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Hydrosatiety: Filling the Communications Gap over Groundwater Issues

Posted by Todd Jarvis on Saturday, March 09 2013 15:37

One always has to be cautious about what they write in reports as they can come back to haunt you in later years! Colleague and friend Patrick MacQuarrie, the Water Policy & Sustainability Advisor to Global Water Programme of IUCN, found something that I wrote in this report where I stated “Science remains at the core of communication regarding groundwater” [and] “Cultural competency is vital when communicating groundwater issues given the resource is considered both a commodity and a culturally significant resource. The investment in time to ensure that science-based information is understood by the various stakeholders is offset by the reduction of time needed for dealing with conflict and for building trust in the value of groundwater science and scientists.”

Patrick asked if I could elaborate on this point about communicating science for the benefit of freshwater system managers in general, with examples from transboundary aquifers, including legal instruments that have facilitated cooperation. This is not the first time I have been asked to consider this topic, so some of the following is excerpted from a draft analytical brief on water security prepared at the request of the Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL) and an invited editorial for the journal Ground Water (Jarvis, 2008).

One of the things I have learned over the past 30 years of working in the water sector is that understanding, utilization, and unitization of the underground ensures water security. Over 99 percent of the global fresh and unfrozen water is stored underground. Groundwater is the world’s most extracted raw material with withdrawal rates estimated to range between 800 to 1,000 km3 per year through millions of water wells (Shah, 2009). Some estimates of river runoff derived from groundwater approaches 36% of measured flows, yet water management has long suffered from what the famous Spanish hydrogeologist Ramón Llamas refers to as a case of “hydroschizophrenia”— the creation of separate surface water and groundwater management regimes despite the recognition of the hydraulic connection between both hydrologic regimes (see also Jarvis, 2010). Yet after over 100 years of studying the hydrological cycle, there are no consistent methods to calculate the available and recoverable water from river basins and groundwater systems; few hydrological watershed models even address groundwater into their water balance models (Zeitoun, 2011). And despite nearly 20 years of work on defining water scarcity, few indices incorporate groundwater (Jarvis, forthcoming).

New interpretations of existing hydrogeologic data, and the sharing of these new interpretations with the mainstream media, change the complexion of mapping global physical water scarcity and evaluation of water security. For example, while Africa continues to be identified as a water scarce region, new groundwater maps published by MacDonald and others (2012) estimate the total volume of stored groundwater to be around 0.66 million km3 -- more than 100 times the available surface water in Africa. In AllAfrica Global Media, Onyango (2012) reports that surface water scarcity in Kenya has lead to fatal conflicts, yet the country has readily available groundwater, and it just needs to be tapped - “If this water is tapped and distributed to the affected areas, conflict will end."

Flexible approaches to making water more accessible are recognized by the Draft Law of Transboundary Aquifers where the proposed utilization of aquifer systems include the extraction of water, heat and minerals, and storage and disposal of any substance. Jarvis (2011) posited that this proposed approach to groundwater governance extended beyond the equitable and reasonable sharing of water to acknowledging the flexible use of aquifer storage. Unitization as applied in the oil and gas industry for the past 130 years may work in aquifer systems by creating more water through sharing not only the groundwater stored in an aquifer, but also sharing the storage within an aquifer system. I suggest that unitization, as applied to groundwater and aquifer governance, would lead to (1) promoting groundwater exploration in underutilized areas, (2) preserving the storage capacity of aquifers, (3) promoting private investment in the “post-modern hydrologic balance”, and (4) preventing disputes by “blurring the boundaries” thus building aquifer communities.

Disciplined-based solutions in groundwater resources have been the tradition since the field of hydrogeology as we know it today started in the late 1880s. But the time has come to temper the traditional problem-based approach by including the human dimension within the discourse over groundwater use.  New instruments of groundwater governance must focus not only on process equity but outcome equity as well.  The perception of “hydrosatiety” is strongly influenced by how groundwater science is communicated with groundwater users. I concluded my 2008 editorial with this timeless quote by Irish dramatist & poet William Butler Yeats who succinctly summarized the new paradigm – “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.”


Jarvis, W.T. 2008. Corporate Hydrologist and the Communications Gap: Ground Water, Vol. 46, No. 1, p. 1.

