Australia should take a lead in tackling the emerging global crisis in groundwater, according to one of the nation's most eminent water scientists.
Professor Craig Simmons, director of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT), was commenting on a recent UNESCO report warning degradation and depletion of the world's precious reserves of groundwater was continuing unabated on a global scale.
"There is undoubtedly a very serious situation emerging with respect to groundwater in certain parts of the world," Prof Simmons said.
"In the 1990s, the world extracted about 102 cubic kilometres a year, but in the 2000s this rose to 145 cu kms — and there is every indication it has continued to increase.
"In many situations groundwater is a finite resource and is not renewed at anything like the rates it is being extracted. This poses real risks for economic growth, the sustainability of huge cities and vital industries like food
and energy production
, especially in dry, heavily-populated regions."
Prof Simmons says that as a technologically-advanced country when it comes to water, Australia has an obligation to help its neighbours come to grips with the silent menace of global groundwater depletion.
"One of the main reasons groundwater declines is simply that people don't know how much they have, or how long it takes to recharge. Thanks to significant research investment, these are matters that Australia is rapidly coming to grips with. We now have real knowledge and expertise that can be taken advantage of.
"As a leader in water management and technologies, we have an obligation to support our neighbours in relation to groundwater."
The UNESCO report 'Groundwater and Global Change' emphasises that groundwater is the world's largest fresh water reserve. It warns that "current stresses on groundwater systems are without precedent in many parts of the world. These stresses are still increasing and produce considerable risk and uncertainty".
In cases where fresh aquifers are being flooded by sea-level rise, the situation appears irretrievable, it notes. Considerable risks also exist where groundwater is non renewable, especially in arid and semi-arid regions, and where shallow groundwater in urban and industrial areas is exposed to severe pollution.
"All these cases of degrading fresh groundwater resources constitute 'creeping' problems that remain dormant for some time, but may produce disasters over the long term," the report warns.
The UNESCO study lists among areas of significant groundwater decline as California and the High Plains in the US, the Mexico Basin, several river basins in Spain, the Arabian peninsula, Iran, the Indus basin in India, the North China Plain and the Great Artesian Basin in Australia.
"In addition to these documented examples, there are numerous other aquifers around the world where groundwater levels have declined or are still declining, with variable impacts on society and the environment," it says.
Julia Bucknall, manager of the World Banks' central unit for water said: "I would describe the global groundwater situation as one in which the world is eating into their savings account without knowing how much they have in savings, how much they are using, how long they can carry on doing it — or what will happen when the savings run out."
She says the most urgent priorities for tackling the global groundwater situation are "Information, communication, dedication".
"Australia is the canary in the coalmine. It shows the rest of us what to expect, and as a result has lessons and expertise from which many other countries can benefit," Bucknall said.
Prof. Simmons adds: "There is a real opportunity for Australia to form strategic partnerships and to work on important groundwater projects in countries abroad that have and continue to face groundwater challenges like we do. These opportunities transcend research, training, knowledge and adoption and community outreach activities.
"There will also be exciting opportunities for Australians to learn about water challenges abroad, to learn about water and groundwater in other countries, and to hear how other countries manage their water resources. There will be lessons and insights in there for Australia and how we manage our water.
"Such partnerships will be a win-win for all involved — sharing our knowledge and expertise in a bilateral exchange of ideas and experiences that will lead to a better collective understanding of water and its responsible management globally."
The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training is an Australian Government initiative, supported by the Australian Research Council and the National Water Commission.
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