Regional strategies for the accelerating global problem of groundwater depletion

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

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.

References

  1. 1

    World Water Assessment Programme. The United Nations World Water Development Report 4: Managing Water under Uncertainty and Risk. Report No. 978-92-3-104235-5, 407 (UNESCO, 2012).

  2. 2

    Vörösmarty, C. J., Green, P., Salisbury, J. & Lammers, R. B. Global water resources: Vulnerability from climate change and population growth. Science 289, 284–288 (2000).

  3. 3

    Foster, S. S. D. & Chilton, P. J. Groundwater: The processes and global significance of aquifer degradation. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 358, 1957–1972 (2003).

  4. 4

    Van der Gun, J. Groundwater and Global Change: Trends, Opportunities and Challenges. (UNESCO, 2012).

  5. 5

    Alley, W. M., Healy, R. W., LaBaugh, J. W. & Reilly, T. E. Flow and storage in groundwater systems. Science 296, 1985–1990 (2002).

  6. 6

    Sophocleous, M. Interactions between groundwater and surface water: The state of the science. Hydrogeol. J. 10, 52–67 (2002).

  7. 7

    Schwartz, F. W. & Ibaraki, M. Groundwater: A resource in decline. Elements 7, 175–179 (2011).

  8. 8

    Scanlon, B. R., Jolly, I., Sophocleous, M. & Zhang, L. Global impacts of conversions from natural to agricultural ecosystems on water resources: Quantity versus quality. Wat. Resour. Res. 43, W03437 (2007).

  9. 9

    Siebert, S. et al. Groundwater use for irrigation — a global inventory. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 14, 1863–1880 (2010).

  10. 10

    Döll, P. et al. Impact of water withdrawals from groundwater and surface water on continental water storage variations. J. Geodyn. 59–60, 143–156 (2011).

  11. 11

    World Water Assessment Programme. The United Nations World Water Development Report 3: Water in a Changing World. Report No. 978-92-3-104235-5, 407 (UNESCO, 2009).

  12. 12

    Giordano, M. Global groundwater? Issues and solutions. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 34, 153–178 (2009).

  13. 13

    Giordano, M. & Villholth, K. G. (eds). The Agricultural Groundwater Revolution: Opportunities and Threats to Development. (CABI, 2007).

  14. 14

    Konikow, L. F. & Kendy, E. Groundwater depletion: A global problem. Hydrogeol. J. 13, 317–320 (2005).

  15. 15

    Fishman, R. M., Siegfried, T., Raj, P., Modi, V. & Lall, U. Over-extraction from shallow bedrock versus deep alluvial aquifers: Reliability versus sustainability considerations for India's groundwater irrigation. Water Resour. Res. 47, W00L05 (2011).

  16. 16

    Shah, T. in The Agricultural Groundwater Revolution: Opportunities and Threats to Development (eds Giordano, M. & Villholth, K. G.) 7–36 (CABI, 2007).

  17. 17

    Sophocleous, M. From safe yield to sustainable development of water resources — the Kansas experience. J. Hydrol. 235, 27–43 (2000).

  18. 18

    Brunner, P. & Kinzelbach, W. in Encyclopedia of Hydrological Sciences (ed. Anderson, M. P.) (Wiley, 2008).

  19. 19

    Fogg, G. E. & LaBolle, E. M. Motivation of synthesis, with an example on groundwater quality sustainability. Wat. Resour. Res. 42, W03S05 (2006).

  20. 20

    Fendorf, S., Michael, H. A. & van Geen, A. Spatial and temporal variations of groundwater arsenic in south and southeast Asia. Science 328, 1123–1127 (2010).

  21. 21

    Döll, P. Vulnerability to the impact of climate change on renewable groundwater resources: A global-scale assessment. Environ. Res. Lett. 4, 035006 (2009).

  22. 22

    Döll, P. & Fiedler, K. Global-scale modeling of groundwater recharge. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 12, 863–885 (2008).

  23. 23

    Konikow, L. F. Contribution of global groundwater depletion since 1900 to sea-level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L17401 (2011).

  24. 24

    Scanlon, B. R. et al. Groundwater depletion and sustainability of irrigation in the US High Plains and Central Valley. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 9320–9325 (2012).

  25. 25

    Rodell, M., Velicogna, I. & Famiglietti, J. S. Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in India. Nature 460, 999–1003 (2009).

