Groundwater, the water stored beneath’s the Earth’s surface is vitally important to human survival. While many of us are unaware it is there, it is the source of almost all of the world’s freshwater, around 98%. Around a third of the water consumed comes from this source, as does around 43% of the water used for irrigation. Around the world, 2.5 billion people rely on groundwater as their only source of water.
What is groundwater and how is it used?
Water that infiltrates the ground, finding its way beneath the earth’s surface through the gaps between sediment and rock is known as groundwater. It can begin as rainfall, or as water moving in a stream, river, or lake. For hundreds of years, groundwater has been an important source of water, particularly in parts of the world where water is scarce.
Groundwater collects in empty spaces within layers of impenetrable rock. It can remain in the rock for periods ranging from days to thousands of years. Humans have learned to artificially move these valuable stores of water to the earth above via wells that are drilled down through the impenetrable rock. Most often, wells are created to access a source of drinking water.
Currently, over half of the US population (and 100% of the rural population) acquires its drinking water supply from groundwater wells. In addition to providing vital drinking water, groundwater is also relied on as a source of water for agricultural (e.g. irrigation), domestic, industrial, and commercial purposes.
Cape Town’s water crisis of 2018
In 2018, Cape Town suffered a major water crisis as it became the first major city worldwide to face the prospect of running out of water because of climate change. The capacity of its dams reached a low of almost a quarter full, which caused concerns that residents would eventually run out of water entirely.
The event serves as a warning sign to the rest of the world. It forced the city to implement strict water usage restrictions, limiting the amount of water each person could access. In the two years that followed, the city was forced to retain its restrictions, as the city’s dams only reached 63.1% capacity by 2019. It wasn’t until 2020 that restrictions were lifted as the dams finally became full again.
Cape Town’s story is not an anomaly, as just because restrictions are now lifted it does not mean that the capacity of the dams will not once again fall dangerously low. Drought conditions are becoming increasingly common all over the world due to global warming. It is important to raise awareness of the role that groundwater plays in our everyday lives, water, after all, is vital to human existence. It is likely that unless significant changes are made to the way we use water, future crises are just around the corner.
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Learning to respect our planet’s water source
By the end of the century, it is predicted that the Earth’s population will have risen from 8 billion to 11 billion. In just a few decades, the world will have had to have made some significant changes to enable humans to survive and continue to thrive. Currently, human activity drains the planet’s resources and contributes to climate change. As the population increases, this detrimental impact on the planet will worsen, and resources will become more limited.
One of the most important changes humans will have to make is the way groundwater is used. Proper management of this precious resource will need to be established across the globe and policy-makers will need to gain a scientific understanding of the importance and impact of groundwater.
Management strategies will need to be sustainable, balance the negative impact of previous human activity, and prevent future adverse events from occurring such as pollution and overuse of a valuable resource.
One century ago, groundwater was found in abundance across the US. Its availability fostered agricultural development and urban growth. While groundwater is essential for human life and human activities, it is not thoroughly regulated. Now, as droughts become more common, effective regulations are needed more than ever. Legislation pertaining to groundwater is different across the world. In the US, some states, such as California, do not have statewide systems in place to regulate groundwater use. We have reached a point where the resource is not respected, and centralized systems have not been put in place to protect it. Humans face their life-supporting water supply falling into jeopardy.
As well as addressing poor or non-existing management systems, for groundwater usage to become truly sustainable, the methods by which it is accessed must be updated so that they are not damaging to the environment. Currently, the use of pumps can cause too much water to discharge into streams and rivers, which leads to soil erosion and imbalances in the ecosystem. Future systems must take this into account to establish carefully managed, environmentally friendly groundwater systems.
World Water Day 2022 - One minute challenge (#MyGroundwaterStory / #WorldWaterDay)