WORLD WATER DAY 2022 – Why utilities should pay more attention to groundwater resources

Groundwater offers opportunities for water utilities to respond effectively and sustainably to rapid urban population growth and climate change

Every year since 1993, 22nd March is World Water Day, a day marked by a celebration of the vital resource with the objective to raise awareness of the 2 billion people without access to clean water. On this UN observance day, organizations worldwide engage by taking action to end the global water crisis. World Water Day 2022 is on the theme “Groundwater: making the invisible visible” and the focus is on getting stakeholders to take more notice of the importance of groundwater and the importance of sustainably managing this resource so that it is not depleted.

Groundwater accounts for 97% of freshwater globally and is an important resource all over the world. Around 2.5 billion people worldwide rely solely on groundwater for their daily drinking water needs and a large portion of the world live “off-grid” and self-supply from a self-dug borehole or well.

As water providers, many urban water utilities tap into groundwater whenever it is possible. As a resource, groundwater presents several advantages: it has better microbial quality than surface water and therefore often requires less treatment before it is consumed. In addition, aquifers, with their large natural groundwater storage, offer a potentially sustainable cost-effective option, reducing capital and operational costs.

Despite its numerous benefits, groundwater development for urban water utility use faces its own challenges.

Illegal use and exploitation, as well as the unplanned and lack of legal status of peri-urban settlements, often impede the provision of public infrastructure. Water utilities are reluctant to extend their piped networks because of anticipated high capital costs and low revenue collection.

Moreover, the natural resilience of groundwater reserves is vulnerable to climate change, involving a potential reduction in recharge rate and shallow aquifer storage.  Higher ambient temperatures could also lead to fewer but heavier rainfall events which could result in soil compaction with reduced infiltration.

In the context of rapid urban population growth and increased water scarcity due to water pollution and climate change, the need to manage groundwater sustainably can no longer be overlooked. Only by preserving this precious resource can we ensure access to clean water and sanitation for all.

Launched on 21st March 2022 at the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal, the World Water Development Report 2022 highlights four key messages in its Chapter 5 on the management of groundwater in urban contexts to assess the potential role of groundwater:

  1. Groundwater is a major source of water supply in both large urban centres and rural villages worldwide, and it must be protected. About half of the global population relies on this important resource for basic health and it underlies socioeconomic development, resilience to climate change, and healthy ecosystems.
  2. Groundwater is vulnerable to over-exploitation and pollution – which is irreversible – from agricultural and industrial practice and poor management of sanitation and wastewater. Climate change is exacerbating these threats to groundwater.
  3. There is a pressing need for urban groundwater studies to become a systematic component of urban development plans, both to prevent conflicts between public and private groundwater uses, and to avoid unexpected and costly environmental problems.
  4. There is an urgent need to promote active monitoring and collaboration on urban groundwater by main stakeholders: water utilities, environment agencies and municipal authorities, with the long-term support of academic research centres to improve the understanding of the groundwater resource.

Water utilities need to work with their peers and engage in discussions with key stakeholders, such as water-service regulators and financiers, to further explore and develop their role in improving groundwater conservation and management. The Water Operators’ Partnerships (WOPs) approach provides important opportunities to do so.

The Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA)’s main role is to act as a catalyst for these types of solidarity-based, not-for-profit peer-to-peer partnerships between operators with expertise and knowledge and those operators in need of support with a view to strengthen the capacity of utilities mandated to provide access to water and sanitation services.