The economic effects are huge. Take Australia, for instance, where an estimated A$11 billion of economic activity is contributed annually to the economy by groundwater use in agriculture alone.
Poor management and over-exploitation by farmers, households, and industry have resulted in over-extended groundwater aquifers which are pushed beyond the point that they can be replenished. In the US for example, the High Plains aquifer, which irrigates more than 20% of American cropland, faces 70% depletion in 50 years.
Groundwater depletion subsequently leads to other serious environmental effects, such as disruption of wetlands, salinisation of surrounding land, and actual land collapse into emptied aquifers.
Drying Wells, Rising Stakes: Towards Sustainable Agricultural Groundwater Use reports on the threats to groundwater, and implications for future fresh water access. Groundwater is an accessible, reliable, and, so far at least, largely pollution-free source of water. It is seen as a safety net for the future, as surface water increasingly falls short of filling our water needs. The UN even has a programme in parts of Africa to drill for new aquifers. However, droughts, pollution, increased demand from exploding population growth, and potentially fracking put the sustainability of groundwater into question.
Drying wells, Rising Stakes proposes a three-part plan for policies to implement better management of groundwater usage, in particular for agricultural crop production, based on regulatory frameworks, economic instruments and collective management programmes.
©OECD Observer No 304, November 2015
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