Jarvis, W.T., 2010, Water Wars, War of the Well, and Guerilla Well-fare: Ground Water, Vol. 48, No. 3, p. 346-350.

Jarvis, W.T. 2011. Unitization: a lesson in collective action from the oil industry for aquifer governance, Water International, Vol. 36, No. 5, p.619-630.

Jarvis, W.T. forthcoming. Water Scarcity: Moving Beyond Indices to Innovative Institutions, Ground Water.

Onyango, P. 2012. Kenya's Water Wars Kill Scores, AllAfrica Global Media, September 11, 2012. http://allafrica.com/stories/201209120455.html last accessed September 27, 2012.

Shah, T. 2009. Taming the Anarchy: Groundwater Governance in South Asia. Resources for the Future Press. Washington, DC.

Zeitoun, M. 2011. The Global Web of National Water Security, Global Policy Vol. 2 (3): 286-296.


Posted by Mark Smith on Monday, March 18, 2013 04:24 AM

Hello Todd

Thanks for contributing these thoughts and ideas to the CoP. I have a couple of questions to follow-up – for you or anyone interested in commenting:

1. Can you explain a little more the idea of ‘unitization’? The members of the IW:LEARN Communities of Practice are quite often well-positioned to introduce new ideas or perspectives into water institutions, or indeed water negotiations. How can they use the idea of unitization to make more progress in getting practical solutions for groundwater into the agendas of water institutions and negotiations?

2. The statistic that 36% of river runoff is (on average) derived from groundwater is fascinating because the way we set up both water management as a scientific discipline and the way we set up water management institutions more-or-less completely ignores this! Indeed, the way we split IW:LEARN Communities of Practice between surface water and groundwater kind of sets this aside (though we want exchange between the two... a vadose CoP?). How do we change this? Practically speaking, what can GEF-IW projects, trying to better integrate science and development of effective institutions, advise governments or water agencies?

    What should be our priority actions if we are going to take advantage of the benefits and efficiencies that conjunctive management of surface water and groundwater will bring to water security?

    What advice do CoP members who have grappled with this have for others ? What works? What doesn’t?

    All comments and ideas very welcome.

    Thanks, Mark


    Posted by Todd Jarvis on Monday, March 25, 2013 01:08 PM


    Thank you for your comment. I will address each question in the order posed.

    1. Unitiization is often referred to as "pooling". At first glance, one would counter that unitization sounds like the design principles for Common Pool Resources developed by Elinor Ostrom, but as described in my 2011 paper, unitization was developed in the late 1800s as opposed to Ostrom's PhD work on groundwater in the Los Angeles basin of California in the late 1960s.

    Unitization agreements already exist for oil, gas, geothermal, carbon sequestration, spirituality and more recently, hydrofracking. In other words, the attraction of unitization to groundwater and other water resources is that one is not starting with a blank sheet of paper. And the real power of unitization to groundwater is the notion of redetermination, that is, the regular reassessment of groundwater availability as new knowledge is acquired. Redetermination is part of the process and the timing is up to the parties of the unitization agreement.

    2. The GEF IW:SCIENCE report that Patrick connected me to describes some options to integrate science into institutions. My part of the groundwater working group report championed more ready access to groundwater information - not citing boring peer-reviewed journal reports that few have access to, or much less want to read, but to expand into other media such as video. The Guarani Aquifer project sponsored by GEF and others is a great example of how to get the word out to agencies and the affected public.

    You asked about priority actions. I think it is important to recognize that the Draft Law of Transboundary Aquifers defined that "aquifer systems" are not just about water anymore, but for storage of manufactured water (desal, stormwater, etc.), minerals, heat, and wastes. In other words, the storage space in aquifers has as much "value" or more than the groundwater. This storage can be used to not only store water, but also treat our wastewaters. For example, in the Pacific Northwest of the US, we are experimenting with having the aquifer matrix "strip" the heat from the municipal wastewater before discharging to rivers. The cooler waters are more "fish friendly".

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.




    Posted by Henri-Claude ENOUMBA on Saturday, July 06, 2013 08:09 AM

    Dear All,

    I'm following the current debate on groundwater with interest. Haven followed the interesting contribution from experienced colleague on this issue, it is important to note that in the hydrological cycle , Groundwater is a component that interacts closely with other components at various temporal and spatial levels. Groundwater is also involved in other cycles – such as chemical cycles particularly in solute transport and in biochemical cycles in the biosphere . Moreover, it is affected by Climate Change caused by certain changes in the carbon cycle. In addition, groundwater interactions and interdependencies are not only limited to physical systems ( surface waters, soils, ecosystems, oceans, lithosphere and atmosphere) , but they are also related to socio-economic, legal, institutional and political systems.

