Global free-for-all has ‘water bank’ running dry

An incendiary report from a NASA scientist which warns that the world's water supplies are rapidly dwindling has sparked calls for changes to UK water policy

Writing in the Nature Climate Change journal, Professor J.S Famiglietti warned that a global ‘free-for-all’ on underground water sources could cause mass starvation and international conflict,

Groundwater – stored beneath the Earth’s surface in soil and porous rock aquifers – accounts for one third of global water use. Over two billion people rely on groundwater as their primary water source, while at least half of the irrigation water used to grow the world’s food comes from underground sources.

However rapid population growth and rising quality of life, along with increasing demand for food and energy has led to far greater levels of stress on limited groundwater resources.

Famiglietti writes that: “Groundwater is being pumped at far greater rates than it can be naturally replenished, so that many of the largest aquifers on most continents are being mined, their precious contents never to be returned.

“Like money in the bank, groundwater sustains societies through the lean times of little incoming rain and snow. Hence, without a sustainable groundwater reserve, global water security is at far greater risk than is currently recognized.


The extreme weather caused by climate change is only exacerbating these water shortage risks, as the natural reaction to a drought is to pump more groundwater.

For example California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins have lost roughly 15 km3 of total water per year since 2011 — more water than all 38 million Californians use for domestic and municipal supplies annually — over half of which is due to groundwater pumping in the Central Valley.

Consequently Famiglietti warns of dystopian future where vanishing groundwater translates into major declines in agricultural productivity and only the wealthy can afford the cost of digging ever-deeper wells. Food prices would skyrocket, with profound economic and political ramifications.

“This may well trigger more civil uprising and international violent conflict in the already water-stressed regions of the world, and new conflict in others,” said Famiglietti.

“From North Africa to the Middle East to South Asia, regions where it is already common to drill over 2 km to reach groundwater, it is highly likely that disappearing groundwater could act as a flashpoint for conflict.

UK Policy

“In the UK, groundwater abstraction is controlled and requires an abstraction licence,” said Clive Mottram, head of water regulation at UK law firm Eversheds.

“However, there is a general recognition that the UK’s current system of controls on water abstraction, which date from the 1960s, is in need of updating and modernisation to encourage more water trading, plus more efficient and effective use of our precious water resources. New legislation to achieve this is planned, but remains some years away.”

Famiglietti himself proposes four steps to halt and reverse the groundwater decline:

1) Research new irrigation techniques to save water. Agriculture accounts for nearly 80% of water use globally, and even modest gains in agricultural efficiency will result in tremendous volumes of groundwater saved.

2) ‘Drill’ for new groundwater sources the same way we currently search for oil because the absolute quantity of global groundwater remains unknown.

3) Manage surface and groundwater conjunctively, as ‘one water.’ Water cannot be created, so should all be managed and preserved equally.

4) The UN should require nations to monitor and report on groundwater levels via satellite.

Brad Allen

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