Unlocking potential of groundwater can provide water security, boost economy: UN

India is the largest groundwater user globally, finds UN report

By Shagun
Published: Monday 21 March 2022
Unlocking potential of groundwater can provide water security, boost economy: UN Photo: iStock

The United Nations advocated finding ways to unlock the potential of groundwater in providing water security, in its latest edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report. The intergovernmental organisation called for governments to build sustainable models to harness the potential of groundwater. 

The quality of groundwater is generally good, which means it can be used safely and affordably, without requiring advanced levels of treatment, the report released March 21, 2022 noted. “Thus, often it is the most cost-effective way of providing a secure supply of water to rural villages.”

India is the largest groundwater-user globally, at an estimated 251 cubic kilometres per year, followed by China and Pakistan, according to the report.

The groundwater potential can be used sustainably by investments in infrastructure, institutions, trained professionals and knowledge of the resource. “The development of groundwater could act as a catalyst for economic growth by increasing the extent of irrigated areas and therefore, improving agricultural yields and crop diversity,” it said. 

For unlocking groundwater’s full potential, the report recommends a few pointers: 

  • Collecting groundwater data as groundwater monitoring is often a ‘neglected area’
  • Strengthening environmental regulations for groundwater pollution
  • Reinforcing human, material and financial resources by way of increasing groundwater professionals among the staff of institutions as well as local and national government
  • Financing and supporting groundwater departments or agencies. 

“Improving the way we use and manage groundwater is an urgent priority if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030,” said Gilbert F Houngbo, chair of UN-Water and president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. 

As many as eight of the 10 countries with the highest shares of global groundwater withdrawal volume are in Asia and two in North America (United States and Mexico).

These 10 countries account for 75 per cent of the total groundwater use. The other Asian countries in the list are Iran, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. 

India uses 89 per cent of the total groundwater abstracted per year for agriculture — also the highest in the world. Globally, 69 per cent of the total volume is abstracted for use in the agricultural sector, 22 per cent for domestic uses and 9 per cent for industrial purposes, the report showed.

The report Groundwater: Making the invisible visible highlighted that groundwater depletion has led to concerns over the sustainability of its usage in different areas across South Asia, Central Asia, China and certain urban centres in Southeast Asia. It said:  

Unabated groundwater depletion in agricultural areas is becoming an issue of increasing concern regionally and globally as it threatens to undermine food security, basic water supply, environmental integrity and climate resilience. This vexing issue sees limited progress, requiring increased management and governance capacity at multiple integrated levels and in intersectoral approaches.

The report also covered virtual water embedded in crop products and their global redistribution via international trade. It has become critical to understand and manage sustainable water abstraction levels globally, the paper added.

“It is estimated that about 11 per cent (or 25 km³ / year) global groundwater depletion is embedded in international crop trade, supporting food security and economic growth, but also significantly contributing to large-scale depletion of aquifers overlaid by productive land,” it said. 

Wheat, maize, rice, sugarcane, cotton and fodder are the principal crops contributing to groundwater depletion. These crops are heavily traded, indicating highly unsustainable water footprints from intensive export. Five countries account for about 70 per cent of the unsustainable water footprint: China, India, Iran, Pakistan and US. 

Managing groundwater

Groundwater presently provides half the volume of water withdrawn for domestic use by the global population. This includes drinking water for the vast majority of the rural population who do not get their water delivered to them via public or private supply systems, as well as around 25 per cent of all water used for irrigation. 

Managing groundwater is all the more necessary because globally, water use is projected to grow by roughly one per cent every year over the next 30 years and the world’s overall dependence on groundwater is expected to rise as surface water availability becomes increasingly limited due to climate change.

The authors called on United States to commit themselves to developing adequate and effective groundwater management and governance policies in order to address current and future water crises throughout the globe. 

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