Water for Food

Groundwater governance – A pathway to sustaining the benefits of groundwater and its contribution to food security

April 4, 2017
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Dany Sternfeld, Flickr

Mohamed Bazza, Senior Water Resources Officer, Land and Water Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Italy

By Mohamed Bazza, Senior Water Resources Officer, Land and Water Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Italy

Bazza is a featured speaker at the 2017 Water for Food Global Conference session on “Groundwater Governance from Field to Global Scales,” April 12 from 10:30-noon CT. The session will be streamed live on our website and archived on our YouTube channel.

The world has come to depend on groundwater to an extent that few of us are aware of. It provides domestic water to around 50 percent of the world population, services over 40 percent of the planet’s irrigated agriculture and accounts for an important share of water supply needs for industry and other uses. Groundwater is indispensable to economic development and shared prosperity, poverty reduction and food security. Hundreds of thousands of poor smallholder farmers and their families depend on it to irrigate their crops and sustain their livelihoods. It plays a crucial role in sustaining the flow of rivers and aquatic ecosystems worldwide and in adapting to climate change. It constitutes the main source of water in water-scarce regions and acts as a buffer against drought and climatic extremes.

We have been able to reap the benefits of groundwater to respond to demographic pressures and the growth of economic prosperity thanks to developments in science and technology of the post-Green Revolution. Unfortunately, we did so with the overall attitude of taking groundwater for granted and simply exploiting it according to individual demands that prevailed in most countries of the world before the Green Revolution. It is true that the increased reliance on groundwater and the resulting changes in the state of its systems have triggered a growing awareness of the finite limitations and vulnerability of this critical resource. Most countries have embraced good groundwater management policies, usually initiated by governments. Groundwater policies supportthe controlled exploitation and protection of groundwater to achieve broad societal goals. In spite of these efforts, however, groundwater exploitation at the global level remains unsustainable. Effective management is often hampered by poor coordination and co-operation between relevant actors and/or by a lack of capable institutions and instruments which can align stakeholder behavior with policy objectives.

As a result, global groundwater withdrawals have tripled over the past half century, but more than a fourth of current withdrawals are non-sustainable. Widespread groundwater pollution is threatening humans and the environment. Most urban aquifers suffer from sanitation issues while coastal aquifers are exposed to saline water intrusion. Industrial pollution, pesticides and fertilizers also find their way into reservoirs. According to Dalin, C. et al. (2017), in the year 2000 it was estimated that about 20 percent of the global irrigated area was supplied with non-renewable resources; ten years later this increased by more than a fifth. The use of non-renewable groundwater over the same period has doubled in China and increased significantly in India and the U.S., according to the same authors. A large share of these resources is used to produce food crops –— which are consumed domestically or traded –— and significantly contribute to global food security.

The question, therefore, is what will be the future of global food security if the current rate of groundwater withdrawal continues unabated — knowing that the world demand for food is expected to surge by 60 percent[1] by the year 2050 and more water will be needed for agricultural production, according to FAO (2014)? The answer to this question lies is addressing the main issue of groundwater which is of governance dimension, according to the recent project: “Groundwater Governance – A Global Framework for Action”.[2] Through collaborative efforts and a worldwide process of consultations with groundwater professionals, users and managers from more than 100 countries, this project has generated a Shared Vision and a Framework for Action. These are adaptable to local contexts and provide the enabling framework and guiding principles for achieving effective governance of groundwater.

The Vision guides the set-up of governance objectives sought in a given context (national or region thereof, aquifer) to protect groundwater resources and sustain their benefits and services, through the creation of an enabling environment and collective responsibility for groundwater, information/ knowledge availability and sharing, management plans, resourced institutions and finances. Translation of the vision into practice is based on five principles: managing surface and groundwater conjunctively; harmonizing land and water management; ensuring co-governance of subsurface space with groundwater; fostering vertical integration between national and local levels; and coordinating the macro-policies of sectors that use or affect surface water with that of groundwater.

The Framework for Action describes the main steps required to achieve the goals sought. It provides the overarching structure for action by various actors, both inside and outside the groundwater community, who are in a position to make a difference, including well owners, groundwater users and concerned citizens.


Dalin, C., Wada, Y., Kastner, T. and Puma, M.J. 2017. Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade. Nature, Volume: 543 (Pages:700–704). Available at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v543/n7647/full/nature21403.html

FAO. 2015. Global agencies call for urgent action to avoid irreversible groundwater depletion. Joint Press Release. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/283080/icode/

FAO, 2014. Water Governance for Agriculture and Food Security. Twenty-fourth Session of the Committee for Agriculture, 29 September-3 October, Rome.

[1] The base is global food demand for the year 2000.

[2] Financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) the project was executed jointly by FAO, UNESCO IHP, International Association of Hydrogeologists and the World Bank between 2011 and 2016 (www.groundwatergovernance.org).


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