• Khaliun Purevsuren

Governing the Hidden Calamity: Groundwater Depletion

Updated: Jun 9, 2021

The groundwater depletion comes from many sources: Urban Planning, Agriculture, Land Use or Mining. Each of the causes can be governed by certain international organizations. For example, FAO oversees the agricultural aspect of groundwater where it concerns itself with promoting sustainable use of groundwater in agriculture. Similarly, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification oversees sustainable groundwater resources management to reduce exposure and vulnerability of States to droughts since low levels of water in not only lakes or reservoirs but in ground leads to hydrological drought. The infographic presents the importance of groundwater for the livelihoods of millions around the world.

In the following presentation, we examine an organization which has one of the most universal memberships in the field of groundwater, with its 197 signatories to the Convention:

According to the analysis above, UNCCD is an organization that has incredibly large rooms for improvement if it wants to act on its mandate on sustainable water resources management to prevent depletion. However, as mentioned, as it affects the livelihoods of millions, we will embark on a journey to find a more effective and promising solution to governing groundwater through this blog. At the other end of UNCCD, with limited number of only 44 signatories, Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) is a candidate for effective groundwater governance. Bargained within UNECE and limited in its membership to only European countries, the Water Convention was adopted in Helsinki, Finland in 1992. It has however recently opened up in 2016 to universal membership to allow accession by all UN members.

Compared to the coalition of the necessary that is UNCCD, the 1992 Water Convention is therefore a small coalition of the willing. Ironically, the 3 recommendations at the end of the above presentation, namely to (1) to strengthen obligations (2) to improve monitoring and enforcement and (3) improve assistance, all exist to a larger extent under the Water Convention.

Such comparison between the two organizations that both deal with groundwater governance, therefore, calls into question dilemma of Bernauer et al. (2013) on depth VS. participation in international cooperation. Depth meaning that the more effective and binding the treaty is, it tends to have less participation and vice versa. Bernauer et al. (2013) posited that treaties with more specific obligations, higher monitoring and enforcement are likely to attract fewer countries. On the other hand, those with larger participation rate as in the case of UNCCD, the treaty features are looser and more ambiguous (indicated as LOW in the table). So, to illustrate the comparison graphically and compare the features of the treaties to explain why this blog has chosen to examine the UNECE Water Convention more in-detail because of its higher credibility to govern groundwater effectively:



Bestowed with such large legal and institutional capacity to effectively govern its mandate, then what are the practical challenges which the 1992 Water Convention faces to govern the groundwater depletion?

Participation challenges

1) Neighbor-dependency

Despite the Convention expanding its membership to allow all UN members to accede in 2016, only 3 states have joined ever since. Bernauer et al. (2013) theory offers a limited insight into this reason for limited participation. Theory suggests that due to high monitoring, enforcement, obligations of the 1992 UN Water Convention, it can potentially raise concerns for implementation costs as well as encroachment of sovereignty and might discourage a state from joining. Scenario might be the case for UNECE region EU countries as they are mostly already under the one supranational organization of EU, decreasing their costs for cooperation and implementation as well as concerns for sovereignty. However, there are outlier states like Russian Federation, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, which have joined on the Convention regardless to be bound by it and does not conform to the Bernauer et al. (2013) theory. These outliers are states that surround the EU states that are already bound by the Convention and on an even closer look at the Convention text, the monitoring and dispute settlement mechanisms are particularly strong for states that share waters, as the disputes are settled between riparian states or that the monitoring shall be developed in cooperation with its neighbors. According to Article 13 and Article 15 of the Convention, even the assistance between states are dependent on being neighbors as riparian states. Given the transboundary nature of the Convention's groundwater mandate, then the strength of positive compliance mechanisms such as assistance and dispute settlement mechanism would be dependent on a State's neighbor's ratification of the Convention. Therefore, the challenge for the treaty is to expand its membership to as many States as possible outside the European region and in turn, it has a domino effect of getting the buy-in of its neighboring states.

2) Interest-based mobilization

On the other hand, one challenge to expand the treaty participation could be the problem of countries’ interest-based participation. According to Sprinz and Vaahtoranta (1994), states’ willingness to participate in environmental regulation may depend on their preferences. Those with high vulnerability to the particular environmental problem tend to be more willing to participate in the efforts while those with low vulnerability as well as low costs to mitigate the problem (referred to as the 'abatement cost') tends to be bystanders and go with the flow of environmental regulations.

