Article: The Sustainable Groundwater Management

Surface water has been developed in many parts of the world for thousands of years whereas groundwater has remained until less than a century ago a rather sparingly developed resource. However, during the twentieth century, an unprecedented “Silent Revolution” in groundwater abstraction took place across the globe.

This boom was driven by population growth and the associated increasing demand for water, food and income, and facilitated by knowledge, technology and access to funding. Intensive groundwater abstraction began in the first half of the twentieth century in a limited number of countries including Italy, Mexico, Spain and the USA, and then expanded worldwide since the 1960s. This fundamentally changed the role of groundwater in human society, in particular in the irrigation sector where it triggered an “Agricultural Groundwater Revolution”, significantly boosting food production and rural development. The use of groundwater has also considerably modified local and global water cycles, environmental conditions and ecosystems.


According to the World Water Report, groundwater abstraction rate has at least tripled over the past 50 years. This has fundamentally changed the role of groundwater in human society, in particular in the irrigation sector, where it has triggered an ‘agricultural groundwater revolution’. Groundwater is crucial for the livelihoods and food security of 1.2 to 1.5 billion rural households in the poorer regions of Africa and Asia, and for domestic supplies of a large part of the population elsewhere in the world. The good news is that in spite of valid concerns about unsustainable abstraction rates and pollution in many parts of the world, groundwater resources if carefully managed can make a significant contribution to meeting the demand for water in the future and to adapting to climate change.

The shrinking of glaciers is, in the short term, adding water to stream flows over and above annual precipitation and thus increasing water supply; in the longer term (decades to centuries) as glaciers disappear those additional sources of water will diminish and the buffering effects of glaciers on streamflow regimes will lessen. Due to an ever increasing pressure on global water resources together with the frequent and devastating droughts in various parts of the world, it became extremely critical for the countries around the world to implement sustainable groundwater management practices. For instance, for the last four years, California has been experiencing historic drought conditions which have an overwhelming impact in general but more specifically on ranching. Ranching is often the sector of California agriculture that is most vulnerable to drought because it depends on rain-fed systems, rather than stored water or groundwater. Here is a report, Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture, which presents an assessment of the economic impacts of the 2014 drought on crop production, livestock and dairies using a suite of models.

The study finds that the 2014 drought will result in a 6.6 million acre-foot reduction in surface water available to agriculture. This loss of surface water will be partially replaced by increasing groundwater pumping by 5 million acre-feet. The resulting net water shortage of 1.6 million acre-feet will cause losses of $810 million in crop revenue and $203 million in dairy and other livestock value, plus additional groundwater pumping costs of $454 million. These direct costs to agriculture total $1.5 billion. The total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion, with a total loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs. It is perceptibly clear that the lack of water in California left farmers with no choice but to use groundwater extensively. As a result, groundwater pumping in California became unsustainable.

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Two University of California (UC) scientists predict groundwater will be unavailable for much of the Golden State within a few decades if current practices aren’t changed. UC Davis professors Thomas Harter and Helen Dahlke say a significant amount of California’s available water is being tapped from aquifers at unsustainable rates. In other words, it’s being taken out faster than it can be replaced. In the special edition of California Agriculture released July 16, Harter, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist and UC Davis professor, and Dahlke call attention to the stress being placed on California’s aquifers and the catastrophic consequences of not having this hidden resource available in future droughts.

Fortunately, on Sept. 16, 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law an unprecedented three-bill legislative package, known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA). The SGMA provides a framework for sustainable management of groundwater supplies by local authorities, with a limited role for state intervention only if necessary to protect the resource. The Act was effective January 1, 2015. The Act requires the formation of local groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) that must assess conditions in their local water basins and adopt locally-based management plans. The act provides substantial time – 20 years – for GSAs to implement plans and achieve long-term groundwater sustainability. It protects existing surface water and groundwater rights and does not impact current drought response measures.

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The SGMA is considered one part of a statewide, comprehensive water plan for California that includes investments in water conservation, water recycling, expanded water storage, safe drinking water, wetlands and watershed restoration. The plan is intended to ensure a reliable water supply for California for years to come. However, in order to deal with the current distressing situation in California, Gov. Jerry Brown sought the more stringent regulations, arguing that voluntary conservation efforts have so far not yielded the water savings needed amid a four-year drought.

He ordered water agencies to cut urban water use by 25 per cent from levels in 2013, the year before he declared a drought emergency. The State Water Resources Control Board approved rules Tuesday (2 June 2015) that force cities to limit watering on public property, encourage homeowners to let their lawns die and impose mandatory water-savings targets for the hundreds of local agencies and cities that supply water to California customers. Needless to say that farmers in California aren’t happy with the restrictions imposed by these regulations. There are a huge number of approaches pronounced by various entities in the world, describing what sustainable groundwater management is. Hence, it is practically impossible to articulate a definition which covers all the different aspects effectively.

