A warning about water: we’re exhausting our groundwater reservoirs

Summary: A groundbreaking study shows that nearly a third of all underground water basins are stressed and how this year’s monsoons and El Niño are affecting these water supplies. It’s more evidence that we need better measurement and analysis of our world, and to take our exploitation of it off “exploit at will” mode. There are limits, and we are on course to slam into them — hard.

The world’s major groundwater basins (color shows rate of depletion)

NASA: depletion rates of groundwater
From NASA. Click to enlarge.

 We’re exhausting freshwater reserves,
one of Earth’s most valuable but unpriced resources.

Excerpt from the July 2015 issue of the Browning Newsletter
Posted with their generous permission.

NASA and international scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Taiwan University and UC Santa Barbara, have conducted a major global survey of underground water basins and made important findings. Roughly one-third of Earth’s largest aquifers are being rapidly depleted by human consumption. Some of these basins are as important as the Indus River basin, the Northern Chinese basin and the Southern California Basin.

The recent article in the Water Resources Research journal used years of data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites. GRACE measures dips and bumps in Earth’s gravity, which are affected by the mass of water.

The measurements show how much water was withdrawn from the globe’s 37 largest groundwater basins and found that 21 of the basins are being drained at unsustainable rates. Thirteen showed heavy drainage and little to no natural refill. Eight were classified as “overstressed,” with nearly no natural replenishment to offset usage. Another five were found to be “extremely” or “highly” stressed, with measurements showing they were being depleted but had some water flowing back into them.

The most overstressed water system in the world is the Arabian Aquifer System, an important water source for more than 60 million people. The Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan is the second-most overstressed, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin in northern Africa is third.

Notice, some areas, like the Ganges Brahmaputra basin in Northern India are being drained more rapidly, but larger aquifers with more recharge and deeper basins are safer than some of the shallower basins in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

This report was accompanied by another paper by the same team noting the current lack of scientific information on how much water is left in many of these basins. This ignorance leaves policy-makers unable to calculate how many more years of water is available in some of the globe’s most crucial aquifers.

As Figure 10 shows, at least one basin, the Ogallala Basin beneath the Great Plains in the US has shown considerable deterioration since the last measurements in 2013. The big question is whether this year’s monsoons and summer rains are going to increase or decrease the stress on these already distressed water basins.

This newsletter contains articles, observations and facts to support our contention that humanity is significantly influenced by changing climate. Our calculations show the climate, over the next term, will cause dramatic changes in our social and economic patterns. We feel that readers, attuned to the changes that are occurring, may develop a competitive edge; and, by understanding their current and future environment, can use the momentum of change to their advantage.

 © Evelyn Browning Garriss

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Evelyn Browning

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For the past 20 years she has taught professional seminars, lectured and/or conducted international seminars in the United States, Canada, England, Singapore, Korea, Central America and the Pacific Islands. In addition to her work as editor of the Browning Newsletter, she does daily consulting and contract research for businesses and investors.

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Clear vision

For More Information

For more about these studies see the NASA press release and the two papers in Water Resources Research: “Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE” and “Uncertainty in global groundwater stress estimates in a total groundwater stress framework”“.

An important message from NOAA about the hysteria about this El Niño: “Keep calm and stop obsessing over weekly changes in ENSO” by Michelle L’Heureux, 7 July 2015.

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4 thoughts on “A warning about water: we’re exhausting our groundwater reservoirs

  1. Personally, I prefer the data-based reasoning from scientific papers or elsewhere that you present on your site to the hysterics elsewhere. Lacking data, expert testimony in a legal or semi-legal setting is an inadequate, but perhaps necessary fallback. A third source is documents from the government either relesaed through legal action or not deliberately leaked . All the rest is hearsay.

  2. Note that much of this depleting groundeater lies above the Sahara and the Sahel, a politically unstable region where Boko Haram, ISIS, drug smugglers, and sundry other such types operate.

    Currently China, India, various Arab nations, and other primarily Asian nations are engaged in a “Great African Land Grab,” purchasing vast tracts of African land in order to secure their food supplies. This involves irrigation as well as other Green Revolution agricultural practices.

    Consistent but dfstinct from this are efforts by the Gates Foundation and others seekng to introduce modernized agricultural practices into Africa.

    While arguably these Green Revolution practices may boost food output, they also disrupt traditonal peasant societies. This adds to the political unrest already present.

    1. Duncan,

      Great points!

      What struck me from this is that our Great Plains reservoirs, being sucked up at an alarming rate, are among the better off. That put these worse off ones in an ominous perspective.

      They said that scientists lack the data to forecast exhaustion dates, another example of our disinterest in obtaining accurate information about our world. Activists on the Left want to control without knowledge, and on the Right want more military stuff (like the F-35, no matter if it serves a useful purpose or even works).

      We have to retake the reins from these self-interested clowns, or suffer the ugly result. I doubt future generations will buy our whines that “it wasn’t our fault”, or applaud our cries “it was hopeless, so we had to stay on our couches and watch TV”.

  3. In US pricing poor out of water!
    http://www.thenation.com/article/in-flint-michigan-overpriced-water-is-causing-peoples-skin-to-erupt-and-hair-to-fall-out/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=daily&utm_campaign=THURSDAY%20Nation%20Daily%2020150716
    In Flint, Michigan, Overpriced Water is Causing People’s Skin to Erupt in Rashes and Hair to Fall Out.
    As the nation’s infrastructure falls apart, water is becoming more expensive and less safe.
    http://www.thenation.com/article/the-california-drought-is-just-the-beginning-of-our-national-water-emergency/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=daily&utm_campaign=WEDNESDAY%20Nation%20Daily%2020150715
    The California Drought Is Just the Beginning of Our National Water Emergency
    For years, Americans dismissed dire water shortages as a problem of the Global South. Now the crisis is coming home.

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