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Chapter 5 - Recommendations

The results of the analysis in this paper suggest two broad avenues for future work. The first involves the development of national research programmes to gather representative groundwater data directly in countries and regions where dependence upon groundwater is high. This type of overview is essential in order to develop more informed assessments of the implications of groundwater conditions for food security and to develop scientifically founded courses of action for managing the resource base. The second avenue for work focuses on the development of adaptive responses to water problems and policy approaches that reflect and respond to uncertainty, change and the absence of real understanding of systems and their interactions. Inherent limitations in the nature of hydrogeological information in conjunction with the social and institutional changes occurring in many parts of the world make this second avenue of work at least as important as the first. A key part of this should include the development of early-warning indicators that help identify where groundwater problems in conjunction with other local factors indicate the emergence of local or regional food security problems.

In addition to these two broad areas, the analysis suggests a variety of key points of leverage for technical assistance organizations to assist in developing effective responses to emerging groundwater problems. These points of leverage are listed below in a particular sequence for specific reasons. Effective responses to emerging groundwater problems are essential. However, this paper argues that the viability of traditional integrated management approaches is limited by a wide array of data, technical, social and political factors. As a result, society needs to proceed on two equally important courses. One course focuses on adaptation to problems and on building the basic understanding from which both adaptive and management responses must flow. The second course, of equal but not more importance than the first, involves a continuation of current efforts towards the integrated management of groundwater. However, instead of forming the dominant strategy, this course focuses on strategic locations where the technical, political and social viability of management appears strong. The points of leverage involve a combination of: (i) efforts to rethink and implement new approaches to groundwater with particular emphasis on adaptive strategies; (ii) basic research on the nature of groundwater problems and the larger social context in which they are situated; (iii) continued attention to the basic science, data and information generation activities that provide a foundation for all understanding of groundwater issues; (iv) continued efforts to build integrated groundwater management capacity in strategic locations where management appears viable in the short to intermediate term; (v) initiatives to build the foundations for management in more difficult locations where results can only be expected in the long term; and (vi) efforts to harvest and disseminate lessons from the growing global experience with groundwater and its management. The potential activities and needs in each of these areas are discussed below, but in approaching these points of leverage, constant attention will need to be given to the level at which information is being compiled and management applied. These levels have to be consistent with the scale of the aquifer systems and the ‘administration’ of the common property.

Rethinking the approach to groundwater management

A rethink of approaches to groundwater management with a focus on adaptive approaches is a principal recommendation of this report. Standard management approaches depend heavily on the presence of basic data and on institutional capacities for regulation, scientific research, etc. at levels that may be incompatible with the problems at hand. In addition, these capacities are absent or weak in many countries. Because such capacities and data often require decades to develop, alternative approaches are essential in order to address the types of problems that are now emerging in many regions that are dependent on groundwater. Furthermore, the research suggests that strategies that build off existing trends within society or help populations to adapt may be as effective as strategies that attempt to manage the groundwater resource base directly. Research to clarify existing coping mechanisms and to identify and test the viability of adaptive strategies could represent a major starting point for an initiative to rethink groundwater. The development of criteria suggesting where traditional forms of groundwater management may or may not be possible is also a key area for work. This could be of critical importance to governments and other actors seeking to identify locations where different approaches are likely to prove viable. Finally, the development of indices to highlight where local or regional threats to food security exist and to provide early warning of emerging food security problems is important. Such indices should include extensive information on groundwater. In particular, areas of groundwater depletion should be highlighted as locations where food security risks may be high.

Basic research

Basic research on groundwater is of fundamental importance to any attempt to manage groundwater or respond to the types of problems emerging in many areas. As noted in the case of India, the implications for water access of seasonal water-level fluctuations (whether natural or related to extraction) may be at least as important as the extent of overabstraction. Large-magnitude fluctuations may be particularly important in hard-rock regions where storage is low but human dependence is high

In addition to specific environments, further research to identify techniques for the rapid and accurate evaluation of water-balance components under developing-country conditions is important. Order-of-magnitude estimates for extraction, recharge, evapotranspiration, etc. are unavailable in many regions. Research that would help to ‘tighten’ and improve water-balance models with the types of data typically available in developing countries is important.