Nevertheless, here is how the state of California defined sustainable groundwater management – “Sustainable Groundwater Management” is the management and use of groundwater in a manner that can be maintained during the planning and implementation horizon without causing unacceptable related environmental, economic or social consequences through the development, implementation and updating of plans and programs based on the best available science, monitoring, forecasting and use of technological resources. Here is some background information. Many governments have introduced legislation to regulate groundwater development and to constrain activities that might compromise groundwater availability and quality.

This trend reflects increasing competition and conflict between groundwater users, and increasing threat of groundwater pollution. Initially, this legislation was piecemeal, relating to specific water uses or problems as they arose. Subsequently, realization that negative impacts on groundwater may also affect surface water is bringing about the greater integration of legal provisions on water resources. Comprehensive water legislation offers considerable advantages, since it provides a legal basis for the effective and sustainable management of groundwater through:

  • Guidelines for, and limitations to, the exercise of public powers;
  • Provision for the quantification, planning, allocation and conservation of groundwater resources, including, inter alia, water abstraction and use rights;
  • A system of wastewater discharge licenses, helping to protect groundwater against pollution;
  • Definition of the rights and duties of groundwater users;
  • Protection of use rights, of the rights of third parties and of the environment;
  • Requirements for the registration and qualification of well drillers;
  • Possible administrative intervention in critical situations (aquifer depletion or pollution); and
  • Provision for cooperative interaction between water administrators and water users.

Under Roman Law, groundwater was the property of the owner of the overlying land. Until recently this rule was paramount everywhere that followed the tradition of the French Napoleonic Civil Code (including France, Spain and many African and Latin American countries). The land owner had an exclusive right to use the underlying groundwater, essentially subject only to similar rights of neighboring land owners. According to traditional English Common Law the holder of a land title also had exclusive right to use all underlying waters not flowing in defined channels. For groundwater in defined channels and surface water, use was subject to the ‘riparian doctrine’, by which the use right rests with whoever held title to the adjacent land, subject to certain consideration of downstream interests. These principles were inherited, sometimes with substantial modification, by those countries deriving their legal system from England.

Thus in substance, both in countries following the Civil Code system and the Common Law tradition, the legal régime of groundwater largely depended on the legal régime of the overlying land, that is private land ownership equated to unlimited private groundwater use rights. Subsequently, however, more comprehensive legislation has been widely (but not universally) introduced. In some Moslem countries, groundwater has been viewed as a ‘Gift of God’ that could not be privately owned. However, given ownership of some surrounding land (harim), wells could be privately owned. The use of groundwater was governed by customary rules (‘urf ’) which were effectively enforced by the community. However, these rules were inevitably local and variable, and did not generally take into account downstream or broader aquifer interests.

Given the problems created by growing water scarcity and pollution, legislation has been widely enacted to vest all water resources in the state, or to recognize the state’s superior right to the management of water resources. The declaration of groundwater as a ‘public good’ turns the former owner into a user, who must apply to the state administration for a water abstraction and use right. Once the state is the guardian or trustee of groundwater resources, it may (in addition to granting water rights) introduce measures to prevent aquifer depletion and groundwater pollution. Moreover, legislation tends now to require water resources planning at the level of an entire aquifer or river basin. There is growing recognition through the United Nations and other multilateral processes that more sustainably managed groundwater resources can make a significant contribution to meeting the demand for water in the future and to adapting to climate change.

The UN World Water Development Report in 2012, for example, cites the need to reduce vulnerability to drought and climate change by increasing water storage, including in aquifers. It proposes that funding for ‘a diversity of water storage projects, from small-scale rainwater tanks and larger-scale dams to systems that artificially recharge groundwater aquifers, to improving the soil so it can hold more water, is one option to meeting the increased need for storage.’ The report goes on to suggest that better funded and more effective governance is needed in areas such as environmental controls, groundwater monitoring and abstraction licensing, and monitoring and control of pollution. It calls for greater self-financing of this governance through abstraction and pollution charges. More effective management of groundwater globally is being considered through two parallel processes focusing on laws for managing aquifers shared between two or more states, and on the proposed post-2015 sustainable development goals. Globally there are 445 known transboundary aquifers and groundwater basins, but very few treaties to govern their conservation and sustainable use.

