Out of sight is out of mind for groundwater

Scientists say there needs to be a greater understanding of groundwater.

WATER LESSON: An irrigation district in South Australia is being celebrated for ushering in a greater respect for the value of groundwater. Picture: Flinders University.

Out of sight is out of mind for most of the world's water.

Many Australians would go thirsty, and devastate the nation's agricultural produyction, if not for the water flowing beneath our feet.

The importance of groundwater has been highlighted by scientists from around the world.

They point out the "invisible" underground water is often the only water supply available across the vast majority of Australia.

Its annual contribution to the nation's economic wealth is estimated at more than $6.8 billion a year.

Overuse of groundwater during droughts and aquifer depletion has led to water crises, including in Australia's "food bowl", the Murray-Darling Basin, the scientists say.

Experts have already investigated similar groundwater overuse in California and Cape Town in South Africa.

The scientists say groundwater management is largely reactive and unlikely to avert more crises as climate change and population pressures grow.

A United Nations water development report released last month asked why are these vital resources are poorly managed and misunderstood?

Globally, the need to manage freshwater supplies is rising daily, with the UN report warning for large tracts of highly populated and other arid and semi-arid countries around the world face dire shortages if more regulations are not put in place on groundwater.

A 2009 World Resources Group report forecast the world would face a 40 per cent water deficit by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario.

"Groundwater makes up almost all of the available freshwater on our planet: 97% of fresh water on earth lies in the ground beneath our feet," Flinders University's Professor Craig Simmons, a lead contributor the UN report, said.

Groundwater supplies half of the world's drinking water and 43 per cent of the water used to grow food, and is widely used by mining and industry.

Prof Simmons says examples of commercial interests such as irrigators working collaboratively with local communities on groundwater management and protection are necessary to protect valuable groundwater resources.

He cited the Angus Bremer irrigation district in South Australia, known as Australia's driest state, as a success story.

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He said the collective action taken in that district provides guidelines for future management and possible government reforms.

The irrigation district is at the lower end of the complex and sensitive Murray-Darling.

Located at the end of the basin, the Angas Bremer area does not have control over upstream water-management decisions but did commence work on co-management plans more than 50 years ago.

A new scientific paper on the Angas Bremer considered the collective local economic, social, and environmental decisions which have helped create a valuable example of groundwater management for others around the world, Prof Simmons says.

"By working together with the government department, the local committee has developed and implemented innovative water management policies which led to reduction of groundwater extractions by 80 per cent, promoted artificial recharge from excess surface water, changed crops for increase profitability, and decreased water consumptions, and constructed pipelines accessing surface-water sources," the study concludes.

While central government regulation and funding is important, this case study highlights the benefits of regulators giving local users some autonomy to devise their own rules and build trust between key stakeholders.

The UN report said groundwater withdrawal rates keep rising, with agricultural sector using about 69pc of the total volume, 22pc for domestic uses and 9pc for industrial purposes.

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