Photo courtesy of Daily News

Today is World Water Day

Each World Water Day brings with it a new theme and a new resurgence of interest, although momentary, in that most critical source of support for human lives and ecosystems – water. Each global theme highlights a specific aspect of water, always to be viewed within the looming threat of global climate change. This year’s theme for World Water Day is Groundwater: Making the Invisible, Visible. With that, the average water conscious environment savvy citizen is faced with the least known challenge to water conservation.

Groundwater is the critical resource that provides for almost half of all drinking water worldwide, about 40% of water for irrigated agriculture and about 1/3 of water required for industry. Groundwater conservation is an important part of climate change adaptation process and is often a solution for many people without access to safe water.

Despite of its importance, the very invisible groundwater is out of sight and out of mind for most people. Unlike polluted lakes, garbage filled tanks and sand-mined rivers, it is difficult to see the current and potential damage unless the source actually depletes and runs dry. Therefore groundwater conservation and infiltration is not in the forefront of activities. Also a groundwater rejuvenation activity does not show the same instant results like a stream clean up or a tree planting campaign. Its results are like groundwater itself, lies buried and invisible to the most part. Perhaps this is why there does not seem to be a national policy on groundwater in Sri Lanka.

The new Working Group II report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has provided a clear view of the threat of global climate change. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the report “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”. These impacts will be felt in Sri Lanka.

These stratospheric pronouncements only reach professionals, policy makers, academics and hopefully,  politicians. These statements and related implications do not reach the groups most affected by climate change and water insecurity – the community groups, men, women and children anxious about their livelihoods and livestock. In particular it does not reach the girl children collecting water at the expense of their education or women striving to augment their meagre livelihoods with home gardening or livestock breeding.

But it is these groups who are the frontline of the battle for water security, facing almost day to day struggle for water. Studies of the community level problems related to groundwater are very  limited but news media, both print and visual, carry stories of water deprivation almost every day. Many of these news reports refer to depletion of groundwater and thereby, most importantly, loss of community drinking water. Human activities including increased population, pollution and  climate variability are rapidly increasing the pressure on groundwater resources.

Last year’s article on World Water Day on Groundviews raised the issue of groundwater depletion. “It is imperative to resuscitate traditional sources and flows as insurance against climate variability. Wells are being abandoned and filled in when piped water supply comes in. Protecting the existent household and community dug wells, restoring communal springs and small streams is important in a future scenario where each and every water source becomes precious.”

Ownership and stewardship related to groundwater is complex. Many of the groundwater related community conflicts highlight instances where over extraction by a single person or entity has left an entire neighbourhood dry. A few community groups and water related civil society organisations are seen as embarking on rejuvenating springs and recharging groundwater. But the invisible groundwater is still very much a Cinderella issue whose time is yet to come.

The 2022 IPCC report also discusses  climate adaptation approaches are most effective and feasible. The latest reports of climate scientists reiterates a degree of global warming that pinpoints to dire consequences for water security. So what needs to be done if Sri Lanka is to use this opportunity piggy backing on the global boost given by Year of Groundwater?

The country needs to recognise the value and vulnerability of this invisible resource, enhance knowledge about groundwater and increase collaborative action in responsible stewardship related to groundwater. Sri Lanka has highly qualified professionals who must approach this issue through exploratory roundtables leading to a focused planning platform with an integrated  perspective.

Universities need to undertake field based research encouraging undergraduate studies on groundwater, not merely as hydrological studies but exploring its impact on ecosystems, livelihoods and communities.

Communities need citizen science programmes presented in a language that is easily understandable, not dense power point presentations but clear programmes using simple terms, graphics and explanatory videos. Stakeholder engagement through citizens’ science programmes for community leaders in affected areas will build awareness on the nature of groundwater depletion and the importance of improved landscape management.

There are many children studying in schools with no access to safe drinking water. In spite of the increased availability of piped water, some of these schools and many of the children’s families depend on groundwater for their day to day necessities.

School programmes have been successful in carrying the message of water conservation to the families and communities using drama and music. Children and youth need to better understand the importance of conserving groundwater as key stakeholders and changemakers because  it is their future at stake.