In 2008 the International Law Commission presented to the UN General Assembly draft articles on the law of transboundary aquifers, which recommend that the nations concerned make appropriate bilateral or regional arrangements for equitable and sustainable management of their transboundary aquifers, and at a later stage, develop a convention on the basis of the draft articles. In 2011 and 2013 the General Assembly again examined and postponed a decision on what form they may take, most recently placing a debate on “The law of transboundary aquifers” on its agenda for 2014. Despite their significance, physical interactions between surface and groundwater have largely been ignored in international water law. While surface water has been given considerable attention as a transboundary natural resource, groundwater has not received the same recognition.

International legal doctrines regarding water, such as the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, only recognized one aspect of groundwater, excluding confined aquifers. There are marked differences in the status of the recognition for transboundary surface water and groundwater. Consequently, transboundary groundwater directives have been omitted from overall water management regulations. The two primary reasons for this absence are also points of contention in transboundary groundwater management. First, groundwater characteristics vary in each aquifer. Groundwater is often deep or unevenly distributed geographically. These uncertainties make groundwater seemingly impossible to regulate, as well as ill defined. The other reason is the transboundary element. Dealing with transboundary issues has been intensively studied in surface water; as a result, the difficulties as well as the necessity for management structures are understood. By contrast, in terms of transboundary groundwater, even the delineations of an aquifer are a challenge.

Fortunately, the United Nations came up with a set of guidelines on Monitoring and Assessment of Transboundary Groundwater. These guidelines were finalized by the former ECE Task Force on Monitoring and Assessment with the Netherlands as lead country and adopted at its seventh meeting in Bled (Slovenia) as part of the 1996-1999 work plan under the Convention on the Protection and use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes. These Guidelines were endorsed by the Parties to the Convention at their second meeting. Here is how monitoring and assessment were defined under these guidelines:

  • Monitoring: Monitoring is the process of repetitive observing, for defined purposes of one or more elements of the environment according to pre-arranged schedules in space and time and using comparable methodologies for environmental sensing and data collection. It provides information concerning the present state and past trends in environmental behaviour; and
  • Assessment: The evaluation of the hydrological, chemical and/or micro-biological state of groundwaters in relation to the background conditions, human effects, and the actual or intended uses, which may adversely affect human health or the environment.

Here is a graph, illustrating the monitoring cycle:

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The monitoring cycle presented above illustrates the processes involved for the monitoring and assessment of transboundary groundwaters.  Here are the specific aspects of groundwater monitoring and assessing which is a summarized version of the logic associated with the guidelines.   The characterization and description of relevant transboundary aquifer systems are a prerequisite for the monitoring and assessment of transboundary waters in general and of transboundary groundwaters in particular. Features that influence the way groundwaters are monitored and assessed and that distinguish them from surface waters are:

  • Slow movement (long residence times) of groundwaters increases the potential for their quality to be modified by the interaction between the water and the surrounding aquifer material. Also, once groundwaters are polluted, they may remain so for many years and it is difficult to intervene effectively in this process;
  • The interaction between aquifer material and water causes the natural hydro-geochemistry to evolve as the infiltrating groundwater moves down. To be able to detect and quantify the superimposed impacts of human activities, the “baseline” quality of groundwater with its spatial and depth variations must be assessed;
  • Groundwater flow can be inter-granular and/or through fractures.  Groundwater flow will be much more rapid but variable and difficult to estimate through intensely fractured rocks. Inter-granular groundwater flow increases the potential for interaction between aquifer material and groundwater;
  • Recharge and discharge areas need to be determined and activities that might affect the quantity or quality of groundwater need to be understood. Knowledge of the groundwater flow system means in particular the locations of groundwater recharge and discharge zones, and the way groundwater flows through aquifers from zone to zone.  Activities in the recharge areas on one side of the border might adversely affect the quality or quantity of groundwater on the other side. To determine recharge and discharge conditions in some areas, the interaction between surface and groundwaters need to be understood;
  • Background conditions change over time and these spatial, temporal and depth variations have to be determined before it is possible to detect any impact of human activity; and
  • Multi-layered systems. When there is more than one aquifer separated by aquitards of less permeable material, the possible pathways or connections between them need to be understood.

Therefore, to characterize groundwater occurrence, information on geology, geophysics and hydrogeology in the transboundary area is needed. Also, the dynamics of the groundwater flow system, such as seasonal or longer term responses and variations and changes in flow rate or direction caused by human activities, particularly groundwater abstraction, must be understood. Groundwater quality is infinitely variable in space and time, but on different spatial and temporal scales to surface waters, and this variability is made more complex by the referred interactions. Here is an example to elucidate how the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) articulated their project for sustainable groundwater management practices, utilizing the guidelines briefly discussed above.

