Climate change, Environment, Water

The “invisible” water crisis: Groundwater sustainability in Asia and the Pacific

This blog is the second-place winner of the Asian Development Bank Institute’s 25th Anniversary Essay Contest. Entrants were asked to share their views on socioeconomic challenges that will significantly impact Asia and the Pacific over the next decade and should be prioritized by think tanks.

Demand for groundwater has increased steadily in Asia and the Pacific in recent decades, driven by rapid socioeconomic development and population growth (Borodina and Yerkinbayeva 2017).

Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Türkiye today account for more than 60% of groundwater withdrawal, making Asia and the Pacific the region with the highest groundwater abstraction in the world (UNESCO 2022). Meanwhile, in countries such as Indonesia and Viet Nam, as much as 79% of the population depends on groundwater for drinking (Carrard, Foster, and Willetts 2019). However, groundwater overexploitation has raised concerns about resource sustainability and environmental degradation, and in turn the associated impacts on climate change and societal well-being.

The water crisis

Groundwater issues plague economies throughout the region. For instance, groundwater levels in the North China Plain have declined by about 1 meter per year since the 1980s due to the intensification of socioeconomic development (Jia 2021; Schwartz et al. 2020). But there has been little advancement toward sustainability (Feng et al. 2018). In some of the PRC’s coastal areas, depletion has even induced significant seawater intrusion (Jia 2021). According to a study by Jia (2021), over 80% of the PRC’s monitored wells are polluted, and more than 80 million people continue to consume high-salinity groundwater. Drinking such contaminated groundwater can have health-related risks, and problems can take years or decades to manifest (Jia 2021).

In India, groundwater supplies about 60% of agricultural water and 85% of drinking water (World Bank 2010). However, with Delhi’s population set to quadruple in the next 50 years, the issue of meeting water demand amid fast groundwater depletion and pollution is concerning (Schwartz et al. 2020). In Iran, the groundwater situation is being exacerbated by several causes, including rising temperatures, the ongoing urbanization process, and increased wheat production. Land subsidence and problems with water quality have been exacerbated by subsequent drops in groundwater levels (Schwartz et al. 2020). Other Asian economies are also facing major challenges due to unsustainable groundwater production.

What hinders groundwater sustainability?

Significant hurdles have hampered progress toward groundwater sustainability in Asia and the Pacific. The primary issue is the dilemma of choosing between groundwater supply and national development. Population growth, economic development, and poverty eradication are often more important in developing countries. Limiting the production of groundwater—and therefore food production—can be challenging since groundwater may quickly expand agricultural productivity, which is structurally a vital part of the economies of many countries (Schwartz et al. 2020).

The second problem is an insufficient operational framework. Pakistan, for example, has failed to establish an effective regulatory framework and technological capacities, while India has ignored its existing regulations, leaving groundwater management an “invisible problem” (Biswas, Tortajada, and Saklani 2017; Schwartz et al. 2020). Although the PRC does have in place technological, fiscal, and legal structures, implementation is problematic. Economic tools such as water quotas and taxes are not widely or effectively implemented, and regulations have not kept up with the rapidly expanding use of land for industrial and urban growth (Schwartz et al. 2019).

A lack of data and transparent information is another problem that affects the entire region. In most areas, some basic water-level data are available, but detailed information on groundwater quantity and quality with critical parameters is mostly scattered (Jia 2021). There is even less information available to the public on the threats to sustainability posed by groundwater contamination.

Shaping the future: A call to action

Groundwater is an integral component of both the ecosystem and human society, and it must be handled sustainably. Enhancing cooperation across different levels of government is a necessary step in solving the problem of fragmented management. A thorough and consistent framework, as well as communication, is necessary for effective management implementation.

It is also crucial for governments to establish an integrated network for data monitoring that can be used to evaluate aquifer changes and better assess the problems related to groundwater resources. Scientific support should also be strengthened for analyzing the effects on the quantity and quality of groundwater and providing a comprehensive viewpoint for decision making. Bridging the theory-practice gap will also help to reinforce technological capability. Furthermore, information should remain transparent for easy access, and can be shared via newsletters or online platforms. Encouraging public engagement will be beneficial for regulating agricultural and industrial activities as well as improving water conservation in relation to water-saving technologies.

To conclude, ensuring the sustainability of groundwater resources and the security of water is as important as developing socioeconomic conditions and serving countries’ populations. To create a promising and sustainable future together, scholars, policy makers, and organizations must take prompt action on groundwater issues.

References

Biswas, A., C. Tortajada, and U. Saklani. 2017. Pumped Dry: India’s Invisible and Accelerating Groundwater Crisis. Asia & the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum (accessed 22 June 2022).

Borodina, A., and L. Yerkinbayeva. 2017. Legal Support of Economic Mechanism of Groundwater Protection and Use Regulation in Central Asia Region. Journal of Advanced Research in Law and Economics 8(25): 773–783.

Carrard, N., T. Foster, and J. Willetts. 2019. Groundwater as a Source of Drinking Water in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: A Multi-Country Review of Current Reliance and Resource Concerns. Water 11(8): 1605.

Feng, W., C. Shum, M. Zhong, and Y. Pan. 2018. Groundwater Storage Changes in China from Satellite Gravity: An Overview. Remote Sensing 10(5): 674.

Jia, Y. 2021. Geogenic-Contaminated Groundwater in China. In Global Groundwater, edited by A. Mukherjee, B. R. Scanlon, A. Aureli, S. Langan, H. Guo, and A. A. McKenzie: 229–242.

Schwartz, F. W., G. Liu, and Z. Yu. 2020. HESS Opinions: The Myth of Groundwater Sustainability in Asia. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 24(1): 489–500.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 2022. The United Nations World Water Development Report 2022. UNESCO.

World Bank. 2010. Deep Wells and Prudence: Towards Pragmatic Action for Addressing Groundwater Overexploitation in India. World Bank.

Shujie Liang

About the Author

Shujie Liang is a postgraduate student at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia.
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