Beyond groundwater per se, it appears important to focus further research on the changing social context in which overabstraction problems are emerging. Understanding the implications of groundwater overabstraction for food security and livelihood sustainability requires detailed understanding of how rural agricultural societies are evolving and of the coping strategies they have developed to deal with water scarcity. Whether or not people are actually able to move their livelihoods away from agriculture into other productive strategies is fundamental to understanding the impact that overabstraction may have on them. This research is essential in order to determine whether adaptive strategies can improve livelihoods while increasing the sustainability of basic groundwater resources. It is also essential in order to identify points of leverage where governments or other organizations could assist rural populations in adapting to emerging water problems.

Groundwater monitoring and data collection, dissemination and access

Many governments and other actors attach a low priority to collecting basic data on resource conditions. However, such long-term data covering all key elements of the hydrological cycle including groundwater fluctuations and water-level trends are essential as a basis for management and for evaluating the implications of changes in use. The ability to locate representative monitoring wells and boreholes is essential. In addition, models based on such data can play a central role as ‘negotiating texts’ where conflicts over resources or their management emerge within society. In the absence of such data, the parties have little basis for reaching agreement on the actual nature of groundwater systems. As a result, debates over management have little hope of reaching closure. Because data provide the foundation for social agreements regarding how aquifer systems work or the actual amount of water available, they can serve as a key tool of conflict resolution. Therefore, continued support for basic data collection and groundwater evaluation is justified on both scientific and social process grounds.

Data access is probably the most important factor determining the ability of social auditors (e.g. NGOs and other civil society actors) to press governments and society as a whole to address emerging problems and their social or environmental impacts. Therefore, activities that support data dissemination remain a key point for action. The FAO Aquastat database provides a national breakdown of groundwater-dependent irrigation (accessible at: However, attempts to refine this breakdown will encounter the data problems demonstrated above in the case of India.

Integrated management in strategic locations

Together with the need to rethink groundwater and identify new strategies to address emerging problems, continued efforts to implement integrated groundwater management using more standard regulatory and economic approaches are equally important in locations where such approaches appear viable. Because standard management approaches tend to require substantial technical support and often involve politically or economically difficult decisions, success may depend on focusing management initiatives in areas of particular strategic importance. For example, aquifers that serve as the primary source of freshwater supply for urban areas or support critical environmental values may represent strategic locations on which to focus management efforts. In most countries, such aquifers represent a small fraction of total groundwater use. They are also likely to involve uses where it is relatively easy to generate broad consensus within society regarding the importance of management and aquifer protection. As a result, approaches that focus management on such strategic locations are more likely to be successful than efforts to manage groundwater throughout broad regions.

FAO could contribute significantly to the development of management capacity by developing criteria that would assist in prioritizing management areas and identifying locations where protection would have particular strategic importance.

Laying the foundations for management in complex locations

Adaptive strategies are of equal importance and complementary to more standard groundwater management approaches. In many cases, they can provide the breathing space necessary to develop the institutions and information essential for more focused management. Thus, it is important to continue to lay the foundations for direct groundwater management even where it may not produce results in the short to intermediate term. Therefore, continued FAO support for basic groundwater data collection, the development of legal frameworks to enable management and the development of supporting organizations is important.

Disseminating global lessons

A final key point of leverage for UN-system agencies lies in the global perspective they can bring to groundwater based on actual national data sets. Governments and communities in many parts of the world are trying different approaches to groundwater monitoring, analysis and management. Harvesting and disseminating the lessons from these initiatives could serve as a catalyst for the development of approaches that are effective even in the most difficult locations. As a result, activities that support the harvesting and dissemination of instances of adaptive groundwater management (simply to show what happens) will continue to be an important activity for UN agencies involved in groundwater management. The actual experience of groundwater management, or the lack of it, needs to be charted if real responses are to be effective (Plate 8).

Plate 8 - Developing groundwater to irrigate horticultural crops with drip. Batinah plain, Oman

[J.J. Burke]

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