar. We have an opportunity now to sensitise stakeholders and widen the context.  

Disregarding socio-environmental parameters in the equations linked to resource development has caused all projections to be flawed and policies to be ineffective. An effective strategy needs to be inclusive, with an adequate role for water users and local institutions.

Role of data

Data that has long been the entitlement of specialised agencies of the government. It needs to become transparent and the secrecy needs to be abolished. Data value is gaining attention primarily due to technology linked to smartphones, social platforms, online and real-time data access.  

The easiest way to improve data transparency is by disrupting the data gathering process and turning it upside down. Data gathering as a monopoly of technical agencies is constrained by personnel, infrastructure, delays with data analysis and reporting.

The time has come for water users to emerge as data providers. Thus, in one stroke, a dense monitoring network can emerge without any additional investment and unravel the hydrogeological system buried underneath.

Crowdsourcing of data with smartphone apps is a reality waiting to be adopted for groundwater data aggregation. In addition, big data analytics combined with AI allows real-time reporting as forecast.

Participatory monitoring based on digital technology shall help democratise information, usher in new knowledge and minimise abuse.

Multi-sectoral data gathering and technical parameters make the information more humane, with a focus on the socio-economic profile of the user, the nature of use, the economics linked to water use, environmental fallouts and sustainability concerns.  

Interrelationships between groundwater users and the ecosystem in which the groundwater resource is developed and managed do not find their reflection in policies.

Re-orientation of policies that confers responsibility on the users to be part of the repair, restoration and rejuvenation of the system needs consideration.  

The intersection of the human-nature relationship with food security, health, nutrition, economic growth needs to be clearly understood for addressing the limitations in the current management policies.

Groundwater education is a neglected area. Groundwater management tips for practitioners using digital media could help efficient use and minimise distress.

Behavioural change can help bring a new form of ‘visibility’ to the resource base and the associated crisis. Such a change will help people process, respond and share the existing understandings differently.

Most critically, it will be possible to reach a consensus on drivers that cause distress and develop a policy based on compassion for the marginalised and coming generations.

World Water Day will come with a new theme and new promises next year. However, between now and the coming year, the problems will not cease to continue, nor can the situation change radically. The only difference we can work towards is creating a form of governance.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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