Groundwater Governance

Photo by IGRAC

Groundwater governance comprises the promotion of responsible collective action to ensure control, protection and socially-sustainable utilisation of groundwater resources and aquifer systems for the benefit of humankind and dependent ecosystems. This action is facilitated by an enabling framework and guiding principles. Groundwater governance has four components: 

  • An effective and articulate legal and regulatory framework 
  • Accurate and widely-shared knowledge of the groundwater systems concerned, together with awareness of the sustainability challenges 
  • An institutional framework characterized by leadership, sound organizations and sufficient capacity, permanent stakeholder engagement, and working mechanisms to coordinate between groundwater and other sectors 
  • Policies, plans, finances and incentive structures aligned with society’s goals

The fact that most groundwater is accessible without many costs or requirements for monitoring exacerbates these issues. Negative impacts to the resource remain unseen and become evident only when adverse impacts to human and ecological health occur due to contamination and/or over pumping. Consequently, the planet is in the midst of a ‘silent revolution,’ stemming from the proliferation of groundwater use and the near absence of legal and managerial oversight under governance frameworks. There is hence an urgent need to strengthen groundwater governance – to address the current challenges and future significance of groundwater and to make use of opportunities for protecting and augmenting the groundwater resources. Groundwater governance involves identifying goals and policies, providing institutions and procedures, assigning dedicated personnel and financial resources, promoting stakeholder participation, and taking responsibility for outcomes. Because groundwater is essentially a local resource, effective governance arrangements need to extend down to the local level, but should also be linked to basin-level, national-level or even transboundary level, as appropriate. Good groundwater governance recognizes the value of aquifer systems, and aims at achieving the sustainable provision of freshwater and preventing the degradation of aquifer systems

Comprehensive governance of groundwater resources is critical to preventing and mitigating the aforementioned threats to groundwater resources. Yet, there are myriad obstacles to adopting groundwater governance frameworks. Lack of scientific and technical knowledge about specific transboundary or national aquifers is one of the major challenges to proper governance. Groundwater development may occur over an extended period of time before anyone recognizes a problem. The unexpected drying of wells, reduction of base flow, or emergence of communal health problems may spark conflict in areas where groundwater management was not previously a priority. Without adequate technical understanding of aquifers, actors may not properly identify the source of aquifer pollution or depletion and may be prone to blaming each other for mismanagement. Thus, absent some efforts to manage the aquifers, it is unlikely that any advanced technical understanding will be pursued. This paradox is the crux of the groundwater governance challenge and perhaps explains why groundwater governance regimes are so sparse today.

In general, legal instruments for groundwater governance are in their infancy. Compared to surface water, there are few legal and institutional tools designed to specifically manage groundwater resources and those that do exist are generally at the sub-national level and perhaps the aquifer or sub-aquifer scale. This could be explained by understanding how law itself develops across the global, transboundary and national levels. The most influential source of global international law is state practice. In other words, how states are interacting with each other regarding a certain topic in the legal regime. While, numerous states have developed national frameworks governing groundwater there is very little to be said about state practice with regard to transboundary aquifers. There is only one transboundary agreement that goes so far as to establish a system for allocating transboundary groundwater resources. There are several global rules and agreements that embody some aspects of customary international groundwater law. Nevertheless, these frameworks have not been developed congruently and do not always contain compatible principles and norms. This leaves much room for improvement in terms of the development of groundwater governance frameworks and the legal institutions that may underpin them.

The concerns above led five international organisations, i.e. the Global Environment Facility, the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the UNESCO-International Hydrological Programme and the International Association of Hydrogeologists to launch the Groundwater Governance Project. This global initiative to strengthen groundwater governance commissioned 12 thematic papers and a synthesis by leading experts and convened five regional consultations in different parts of the world and a final high level expert meeting. The outcomes of all these activities were integrated in a Global Diagnostic that became the basis for the Shared Global Vision For Groundwater Governance 2030 and the Global Framework for Action