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The list of SADC Member States includes: Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, the Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Sustained and inclusive economic growth in the SADC can accelerate job creation, poverty reduction and access to basic services.  In 2013, the average regional rate of economic growth rose to 4.9 percent. By 2015 the rate is expected to reach 5.2 percent.

Key economic drivers include export-oriented extractive industries, strengthened domestic macroeconomic policies, and investment into skills and health. With further integration of SADC Member States into the global economy comes access to more diversified capital, but also exposure to global volatilities, such as the slowdown of government efforts to stimulate economic growth after the global recession. Translating the positive economic outlook into development outcomes requires measures to create jobs and investment in human wellbeing.

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Among different sources of water, groundwater is especially important for alleviating poverty through improving human wellbeing, livelihoods, food production, ecosystems, industries and growing cities in SADC. It is estimated that over 70 percent of the 250 million people living in the SADC region rely on groundwater as their primary source of water. Forty percent of the region’s population use informal or unimproved sources of water, which are often unsafe and prone to the effects of drought’. Despite varying dependency on groundwater across SADC Member States, groundwater usually provides a critical buffer between dry and rainy seasons. 

The role of groundwater as key to economic growth in SADC countries is further exacerbated with the expansion of commercial farming and industries. The agricultural sector is the largest consumer of water using 83 percent of abstracted water. Twelve percent of this water is abstracted from groundwater. In emergent capital cities, such as Lusaka, Gaborone and Dar es Salaam, groundwater is the dominant source of water to meet the demand from expanding factories and growing urban populations. In response to such dependency, some SADC Member States are actively integrating groundwater into their water resource management policies and laws (e.g., Botswana and South Africa). On the whole, however, institutional frameworks to manage water at both national and transboundary levels do not feature groundwater prominently.

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  In spite of unequal attention between surface water and groundwater, the economic role of the latter is significant. Economic valuation studies of groundwater undertaken by the SADC Secretariat have illustrated that the Kuseb, Swakop and Omaruru aquifers in Namibia, for example, have an estimated 25 year NPV valued at over US $1.3 billion. There are by and large, five types of groundwater provinces in the SADC region:

  • Basement Provinces;
  • Sedimentary Basin Provinces;
  • Volcanic Provinces;
  • High-Relief Folded Mountain Provinces; and
  • Local Alluvial Aquifers along Rivers and Coastlines.

Groundwater occurrence and resource potential in the basement crystalline, sedimentary basin and alluvial aquifer systems are better understood than in the volcanic and high relief mountain aquifers; reflecting both the relative accessibility of the available groundwater and the level of dependency of communities on that groundwater. Of the many groundwater systems in Africa, approximately 37 have been identified as transboundary. More than 20 of these are located in the SADC, a region that also holds 14 internationally shared river basins. Despite the challenges in data, southern Africa is estimated to have 2,491m3/capita/year in renewable groundwater resources (Total of 647km in annual average) which is higher than either Europe or Asia. 

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Here are the challenges faced by the SADC. Despite the efforts undertaken by the SADC Secretariat, the Member States, and national groundwater managers to strengthen international cooperation on common issues, the Region is facing a number of challenges. In order to convert good will and good principles into the practical management and development of groundwater on the ground and result in the joint management of shared aquifers, the challenges identified in SADC have to be overcome; the more critical are outlined below (not necessarily in order of priority or applicable to all SADC Member States):

  • Lack of Information and Data: Surface water resources are generally well characterized in the region, however there is a dearth of basic information for groundwater resources. The government structures overseeing groundwater development face non-compliance of groundwater guidelines and the submittal of hydrogeological data from entities participating in its development; and data, mapping and projects conducted are lost or no longer available within the  government entity. Monitoring networks and data are limited as data collection is not consistent or continued once the initial development has occurred;
  • Limited Capacity: Trained technical personnel in groundwater are not readily available in adequate numbers in all Member States. Most have minimal trained individuals at professional and technical level or remain severely under resourced. This is exacerbated by a continual migration of qualified staff out of the region and/or out of the public sector into more lucrative private sector, this is exacerbated by low remuneration;
  • Legal and Regulatory Limitations: Laws in most member countries have been drawn up with regulation of surface water sources in mind, thus groundwater is generally not prominently featured in legislation;
  • Policy Harmonization: Policies between member states regarding groundwater are not always in agreement; thus there is a need for the harmonization of water strategies and policies between riparian states to facilitate the management of groundwater at a transboundary level for the sustainable economic development the Region;
  • Poor Consideration Given to Groundwater Resources: In many areas, groundwater is not considered because it has not been used in the past, or at present its use is limited, the drilling industry is not developed, or groundwater potential is believed to be poor. This results in neglecting the potential of groundwater as a viable alternative to surface water and thus its management and protection are marginalized;