  26. 26

    Longuevergne, L., Scanlon, B. R. & Wilson, C. R. GRACE hydrological estimates for small basins: Evaluating processing approaches on the High Plains Aquifer, USA. Wat. Resour. Res. 46, W11517 (2010).

  27. 27

    Famiglietti, J. S. et al. Satellites measure recent rates of groundwater depletion in California's Central Valley. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L03403 (2011).

  28. 28

    Wada, Y. et al. Global depletion of groundwater resources. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L20402 (2010).

  29. 29

    Wada, Y. et al. Past and future contribution of global groundwater depletion to sea-level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L09402 (2012).

  30. 30

    Pokhrel, Y. N. et al. Model estimates of sea-level change due to anthropogenic impacts on terrestrial water storage. Nature Geosci. 5, 389–392 (2012).

  31. 31

    Wada, Y., van Beek, L. P. H. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Nonsustainable groundwater sustaining irrigation: A global assessment. Wat. Resour. Res. 48 (2012).

  32. 32

    Gleeson, T., Wada, Y., Bierkens, M. F. P. & van Beek, L. P. H. Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint. Nature 488, 197–200 (2012).

  33. 33

    Tiwari, V. M., Wahr, J. & Swenson, S. Dwindling groundwater resources in northern India, from satellite gravity observations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L18401 (2009).

  34. 34

    Shah, T. Climate change and groundwater: India's opportunities for mitigation and adaptation. Environ. Res. Lett. 4, 035005 (2009).

  35. 35

    Kendy, E. The false promise of sustainable pumping rates. Ground Wat. 41, 2–4 (2003).

  36. 36

    Kendy, E., Zhang, Y. Q., Liu, C. M., Wang, J. X. & Steenhuis, T. Groundwater recharge from irrigated cropland in the North China Plain: Case study of Luancheng County, Hebei Province, 1949–2000. Hydrol. Processes 18, 2289–2302 (2004).

  37. 37

    Foster, S. et al. Quaternary aquifer of the North China Plain — assessing and achieving groundwater resource sustainability. Hydrogeol. J. 12, 81–93 (2004).

  38. 38

    Liu, J., Zheng, C., Zheng, L. & Lei, Y. Ground water sustainability: methodology and application to the North China Plain. Ground Wat. 46, 897–909 (2008).

  39. 39

    von Rohden, C., Kreuzer, A., Chen, Z. Y., Kipfer, R. & Aeschbach-Hertig, W. Characterizing the recharge regime of the strongly exploited aquifers of the North China Plain by environmental tracers. Wat. Resour. Res. 46, W05511 (2010).

  40. 40

    McMahon, P. B., Böhlke, J. K. & Christenson, S. C. Geochemistry, radiocarbon ages, and paleorecharge conditions along a transect in the central High Plains aquifer, southwestern Kansas, USA. Appl. Geochem. 19, 1655–1686 (2004).

  41. 41

    Bredehoeft, J. D. The water budget myth revisited: why hydrogeologists model. Ground Wat. 40, 340–345 (2002).

  42. 42

    Alley, W. M. & Leake, S. A. The journey from safe yield to sustainability. Ground Wat. 42, 12–16 (2004).

  43. 43

    Devlin, J. F. & Sophocleous, M. The persistence of the water budget myth and its relationship to sustainability. Hydrogeol. J. 13, 549–554 (2005).

  44. 44

    Zhou, Y. A critical review of groundwater budget myth, safe yield and sustainability. J. Hydrol. 370 (2009).

  45. 45

    Sophocleous, M. Managing water resources systems: Why 'safe yield' is not sustainable. Ground Wat. 35, 561 (1997).

  46. 46

    Bredehoeft, J. D. & Durbin, T. Ground water development—the time to full capture problem. Ground Wat. 47, 506–514 (2009).

  47. 47

    Green, T. R. et al. Beneath the surface of global change: Impacts of climate change on groundwater. J. Hydrol. 405, 532–560 (2011).

  48. 48

    Foley, J. A. et al. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337–342 (2011).

  49. 49

    Allan, J. A. Virtual water: A strategic resource global solutions to regional deficits. Ground Wat. 36, 545–546 (1998).

  50. 50

    Liu, J., Zehnder, A. J. B. & Yang, H. Global consumptive water use for crop production: The importance of green water and virtual water. Wat. Resour. Res. 45, W05428 (2009).

  51. 51

    Kundzewicz, Z. W. et al. Freshwater resources and their management. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (eds Parry, M. L. et al.) 173–210 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  52. 52

    Bates, B. C., Kundzewicz, Z. W., Wu, S. & Palutikof, J. P. (eds). Climate Change and Water (IPCC Secretariat, 2008).

