UN: Protection of groundwater comes up short

Children in the Water
“Groundwater is central to poverty reduction, food and water security, job creation, socio-economic development and the resilience of societies and economies in the face of change.” (Source: IMAGO / Le Pictorium)

Yesterday, to mark World Water Day, UNESCO and the UN Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) have published reports on global water security. While UNESCO wants to draw attention to the global situation of groundwater, INWEH focuses on water security in Africa.

According to the report, there is hardly any water security in Africa. More than half a billion people in Africa live without secure access to water, UNU-INWEH announced on Monday at the start of the ninth World Water Forum in Senegal’s capital Dakar.

Despite the global Sustainable Development Goals, almost half of Africa’s 54 countries have made no progress on water security in the past three to five years, the report, “Water Security in Africa”, said. Even Africa’s five most water secure countries – Egypt, Botswana, Gabon, Mauritius and Tunisia – had “only modest levels of water security”. Somalia, Chad and Niger are the least water secure countries on the continent, according to the UN.

The “United Nations World Water Development Report” published by UNESCO describes, among other things, the problems of Europe and Asia in dealing with groundwater supplies, e.g. fertiliser components from agriculture endangering people’s health there.

The UN has a rather broad definition of water security. Among other things, it is about access to sufficient clean water, but also about ecological issues. Due to population and economic growth, water consumption worldwide will increase by one percent annually over the next 30 years. Changing consumption habits would also play a part in this. UNESCO is therefore calling for more groundwater resources to be tapped, for them to be used sustainably and for them to be managed better. In doing so, it is renewing its warning from previous years (in German).

Focus on groundwater

“The World Water Report shows devastating gaps in knowledge and regulation of groundwater. In many regions of the world, groundwater is being pumped out of the ground excessively without regard to the consequences. In other areas, on the other hand, more groundwater could be used and thus increase food security,” demanded Ulla Burchardt, board member of the German UNESCO Commission. Despite its “enormous” importance, groundwater is not understood in many places around the world, she said.

About 99 per cent of the earth’s liquid freshwater is groundwater. About half of the water used in private households worldwide is groundwater. About a quarter of agricultural irrigation also depends on groundwater.

Europe: Agriculture pollutes groundwater

Depending on the part of the world, however, there are drastic differences in whether and how the water is used. At six per cent of the world’s groundwater, Europe uses comparatively little and mainly for drinking water. Therefore, there is hardly any risk of overuse on the continent. The bigger problem is pollution from agriculture, which affects about 38 per cent of European aquifers. Nitrate pollution is particularly prevalent here. Excessive nitrate levels increase the risk of intestinal cancer and pose a particular threat to the health of infants.

In Germany, the nitrate limits in groundwater are exceeded at every sixth measuring point, which is why the European Court of Justice already ordered Germany to pay fines in 2018. “Agriculture in particular, as the most important cause of nitrate concentrations in this country, must finally undergo a real transformation,” noted UNESCO Director Burchardt.

Kira Heinemann, spokesperson for the environmental organisation BUND also speaks of “enormous” groundwater pollution (in German) in Germany. “More than a quarter of the groundwater is in poor chemical condition,” Heinemann notes. The causes are, for example, large amounts of fertiliser and pesticides. High nitrate levels and nitrate degradation in groundwater dissolve heavy metals such as cadmium and arsenic.

BUND demands that the competences of German water authorities be expanded, and existing uses be reviewed. European regulations such as the Water Framework Directive must be implemented more consistently and costs such as for water treatment must be distributed among the polluters.

Africa cannot use its potential

Asia is the continent with the most intensive use of groundwater, which is used mainly for agriculture. The amount withdrawn for this purpose is twice as high as on all other continents combined. The large reserves in China and South Asia are currently being rapidly depleted. At the same time, existing groundwater supplies are being polluted.

In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, however, the huge groundwater reserves are hardly used, according to UNESCO. Only three percent of the arable land there is equipped with irrigation systems, of which only five percent uses groundwater.

In Africa in particular, tapping groundwater could be a “catalyst for economic development”. In order to increase agricultural yields, the irrigated areas must grow. Groundwater offers a safe and cost-effective way to reliably supply rural regions with water.

According to the report, the fact that the reserves are not being tapped is due to a lack of infrastructure and skilled workers.

Water means security

The authors call on governments to invest more in groundwater management and to regulate it better. More and improved data on groundwater should be collected. Stronger environmental regulations are needed to protect supplies from overexploitation and pollution, they say.

“Groundwater is central to poverty reduction, food and water security, job creation, socio-economic development and the resilience of societies and economies in the face of change,” write the report’s authors. Dependence on groundwater will increase in the future. This is because the demand for water is growing in all sectors and precipitation is showing increasing fluctuations in many regions. (dpa / hcz)