Groundwater is not so well

OECD Observer

Freshwater is essential for life, yet makes up only a tiny fraction of all water on earth. In many areas, especially arid and dry regions, underground aquifers are the only source. Even in less arid regions, groundwater provides an essential resource: in fact, some 2.6 billion people worldwide rely on groundwater resources. Farming is one major reason: over 60% of irrigated agriculture in the US uses groundwater, and in Spain more than 70% of irrigation comes from below ground reserves.    

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 (2015), Drying Wells, Rising Stakes: Towards Sustainable Agricultural Groundwater Use, OECD  Studies on Water, OECD Publishing, Paris.  

See also: and

©OECD Observer No 304, November 2015


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