Down the drain

The world’s aquifers need a long-term plan for pro­tec­tion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

WHEN RIVERS, streams and reser­voirs are low, as they are in Cal­i­for­nia, peo­ple start dig­ging holes. Large, un­seen pools of wa­ter are trapped in the spongy rock and soil of the world’s aquifers, some­times fairly close to the sur­face, some­times deep un­der­ground. Tapped ground­wa­ter can save com­mu­ni­ties from eco­nomic or hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe. But in too many places, hu­mans are de­plet­ing this cru­cial re­serve, just as cli­mate change be­gins tak­ing its toll.

A NASA study re­leased last week pro­vides au­thor­i­ta­tive es­ti­mates of the state of 37 ma­jor aquifers around the globe. Us­ing satel­lites that mea­sured mi­nor vari­a­tions in the earth’s grav­i­ta­tional pull be­tween 2003 and 2013, re­searchers found that 21 of these aquifers are be­ing run down.

A hand­ful of mas­sive aquifers in Africa, the Mid­dle East and Cen­tral Asia were worst off, see­ing lit­tle to no re­fill­ing to off­set with­drawals over the decade of study. The Ara­bian Aquifer Sys­tem and the In­dus Basin were par­tic­u­larly trou­bled. But Western coun­tries haven’t done a great job of aquifer man­age­ment, ei­ther. Min­ers in Aus­tralia’s Can­ning Basin and farm­ers in Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Val­ley are tap­ping ground­wa­ter re­sources at un­sus­tain­able rates. Ground­wa­ter al­ready ac­counts for more than half of Cal­i­for­nia’s wa­ter use, a pro­por­tion that may well con­tinue to rise.

In wealthy coun­tries with well-de­vel­oped gov­ern­ing in­sti­tu­tions, there’s sim­ply no ex­cuse for fail­ing to take care of this vi­tal re­source. The best way to pro­mote ra­tio­nal con­sump­tion is to end gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies, ex­plicit or im­plicit, for overus­ing wa­ter, par­tic­u­larly in dry ar­eas, then to es­tab­lish func­tion­ing, trans­par­ent and ef­fi­cient mar­kets for sur­face wa­ter and ground­wa­ter alike. Yet places such as Cal­i­for­nia still op­er­ate on a sys­tem of con­fus­ing his­tor­i­cal wa­ter rights and claims that aren’t con­ducive to con­ser­va­tion or to get­ting wa­ter where it’s most needed. The state is fi­nally start­ing to reg­u­late ground­wa­ter, but its lead­ers should aim for fun­da­men­tal re­form.

The chal­lenge is harder in poorer parts of the world, where his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural claims to ground­wa­ter are also of­ten strong but economies are less di­verse and in­sti­tu­tions are weaker. In the long term, the so­lu­tion is sim­i­lar to that in de­vel­oped na­tions: Re­move ir­ra­tional in­cen­tives to overuse or in­ef­fi­ciently di­vert wa­ter, then build trans­par­ent mar­kets that force peo­ple to ac­count for the full costs of the re­sources they use. In the short term, tran­si­tion costs might be high and po­lit­i­cal forces in­ca­pable of mak­ing such a leap.

Ac­cord­ing to J.S. Famigli­etti, the au­thor of the NASA study, the first thing to do is es­tab­lish the size of ground­wa­ter re­serves, in a process akin to es­ti­mat­ing subter­ranean oil re­serves, so that peo­ple know how much is left. From there should come ef­fec­tive mon­i­tor­ing of ground­wa­ter use, pin­point­ing who’s tak­ing how much and for what pur­pose. This in­for­ma­tion will make it eas­ier to iden­tify op­por­tu­ni­ties to use wa­ter more ef­fi­ciently, par­tic­u­larly in agri­cul­ture, with­out sud­denly push­ing large num­bers of peo­ple out of agri­cul­tural work. Along the way, eco­nomic growth will di­ver­sify em­ploy­ment and re­duce op­po­si­tion to broader re­form, a 2003 United Na­tions re­port notes, and in­sti­tu­tions might strengthen enough to ef­fect broader re­form.

Many peo­ple didn’t need satel­lites to know that aquifers are in trou­ble. They are drilling deeper and deeper for ground­wa­ter. The poor can’t af­ford to con­struct ever-deeper wells, so they will be out of the game in stressed ar­eas. Gov­ern­ments can­not ig­nore this is­sue for long.

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