    Hence, groundwater is deeply positioned in the root of interdependencies. However, changes in the state of groundwater systems are being developed due to these interdependencies, and because of the causal chains that link these changes to the drivers of change (root causes).

    Among these drivers of change in groundwater systems , we can name Demographic drivers (population growth, mobility and urbanization); Socio-Economic drivers which explain the people’s demands and behavior vis-à-vis of the groundwater.The availability of ( motorized with energy not only man power)pumping actually widespread in Developed Countries has accelerated a rise in groundwater abstraction from the most accessible, shallow aquifers. Of course, agriculture still the dominant user sector, but local abstractions in and around urban areas for municipal supply happen to be even more intensive in some developing African countries . This is the situation where groundwater exploitation may be triggered by positive expectations on the economic profitability of groundwater, and by socio economic conditions that allow intensive exploitation of the resource. The resulting loss of storage and groundwater quality is having direct social, economic and environmental impacts – but many of these are not quite recognized or defined carefully enough to bring about changes in human behaviour.

    Decisions to turn on a groundwater pump or to simply dispose of non biodegradable waste to the ground appear to be difficult to regulate. This is a challenge.

    Science and technological innovation are other drivers that influence the utilization (use and usage) and the state of a groundwater system in terms of systematic aquifer exploration and improved technologies for drilling and pumping that could contribute significantly to generating greater benefits from groundwater

    Policy, law and finance form an important category of drivers of planned change, in the context of groundwater resources development and management

    Finally, we note that there are 2 categories of physical drivers. The first is climate variability and climate change – particularly as they affect aquifers in arid and semi-arid regions of the Niger River basin. With minor variations in climatic conditions there can have a pronounced influence on groundwater in 3 main ways: (i) a change in the rate of groundwater renewal, (ii) a change in the availability of alternative sources of fresh water and a change in water demand; (iii) a contribution to sea level rise, which will affect aquifers in low-lying coastal zones, where a large percentage of the world’s population lives in conjunction with the environmental services. In some countries of the world, sustainable groundwater development is being developed by alternating storage depletion during dry periods and storage recovery during wet periods. As such, groundwater reservoirs are rather insensitive to variations during the dry periods, and groundwater reservoirs are resilient to vagaries of both climate variation and climate change. This is an advantage to take into account for the use expansion.

    An interesting feature of conjunctive management is the so called Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR), the storage of water in aquifers intentionally for subsequent recovery or environmental benefit or use.

    The second category of physical drivers is natural and anthropogenic hazards. The difference from the first category of drivers is that hazards are strongly probabilistic events which means that disasters may or may not happen and when the occur they usually cause suddenly a catastrophic change rather than a trend over time.

    The total volume of fresh groundwater stored on earth is assumed to be approximately 8 million km’ to 10 million km3 (Margat, J. 2008. Les eaux souterraines dans le monde.Orléans/Paris, BGRM/UNESCO), which is more than 2,000 times the current annual withdrawal of surface water and groundwater combined. This is a huge volume, but where are these fresh-water buffers located – and what fraction of their stock is available for depletion? These are the questions to be answer . Moreover , this huge volume representing the main groundwater buffers is covering 36% of the land area of the continents. So, water is everywhere ,but not enough to drink!!!! The access to this water remains costly

    As far as Unitization is concerned, it is a type of oil exploitation contract applicable when an oil deposit is located underground (of course ) in a transboundary zone shared by 2 or 3 countries. So to avoid conflict during exploitation they assume the oil reserve body as an unit, and operational cost and profit are shared equally among them, even if exploitation is carried out by a particular company in joint-venture with them.

    But Unitization is different from joint-venture. As you are aware in the case of joint-venture costs and profits are not absolutely share equally, but they are shared considering financial and in-kind participation of each stakeholder and according to others negotiated arrangements. I believe that Unitization practice can help in to manage drilling well in a village some where in Africa at a community level of organization.

    Cheers all and thanks Mark


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