Pioneering work into groundwater governance is finding ways to make the use and management of this vital resource more sustainable and equitable.
Sustainable management of the planet’s water resources is essential if the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to be achieved. However, failures in water governance at many levels are making water scarcity and pollution worse in many parts of the world, particularly in the Global South. These problems are especially acute for groundwater. Aquifers are a major source of water for cities, industries and irrigated farmland globally, and a critical resource for adaptation to climate change. However, the ‘invisibility’ of groundwater and the large size of many aquifers have made it difficult to govern. The growing use of groundwater – due to cheaper well-drilling technology and more affordable pump sets – combined with climate change, population growth, land use change and increasing food demand have led to groundwater degradation, as well as depletion through excessive use and the destruction of catchment areas. Poorer communities often struggle to maintain access to groundwater, even for basic needs.
Over the past decade, WLE has been instrumental in advancing an understanding of the challenges facing sustainable and equitable groundwater governance, and the ways in which they can be overcome. In addition to conducting research on aquifers in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the USA, WLE has been instrumental in the development of the novel global Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP). WLE has also worked with many organizations on strengthening groundwater governance, including the African Minister’s Council on Water (AMCOW), and has collaborated with partners to develop a citizen science project and innovative learning tools, such as experiential games, to strengthen the social inclusion of initiatives designed to improve groundwater use and management.
WLE’s research on groundwater and aquifers has highlighted the importance of integrated systemic approaches to groundwater governance, reflecting the fact that groundwater is inextricably linked to land resources and food production, environmental and ecosystem functions, and other water resources.
WLE research in North Africa and the Middle East has shown that groundwater governance by state institutions alone is rarely successful. Co-management by state institutions and local entities offers a potential way forward, but a delicate set of conditions is needed for it to be effective. Community-centered governance could work where state regulations are weak and where aquifers are small and clearly defined, but it requires effective local management, clear institutions and cohesive communities.
Further impact has been achieved through WLE’s innovative use of experiential games in multi-stakeholder forums, which gave participants the freedom to experiment and consider alternative rules and governance arrangements for aquifers. This, in turn, can foster shared understanding and action in real-world groundwater governance.
The work of WLE and partners on groundwater governance has shown that several important challenges still remain. At a fundamental level, interventions designed to reduce and reverse groundwater degradation lack the urgency demanded by the scale of the problem. Groundwater pollution, in particular, is rarely recognized as a governance priority. Equally important, many current governance structures, by preserving existing socio-political arrangements that perpetuate groundwater overdraft, present a major barrier to sustainable and equitable groundwater use.
Additionally, there has been widespread failure to integrate and upscale technological and governance innovations. For example, the widespread provision of solar pumps to farmers, when not accompanied by stronger institutions to govern groundwater use, can exacerbate groundwater depletion in areas where an aquifer has limited recharge capacity. Conversely, neither new governance structures nor learning tools like experiential games can be expected to solve the various challenges facing groundwater if they do not allow for the rapid uptake of new technologies.
For the use and management of groundwater to become more sustainable and equitable, there needs to be a dramatic strengthening of existing governance structures – and the development of new ones. First, greater cooperation between the water sector and other sectors, like land and energy, is needed, as groundwater often has to be governed indirectly through the management of other resources, such as electricity tariffs. Second, research is needed to identify, test and promote effective governance arrangements that not only enable the rapid adoption of new technologies, but consider the governance issues such technologies might raise. Third, these arrangements need to enable locally-driven collective action alongside top-down state regulation. This will allow groundwater governance to incorporate the knowledge, perceptions and values of a much broader range of stakeholders, including groups that are currently under-represented.