Upon examining the outlier states outside the UNECE region who have acceded to the Convention recently, we spot 3 African countries of Senegal, Ghana and Chad.


According to the World Atlas map on depleting groundwater, we can correspondingly see that Senegal, Ghana and Chad are in the zone of most affected countries in terms of groundwater depletion.

As Sprinz and Vaahtoranta (1994) indeed argued, these types of highly ecologically vulnerable states that are 'victims' tend to be the pushers for stringent environmental regulations.

Therefore, despite the compliance mechanisms being effective within the UNECE mostly, in the neighboring European states, some heavily affected states mentioned above are able to rise as outliers to push for environmental regulations in their regions as well. To a certain extent, this gives a hope for the increasing participation of the Convention as the expansion of membership is likely to have a domino effect on its neighbor states.


Wicked problem

3) The reason for waiting until the middle of the blog to define what groundwater depletion, is due to the fact that definition of the problem is one of the core problems in the governance.

As the groundwater depletion was a hidden calamity until its rising significance in the recent decade, UNECE only truly started focusing on governing the groundwater recently given that its original mandate under the 1992 Water Convention specified groundwater as one of the areas for the Secretariat to oversee. It was only in 2012 that the First meeting of the Core Group on Groundwater has convened in order to develop model provisions on groundwater and a Working group was assigned to do a study on the application of principles of convention to transboundary groundwater. The same year, acknowledging that the “groundwater has long been neglected by international water law,” UNECE had adopted a non-binding guidance for parties to manage their shared groundwater resources through what is called the Model Provisions on Transboundary Groundwaters. As the expertise on integrated groundwater management has not been fully developed in all senses legal, technical and economical, there have been modest steps in monitoring compliance of the Convention on groundwater management as of now. Furthermore, the groundwater as a comparison to the surface water which the Convention has been so far successful at regulating, is that it hinders the Convention's effective monitoring and compliance procedures due to the fact that it is a wicked problem.

The graph on the left describes groundwater as a wicked problem. Due to the mentioned qualities, it makes groundwater much more difficult to govern compared to the surface water for the Convention. As it is a hidden resource that is not often easy to measure, it fits the description of wickedness as to being "difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize."

The wickedness of the problem is easily illustratable from the divergent definitions and causes of groundwater offered from diverse sources below:

Yellow highlights are to indicate causes of groundwater depletion.

Blue highlights are to indicate the impacts of the problem.

India Water Portal: The seeds of the unsustainable groundwater depletion being observed today were sown with India's Green Revolution in 1960s...outcome of a bigger and deeper issue of decades-old short-sighted agricultural policies that promote groundwater overexploitation to produce cheap food today at the expense of water availability tomorrow. Farmers should be involved in the decision-making process so that the new policies adopted are actually successful in achieving their goals with minimum impact on farmers' financial wellbeing.
NASA: Although pumping groundwater for agricultural uses is a significant contributor to freshwater depletion throughout the world, groundwater levels are also sensitive to cycles of persistent drought or rainy conditions...When natural cycles led to less precipitation and caused diminished snowpack and surface waters, people relied on groundwater more heavily.
Conicelli et al. (2021): In Brazil, there are about 2.5 million tubular wells in which 88% of them are illegal, extracting more than 17,580 Mm3/yr. This irregular use may cause sustainability issues that may be economic, social, or environmental (overexploitation, well losses and associated increases of water conflicts; aquifer contamination; and land subsidence)...users do not understand the aquifer dynamic...creates a false idea that there are no water conflicts among users, which causes a lack of engagement by society.
UK Groundwater Forum: If the rate of abstraction from an aquifer is too high, and exceeds the amount of water recharged from rainfall, the water level in the aquifer will fall. This increases the cost of pumping, and at the same time tends to reduce the yield of individual boreholes, but it also can affect the flow of rivers and streams where they are supported by groundwater.
BBC: For most communities around the world, therefore, the reason for significant subsidence is something entirely man-made: groundwater extraction...“You remove something from the layers the terrain is made of, so the ground starts to collapse.” In India, the world’s largest user of groundwater, 85% of drinking water comes from the ground; in Europe, 75% of the population gets drinking water from groundwater. Groundwater is supposed to replenish itself naturally from rain and snowfall seeping through the rock. In many parts of the world, though, the ground is being emptied of water faster than it has time to recharge. This can lead to depletion of water table and dwindling water supplies – but also can cause the soil to compact so that the layers on top drop, sometimes significantly.

