Disappearing groundwater around the world

March 24, 2023, 2:06 p.m.

Deep under our feet there are aquifers that together hold more water than all the lakes and rivers on Earth. They don’t often look like this. Most groundwater is held in layers of rock or sand.

Many aquifers contain what’s called “fossil water,” and what that means is it took thousands of years to get here.

Earth is home to yet another type of water—groundwater—which includes all the fresh water stored underground in soil and porous rock aquifers. Though groundwater is often forgotten because it’s not visible, more than three billion people rely on it as their primary water source.

With a metal straw and a diesel engine, we can reach aquifers 3000 feet down. Humanity started this kind of industrial pumping of water just a hundred years ago. And it’s been so successful nearly half the water used for farm irrigation comes from underground. This water grows almost one fifth of the world’s food supply.

With drought afflicting several parts of the world, and with aggressive use of groundwater in many agricultural regions, this precious water resource is under serious strain.

In many parts of the world, in particular in the dry, mid-latitudes, far more water is used than is available on an annual, renewable basis. Precipitation, snowmelt, and streamflow are no longer enough to supply the multiple, competing demands for society’s water needs. Because the gap between supply and demand is routinely bridged with non-renewable groundwater, even more so during drought, groundwater supplies in some major aquifers will be depleted in a matter of decades. The myth of limitless water and the free-for-all mentality that has pervaded groundwater use must now come to an end.

Most of the major aquifers in the world’s arid and semi-arid zones—the parts of the world that rely most heavily on groundwater—are experiencing rapid rates of depletion.

Humans are depleting vital groundwater resources across the globe. About 70 percent of freshwater around the globe goes toward irrigation. As global groundwater disappears, rice, wheat and other international crops may start to vanish.

Populations continue to grow and drought frequency rises.

Some regions have attempted to tackle the groundwater problem, but nothing is being done on a global scale.

There’s 37 major aquifers around the world. And over half of them are past sustainability tipping points, which means we use more than is being replenished on an annual basis, and we’re technically mining them.

So, as that groundwater disappears, our ability to produce food for the world’s growing population will be threatened.

We’re headed to major threats to food security.

Water is the public’s resource, and it should be used responsibly and preserved. We can do this.

Do you think this is a problem that concerns everyone and how should it be solved?

March 24, 2023, 2:10 p.m.
Reply to: Yulay Musin(March 24, 2023, 2:06 p.m.)

Deep under our feet there are aquifers that together hold more water than all the lakes and rivers on Earth. They don’t often look like this. Most…

Another problem with the disappearance of groundwater is that after pumping water underground, voids form that destroy cities.

Wide swaths of ground beneath many cities around the world are steadily compacting after long ago being drained of water.

That kind of compaction is irreversible, and it’s responsible for the appearance of extensive fractures that damage buildings, historical sites, sewers, and gas and water lines in cities. The fracturing is also opening up the ground to contaminated surface waters, which could make access to clean water in cities, already difficult, even worse.

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