Clean Groundwater Underpins the Developing World

by Michael G. Trefry and Islam-ul-Haque
Vol. 48, No. 2–GROUND WATER–March-April 2010

It is often said that water is life. However, as the global extent of groundwater contamination becomes clear, it may be more apt to say clean water is life. This message is stark, both in the positive and the negative, and nowhere more so than in developing nations where the majority of humanity lives. In such nations, the burgeoning population, especially in urban centers, relies upon fluctuating water resources with potable quality ranging from good to calamitous. As rivers and lakes are polluted or overutilized, groundwater reservoirs come under increasing pressure from abstraction and contamination. In developing nations, the need is clear for groundwater expertise to support public water supply.

Some examples are pertinent. In developing nations in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, central supplies are intermittent, if available at all, and are often supplemented by unregulated markets of private bore (well) operators and water carriers who supply untreated water. The lack of regulation often leads to overabstraction and to poor wellhead protection practices, so that wells become contaminated and resources are used beyond sustainable limits. Water scarcity in Central Africa has recently prompted rationing or cessation of central water supply and private bore owners are being asked to supply neighbors where possible.

The 2008 cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe shows how rapidly poor water management situations can worsen. In Asia, where urban centers commonly rely on both surface water and groundwater resources for water supplies, surface water is heavily contaminated by discharge of raw sewage and groundwater levels are dropping due to overabstraction. In the face of this, domestic production and storage of water is almost mandatory because of inadequate service from central water utilities.

Of course, in many cases of groundwater pollution, cause and effect is relatively well understood and it is tempting to leap to solutions well proven in developed nations where legisla­tive, regulatory, and societal structures are relatively stable and where the relevant scientific, engineering, and technical exper­tise is available. Access to capital in developed nations also tends to bias technical interventions and strategies in directions impractical for other nations. Imposing external technical solu­tions on communities has contributed to the demise of many well-intentioned international infrastructure initiatives in devel­oping nations.
Ready access to technical expertise alone is no guarantee of success. There is ample evidence that governmental and soci­etal factors are important to the acceptance and execution of technical strategies. 

Governmental structures can have blurred jurisdictional boundaries and overlapping responsibilities, mak­ing monitoring and regulation of water supply inefficient. Legal infrastructure may also be insufficient, resulting in water allo­cation, water rights rulings, and water infringement prosecu­tions being delayed, sometimes indefinitely. Societal instability may hamper investment programs and can lead to serious staff turnover in water agencies and utilities, with consequent loss of corporate memory, resources, and momentum. Finally, capital is often scarce, so many otherwise routine methods for improving groundwater and potable supply quality may be out of reach for some communities. In this kind of environment, development of optimal technical strategies must take social, governmental, and economic factors into account so that local needs and priorities are respected.
Situational complexity in itself may be important. For example, declining water tables in Chennai, India are likely to be most efficiently addressed not by regulating abstractions from the few centrally operated bores or by pricing interventions, but rather by encouraging domiciles to harvest rain water and recharge to groundwater, bypassing the sewerage stream. Experience from around the world shows that the efficient management of water resources in times of stress demands multiobjective approaches involving surface water, groundwater, and climatic and social drivers acting through both public water utilities and often incompatible private markets. Stakeholder involvement is crucial.

This century will see unprecedented growth in global urban population and water demand, but are our current groundwater skills up to the challenge? Centralized water management paradigms that work so well in developed nations may not be useful when addressing the complex water problems of the developing world. It is likely that the next generation of groundwater specialists will have to balance technical expertise with a new understanding of social and governmental context in order to maintain and improve the quality of life in our developing world. This is a great opportunity both to do new science and to save lives. 

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