Regional strategies for the accelerating global problem of groundwater depletion


Groundwater—the world's largest freshwater resource—is critically important for irrigated agriculture and hence for global food security. Yet depletion is widespread in large groundwater systems in both semi-arid and humid regions of the world. Excessive extraction for irrigation where groundwater is slowly renewed is the main cause of the depletion, and climate change has the potential to exacerbate the problem in some regions. Globally aggregated groundwater depletion contributes to sea-level rise, and has accelerated markedly since the mid-twentieth century. But its impacts on water resources are more obvious at the regional scale, for example in agriculturally important parts of India, China and the United States. Food production in such regions can only be made sustainable in the long term if groundwater levels are stabilized. To this end, a transformation is required in how we value, manage and characterize groundwater systems. Technical approaches—such as water diversion, artificial groundwater recharge and efficient irrigation—have failed to balance regional groundwater budgets. They need to be complemented by more comprehensive strategies that are adapted to the specific social, economic, political and environmental settings of each region.

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Figure 1: Characteristics of the global water cycle and the rate of groundwater depletion and corresponding sea-level rise for the period 1950–2010.
Figure 2: Global groundwater depletion and the potential for changes in groundwater recharge in areas of groundwater depletion.
Figure b1: The fluxes in and out of groundwater systems.
Figure 3: Groundwater depletion for major groundwater basins in relation to extraction and aridity.
Figure 4: Setting long-term goals and backcasting as groundwater management strategies by the Texas Water Development Board.


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Edits by W. Alley, G. Ferguson and A. Reyes and discussions with P. Döll improved this manuscript. P. Döll, Y. Wada and the Texas Water Development Board provided data used in the figures. S. Mayer helped in drafting some figures. T.G. was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research junior fellowship.

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Correspondence to Werner Aeschbach-Hertig.

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Aeschbach-Hertig, W., Gleeson, T. Regional strategies for the accelerating global problem of groundwater depletion. Nature Geosci 5, 853–861 (2012).

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