Beyond the Borehole: what do ecosystem services have to do with rural water supply?

If there were no aquifers what would need to be built instead? That may seem an esoteric question given that groundwater is relied on every day by several billion people, but it is important to consider what useful things aquifers are, what we stand to lose if we mismanage them and what opportunities there are to tackle deep rooted poverty if they are used well.

Tapping into the water beneath the surface of much of India was critical to the Green Revolution in the mid 20th century that was intended to prevent the re-occurrence of the devastating droughts and famines of the 1960s. It has been credited with doing this and playing an instrumental role in lifting millions of the rural poor out of poverty.
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However, this success has come at a cost: heavily subsidised energy has led to the remorseless pumping of aquifers across much of India and groundwater levels are declining in most areas, apart from the east. Deeper and deeper boreholes bring higher costs and risks: in Punjab there are suspected cases of Uranium poisoning, which may be due to high levels in the groundwater.
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While India’s dependency on groundwater is huge, in much of Africa, the dependence is only just beginning. Potentially huge groundwater resources have been identified in many areas of the continent (MacDonald et al, 2012) and the irrigation potential in many countries remains largely untapped (Pavelic, Villholth & Verma, 2013). For domestic water supply, agriculture and industry, the potential to reduce the widespread poverty is immense, as it was in India, but how the same mistakes be avoided? This is part of the mission of the UPGro programme.
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Last week I was fortunate enough to be at a workshop at the headquarters of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I was in the company of 25 experts from five continents, brought together to discuss and draft a paper on groundwater-dependent agricultural societies, as part of a wider research programme on Water, Land and Ecosystems. Experiences were shared from many countries, such as South Africa, Japan, Spain, Sri Lanka, Israel and several regions of India, on the ecosystems services of groundwater and how to find win-win situations and to make equitable trade-offs when there are competing priorities. But what ‘services’ do we get from aquifers? A lot, it turns out.
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We need freshwater for many aspects of our lives and aquifers are useful at soaking it up and making that water available out through springs, up into lakes or rivers, or – with some help – through wells and boreholes. Groundwater can also flow through permeable rocks from wet mountainsides to dry desert plains. These buffering properties alone make livelihoods possible where annual rainfall is too low, or too erratic to support rain-fed farming.
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Aquifers can also does many more things that are useful to us both directly and indirectly, and not always to do immediate material needs: some water features, and the wildlife that depend on them are of immense cultural, intellectual and spiritual value to many people.
A well functioning aquifer is critical to a healthy water cycle. However, what we are seeing repeated around the world are aquifers being degraded through pollution, by over-pumping, by allowing the intrusion of salty water that is worthless for drinking or growing crops. In some cases too much groundwater causes problems, such as prolonged flooding while too little can lead to subsidence and damage to buildings and infrastructure.
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So where now? None of this is stunningly new, but in the current debate on WASH sustainability, I suggest that now is a great time for rural water supply professionals to poke their heads out of the well (or latrine) and look at the interesting new approaches in ecosystems services, small-scale Water Safety Planning (WHO 2012/WHO 2014), Water Source Protection Guidelines (MWE 2013), Water Use Master Plans and Water Security. Such plan-based approaches may initially seem to be a relic of old-fashioned command and control thinking that creates, or needs, an unrealistic amount of bureaucracy.
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However, this is not the case because these stripped-down processes are generally designed to guide stakeholder collaboration that often puts water users and local government in the driving seat. Even then, they probably don’t confront issues around the political economy that need to be tackled head on if research and external intervention is to have much impact.
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The challenge we have, as a network, as we head towards the new RWSN strategy, and the kick-off of the Sustainable Development Goals, is getting approaches like these not only used, but well documented and published. Solid evidence is an important driver for policy and advocacy.
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Considering the ecosystems services of aquifers is important for rural water supply because it is a way of thinking that takes us beyond the borehole and thinking about the quantity, quality and security of the water resources on which millions of households, families and farms depend. If there were no aquifers what would we need to build instead? To do the same job we would have to build vast networks of reservoir, tanks, pipes and filters. We take for granted that nature has provided us with an immense infrastructure, and we abuse or ignore it at our peril.
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Sean Furey is a Water & Sanitation Specialist at Skat Foundation working in the Secretariat of RWSN, co-leader of the RWSN Sustainable Groundwater Development Theme and leads the UPGro knowledge broker team. Opinions are his own.

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