  53. 53

    Scanlon, B. R. et al. Global synthesis of groundwater recharge in semiarid and arid regions. Hydrol. Processes 20, 3335–3370 (2006).

  54. 54

    Weider, K. & Boutt, D. F. Heterogeneous water table response to climate revealed by 60 years of ground water data. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L24405 (2010).

  55. 55

    Kundzewicz, Z. W. & Döll, P. Will groundwater ease freshwater stress under climate change? Hydrol. Sci. J. 54, 665–675 (2009).

  56. 56

    Allen, D. M., Cannon, A. J., Toews, W. & Scibek, J. Variability in simulated recharge using different GCMs. Wat. Resour. Res. 46, W00F03 (2010).

  57. 57

    Crosbie, R. S. et al. Differences in future recharge estimates due to GCMs, downscaling methods and hydrological models. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L11406 (2011).

  58. 58

    Gleick, P. H. Global freshwater resources: soft-path solutions for the 21st century. Science 302, 1524–1528 (2003).

  59. 59

    Stone, R. & Jia, H. Going against the flow. Science 313, 1034–1037 (2006).

  60. 60

    Gleeson, T. et al. Groundwater sustainability strategies. Nature Geosci. 3, 378–379 (2010).

  61. 61

    Gleeson, T. et al. Towards sustainable groundwater use: Setting long-term goals, backcasting, and managing adaptively. Ground Wat. 50, 19–26 (2012).

  62. 62

    Seward, P., Xu, Y. & Brendonck, L. Sustainable groundwater used, the capture principle, and adaptive management. Wat. SA 32, 473–482 (2006).

  63. 63

    McMichael, A. J., Butler, C. D. & Folke, C. New visions for addressing sustainability. Science 302, 1919–1920 (2003).

  64. 64

    Norton, B. G. Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management, 607 (Univ. Chicago Press, 2005).

  65. 65

    Vörösmarty, C. J. et al. Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Nature 467, 555–561 (2010).

  66. 66

    Brooks, D. B., Brandes, O. M. & Gurman, S. (eds). Making the Most of the Water We Have: The Soft Path Approach to Water Management (Routledge, 2009).

  67. 67

    Hutchison, W. R. The use of groundwater availability models in Texas in the establishment of desired future conditions. GSA Annual Meeting 2010 (Geological Society of America, 2010).

  68. 68

    Theesfeld, I. Institutional challenges for national groundwater governance: Policies and issues. Ground Wat. 48, 131–142 (2010).

  69. 69

    Nelson, R. L. Assessing local planning to control groundwater depletion: California as a microcosm of global issues. Water Resour. Res. 48, W01502 (2012).

  70. 70

    Sagala, J. K. & Smith, Z. A. Comparative groundwater management: findings from an exploratory global survey. Wat. Int. 33, 258–267 (2008).

  71. 71

    Sophocleous, M. Review: Groundwater management practices, challenges, and innovations in the High Plains aquifer, USA — lessons and recommended actions. Hydrogeol. J. 18, 559–575 (2010).

  72. 72

    Scott, C. A. & Sharma, B. Energy supply and the expansion of groundwater irrigation in the Indus–Ganges Basin. Int. J. River Basin Manage. 7, 119–124 (2009).

  73. 73

    Ostrom, E. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990).

  74. 74

    Koundouri, P. Current issues in the economics of groundwater resource management. J. Econ. Surveys 18, 703–740 (2004).

  75. 75

    Scott, C. A. The water–energy–climate nexus: Resources and policy outlook for aquifers in Mexico. Wat. Resour. Res. 47, W00L04 (2011).

  76. 76

    World Bank. Deep Wells and Prudence: Towards Pragmatic Action for Addressing Groundwater Overexploitation in India. Report No. 51676, (The World Bank, 2010).

  77. 77

    Chapagain, A. K., Hoekstra, A. Y. & Savenije, H. G. Water saving through international trade of agricultural products. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 10, 455–468 (2006).

  78. 78

    Kinzelbach, W., Bauer, P., Siegfried, T. & Brunner, P. Sustainable groundwater management — problems and scientific tools. Episodes 26, 279–284 (2003).

  79. 79

    Goderniaux, P. et al. Modeling climate change impacts on groundwater resources using transient stochastic climatic scenarios. Wat. Resour. Res. 47, W12516 (2011).

