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)
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The measurements show how much water was withdrawn from the globe’s 37 largest groundwater basins and found that 21 of the basins are being drained at unsustainable rates.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.
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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.
- Bad news for India, probably for China, perhaps for the US as well — About using up our groundwater reserves.
- Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem.
- Looking at natural resources as limits to growth.