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  • Poor Reliance on Groundwater Resources from Water Developers and Planners: Groundwater resource evaluation and prediction of aquifer behaviour are generally not known with a sufficient accuracy and amounts of water that can be reliably abstracted in the future being too vague; thus water planners are not considering groundwater as a long term water supply option, even if it is economically attractive. In addition poor consideration and less importance is placed on groundwater during water resources planning, IWRM and budgeting. Generally SADC Countries well-endowed with surface water usually have a lower consideration of groundwater resources than arid countries, who rely mainly on groundwater for their water supply;
  • Implementation Mechanisms: River Basin Organizations and other organizations tasked with the management of transboundary water resources have a key role to play in addressing the identification of transboundary aquifers, developing processes and creating the institutional setting for shared aquifer management; however the aforementioned activities are limited or in their infancy;
  • Poor Appreciation of Shared Aquifers: There is little understanding of the transboundary nature of aquifers amongst managers and communities dependent on the aquifers. The international impact of groundwater abstraction/degradation has been in the past neglected against a focus on national water resources planning, because there was no evidence of potential competition across the border. However, increased stresses on Regional water resources will require shared aquifer management as a component of long term planning;
  • Awareness of Groundwater: As groundwater is unseen and difficult to quantify in comparison to surface water the general focus and interest has been towards surface water; this includes communities, the political structures and media. As a result there is very little awareness of groundwater and its importance at all levels of society and government. The lack of awareness and understanding of groundwater, its availability, its vulnerability and its benefits has detrimental effects on the resources expended on its exploration, development, management and protection; and
  • Institutional Limitations: Responsibility for management of water resources is often fragmented between different authorities and at different scale. In addition at the operational level there are large differences between government policies/regulations/practices and those that actually exist on the ground. This usually being the case as capacity and resources are not available at the local government level to conduct the obligations as mandated by the government.

Here are SADC responses to the challenges. To address the challenges facing groundwater management in the Region, SADC is implementing its Groundwater Management Programme (GWP) for the Region to facilitate putting in place a framework and specific tools, which are a prerequisite for the management of shared aquifers, in particular:

  • A Good Knowledge Base: Understanding of aquifer characteristics, geometry, limits, amount and location of recharge, direction of groundwater flow, vulnerability, prediction on impact of abstraction;
  • A Network of Institutions:  Which create interaction between local, national, regional, global levels i.e. Sub-Committees within river basin organizations;
  • A Network of Experts:  From countries involved, as custodians of the technical knowledge;
  • A Network of Decision makers and NGOs:  Facilitating or developing dissemination of information, awareness building, public participation in water management issues;
  • Tools:  Such as Harmonized Procedures, Code of good practice, Regional Hydrogeological map, models, etc.; and
  • Training and Capacity Building:  To develop national groundwater management structures, including community participation.

The following 10 priority projects were initiated to accomplish the project objectives:

  • Capacity Building within the Context of Regional Groundwater Management Programme;
  • Develop Minimum Common Standards for Groundwater Development in the SADC Region;
  • Development of a Regional Groundwater Information System;
  • Establishment of a Regional Groundwater Monitoring Network;
  • Compilation of a regional Hydrogeological Map and Atlas for the SADC Region;
  • Establish a Regional Groundwater Research Institute/ Commission;
  • Construct a Website on Internet and publish quarterly News-letters;
  • Regional Groundwater Resource Assessment of Karoo Aquifers;
  • Regional Groundwater Resource Assessment of Precambrian Basement Aquifers; and
  • Groundwater Resource Assessment of Limpopo/Save Basin.

The World Bank was the major source of funding for the project.


  1. The UN World Water Development Report 4 – Managing Water Under Uncertainty and Risk;
  2. Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture;
  3. Association of California Water Agencies – Sustainable Groundwater Management Act 2014;
  4. Association of California Water Agencies – recommendations Achieving Groundwater Sustainability;
  5. GW-MATE – Briefing Note Series – sustainable Groundwater Management Concepts and Tools;
  6. IWA Publishing – Global Growth in Groundwater Abstraction – In search of Sustainable Solutions;
  7. The UN World Water Development Report 4 – Facing the Challenges;
  8. Transboundary Groundwater and International Law – Past Practices and Current Implications;
  9. UN/ECE Task Force on Monitoring and Assessment – Guidelines on Monitoring and assessment of Transboundary Groundwaters;
  10. The World Bank – Project Appraisal Document on a Proposed Grant; and
  11. Challenges to Transboundary Aquifer Management in the SADC Region

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