  80. 80

    Scibek, J. & Allen, D. M. Modeled impacts of predicted climate change on recharge and groundwater levels. Wat. Resour. Res. 42, W11405 (2006).

  81. 81

    van Roosmalen, L., Sonnenborg, T. O. & Jensen, K. H. Impact of climate and land use change on the hydrology of a large-scale agricultural catchment. Wat. Resour. Res. 45, W00A15 (2009).

  82. 82

    Shiklomanov, I. A. Appraisal and assessment of world water resources. Wat. Int. 25, 11–32 (2000).

  83. 83

    UNESCO. World Water Balance and Water Resources of the Earth. USSR Committee for the International Hydrologic Decade (UNESCO, Paris, 1978).

  84. 84

    Falkenmark, M. & Rockström, J. The new blue and green water paradigm: Breaking new ground for water resources planning and management. J. Wat. Resour. Plann. Manage. 132, 129–132 (2006).

  85. 85

    Hoff, H. et al. Greening the global water system. J. Hydrol. 384, 177–186 (2010).

  86. 86

    Hoekstra, A. Y., Chapagain, A. K., Aldaya, M. M. & Mekonnen, M. M. The Water Footprint Assessment Manual: Setting the Global Standard (Earthscan, 2011).

  87. 87

    BGR/UNESCO. Groundwater resources of the world 1:25000000. (BGR, 2008).

  88. 88

    Zomer, R. J., Trabucco, A., Bossio, D. A. & Verchot, L. V. Climate change mitigation: A spatial analysis of global land suitability for clean development mechanism afforestation and reforestation. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 126, 67–80 (2008).

  89. 89

    UNEP. World Atlas of Desertification 2ED, 182 (United Nations Environment Programme, 1997).

  90. 90

    Theis, C. V. The source of water derived from wells. Civ. Eng. 10, 277–280 (1940).

  91. 91

    Sophocleous, M. On understanding and predicting groundwater response time. Ground Wat. 50, 528–540 (2012).

  92. 92

    Kazemi, G. A., Lehr, J. H. & Perrochet, P. Groundwater Age, 325 (Wiley, 2006).

  93. 93

    Cook, P. G. & Herczeg, A. L. (eds). Environmental Tracers in Subsurface Hydrology (Kluwer, 2000).

  94. 94

    Newman, B. D. et al. Dating of 'young' groundwaters using environmental tracers: advantages, applications, and research needs. Isot. Environ. Health Stud. 46, 259–278 (2010).

  95. 95

    Sturchio, N. C. et al. One million year old groundwater in the Sahara revealed by krypton-81 and chlorine-36. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L05503 (2004).

  96. 96

    McMahon, P. B., Plummer, L. N., Böhlke, J. K., Shapiro, S. D. & Hinkle, S. R. A comparison of recharge rates in aquifers of the United States based on groundwater-age data. Hydrogeol. J. 19, 779–800 (2011).

  97. 97

    Visser, A., Broers, H. P., van der Grift, B. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Demonstrating trend reversal of groundwater quality in relation to time of recharge determined by 3H/3He. Environ. Pollut. 148, 797–807 (2007).

  98. 98

    van der Gun, J. & Lipponen, A. Reconciling groundwater storage depletion due to pumping with sustainability. Sustainability 2, 3418–3435 (2010).

  99. 99

    Foster, S. S. D. & Loucks, D. P. Non-Renewable Groundwater Resources: A Guidebook on Socially-Sustainable Management for Water-Policy Makers (UNESCO, 2006).

  100. 100

    Neumayer, E. Weak Versus Strong Sustainability: Exploring the Limits of Two Opposing Paradigms (Edward Elgar, 2003).

  101. 101

    Uddameri, V. Sustainability and groundwater management. Clean Technol. Environ. Policy 7, 231–232 (2005).

  102. 102

    Wackernagel, M. & Rees, W. Our Ecological Footprint (New Society, 1996).

  103. 103

    Hoekstra, A. Y. Human appropriation of natural capital: A comparison of ecological footprint and water footprint analysis. Ecol. Econ. 68, 1963–1974 (2009).

  104. 104

    Hoekstra, A. Y. & Mekonnen, M. M. The water footprint of humanity. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 3232–3237 (2012).

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

Both authors contributed equally to this paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Werner Aeschbach-Hertig.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Aeschbach-Hertig, W., Gleeson, T. Regional strategies for the accelerating global problem of groundwater depletion. Nature Geosci 5, 853–861 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1617

Download citation

Further reading