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Neno Kukuric: "It is therefore urgent to conduct an assessment of groundwater in Latin America"

  • Neno Kukuric: "It is therefore urgent to conduct an assessment of groundwater in Latin America"

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CAF Development Bank of Latin America
CAF is a development bank committed to improving the quality of life for Latin Americans. We promote sustainable development and regional integration.
Schneider Electric

On October 6, the 7th edition of the Latin America-Spain Water Dialogues will take place, where water sector experts and leaders from Latin America and Spain will meet to discuss the challenges facing local and transboundary groundwaters.

These dialogues, which are part of a long-term strategic collaboration platform formed by CAF - development bank of Latin America - and Spain, through the Ministries for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge (MTERD), Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation (MAETD) and Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation (MAEUEC), are also supported by Casa de América and iAgua.

Neno Kukuric, Director of the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Center (IGRAC-UNESCO), will do a presentation during the first day of the event on the state of groundwater resources and their global outlook. We spoke with him to learn more about this topic.

Question: Based on the IGRAC Institute's global research and documentary heritage, what is the state of groundwater resources worldwide? Which regions are the most challenging?

Answer: As water scarcity already affects about 2.7 billion people around the world for at least one month per year, it is clear that water resources, including groundwater, are under the stress. Groundwater makes up more than 95% of all unfrozen freshwater resources in the world.  Although there are still no completely reliable figures about the magnitude of groundwater stress globally, there is no doubt that we are increasingly depleting and polluting our groundwaters.  Semi-arid and arid regions are primarily affected by the water shortage; however  droughts are increasingly spreading also over water-reach areas, such large river deltas. Groundwater pollution is widely present across the globe, being related to rapid urbanisation, intensive agriculture, climate change, etc.    

Q: A recurring theme that we see is the insufficiency of information that helps to make adequate decisions. What is your evaluation of the degree of monitoring and the reliability of the information on the status of groundwater?

A: Aquifers are invisible and hence more difficult to monitor and assess than surface water resources. Initial investments in groundwater observation wells are significant but necessary. Groundwater assessment cannot be completed  and no predictions can be made without an analysis of historical data: we can't manage what we don't see or measure.  

Groundwater makes up more than 95% of all unfrozen freshwater resources in the world

Groundwater monitoring is still insufficient in many parts of the world, especially  monitoring of groundwater quality. In general, frequency of observations is increasing due to development of technically advanced and affordable loggers. Accessibility to information is also improving thanks to expansion of web-based portals as well as eagerness of responsible organisations to justify public investments. Processing of collected data is not always adequate nor complete. Proxy (remote sensing) and derived (models) information used to inform management can be overrated, also due to lack of the monitoring data required for verification.

Q: In particular, what is your assessment of the Latin American region in terms of groundwater availability and quality?

A: In Latin America, the distribution of groundwater varies enormously among regions and countries, just as its quality and accessibility. Many countries experience challenges related to groundwater, such as raising of groundwater levels (e.g. Argentina), sea water intrusion (e.g. Belize), anthropogenic pollution (e.g. Bolivia) and geogenic pollution (e.g. Argentina and Mexico), among others.

It is difficult to provide an estimation of the status of the resource in terms of quality and quantity, partly because only a limited number of Latin American countries have a nationwide groundwater monitoring programme. Instead, it is more common that countries have local networks organised either by a local government or as part of a project. In most of the cases, data are not publicly available.

In terms of groundwater withdrawals, relatively recent data are scarce in the region. In 2010 it was estimated that groundwater abstraction in Central America and the Caribbean accounted for 9% of the total water withdrawal, and 14% in South America. In Central America, groundwater abstraction is intended mainly for domestic use (around 60%), with higher percentages in Belize, Barbados, Costa Rica, and Antigua and Barbuda. In South America, the largest share is for irrigation (around 50%), with higher percentages in Argentina and Peru (79% and 60% respectively).

Groundwater is an abundant and reliable natural resource that offers a wider range of services and more benefits than most people realize

Although the percentages estimated in 2010 may appear low, groundwater has increasingly become a source of water supply in certain areas (e.g. Chile). At the same time, it has been reported that groundwater resources are being overexploited (e.g. Mexico) or are at risk of pollution from industry and agriculture. It is therefore urgent to conduct an updated assessment of groundwater in Latin America to manage this precious resource, and help protecting it.

Q: Of the different uses of groundwater, irrigation is the main user worldwide and in Latin America as well, what are the main actions that in your opinion should be developed for a more efficient use of water resources?

A: Optimal use of groundwater for irrigation usually asks for a combination of measures, tools and regulations. On a supply side one can look at conjunctive use of ground and surface water and at enhancing storage and retention. On a demand side, irrigation efficiency can be improved through irrigation scheduling and installing more efficient irrigation systems (e.g. sprinkler and drip irrigation). Introducing less water demanding crops can sometimes be an option, especially when the water availability is progressively decreasing. Land-use regulations for quality protection should be enforced when water quality is deteriorating due salinization by irrigation return-flows.

Q: On October 6, the seventh edition of the Spain-Latin America Water Dialogues will be held; This time it is about aquifer management and in which you will be one of the keynote speakers. What would be your message that you would like to convey to the attendees of the event?

A: Groundwater is an abundant and reliable natural resource that offers a wider range of services and more benefits than most people realize. As global water scarcity is increasing due to human activities and climate change, reliance- and pressure on groundwater is growing.  Strengthening cooperation and information & knowledge sharing across the sectors, scales and boundaries is crucial for appropriate monitoring, assessment and management of this vital resource. Accordingly, the United Nations has decided to dedicate the World Water Day in 2022 to a theme “Groundwater: Making Invisible Visible”. Join this endeavour!

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