After the the definitions from the 5 sources above, we still have no clear idea of what is groundwater depletion except for the fact that in physical terms, water is being withdrawn too much. Causes and impacts of groundwater depletion are largely different in the sources above. So, despite having a legally binding framework, the monitoring and assessment of this groundwater resource has been largely hindered by the problem definition. Therefore, the 2012 Model Provisions on Groundwater developed under the 1992 Water Convention only modestly recommends that a groundwater monitoring network shall be established and that aquifer vulnerability maps shall be developed.


Technical holdbacks

4) O'Neill (2017) defines classifies environmental problems into three categories in terms of scope: global commons problems, transboundary problems and local problems. So, despite being a wicked problem, groundwater pollution has a transboundary characteristic, meaning that it is easier to identify the users and perpetrators of the problem as well as assign jurisdictions over the resource since the groundwater resources would belong to its aquifer sharing states. Compared to global commons problems like climate change where it is difficult to prevent overexploitation of public goods since each user tends to maximize their utility while imposing the impacts on all other users, the identification of the user in this state is identifiable as each State that has jurisdiction over the aquifer. In this case, the Water Convention's Model Provisions Provisions oblige parties to exchange information and data on condition of their groundwaters and follow the Environmental Impact Assessment procedure which the Espoo Convention of 2003 provides for before taking on any activities which may have impact on the transboundary groundwaters. However, due to the unclear problem definition, technical difficulties in governing and monitoring a hidden resource, UNECE is yet to catch up to its successes in governing the surface water. In the "20 years of successful water cooperation" below, all the technical safety and good practices guidelines, monitoring guidelines and the following First (2017) and Second (2011) Assessment on surface water cooperation and compliance with the Convention came from buildup of also a technical expertise by the Convention.

As a comparison, the only existing Model Provisions on Groundwater from the 1992 Water Convention gives very limited technical recommendations as examples of good practice on groundwater:



5) Although UNECE Water Convention was only contained to the European region but since has opened its membership universally, it is increasingly becoming the normative organization in the field of groundwater governance. As Nina Hall (2015) defines it, as the 1992 Convention is gaining the universal legal mandate over groundwater governance on top of its pre-existing supervisory authority over international groundwater law, the challenge would be to gain larger legitimacy in a wider constituency and compete for resources such as in terms of funding. Therefore, UNECE Secretariat has been increasingly collaborating with other international organizations to create issue linkages between groundwater and other environmental or human rights problems in order to increase its capacity to govern the related issues and seek funding. The infographic above on the Water Convention above illustrates the multisectoral partnerships that UNECE has been developing.

For example, it has adopted the Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystems Nexus approach developed by the FAO in order to emphasize the importance of groundwater in agricultural systems that provide food security.

It has also partnered with WHO in efforts to emphasize water security as a human right and has adopted the Protocol on Water and Sanitation to ensure access to water, including groundwater.

As an additional example, Alice Aureli, UNESCO's Chief of Section for Groundwater Systems, describes UNECE's cooperation with UNESCO below on groundwater and human right nexus.

According to Nina Hall’s (2015) theory on regime fragmentation, if an organization starts engaging with other international organizations, if the core is not strong and legitimate enough, then the environmental problem regime becomes weaker. Since the organization has now a stronghold on groundwater governance in terms of legal capacity, it forms a strong core which I believe will not lead to groundwater regime fragmentation. If anything, the competition for mandate expansion through engagement with other IOs on related projects and additional assistance is likely to add on the emerging normative authority of UNECE Secretariat on groundwater governance.


Regional cooperation

6) The last challenge that the 1992 Water Convention faces in governing groundwater depletion is ensuring regional cooperation. Given the groundwater is a transboundary resources, it is essential to regulate it with regional specificities and ensure monitoring at regional levels. It is also the one challenge that the Water Convention faces which is being most credibly solved due to UNECE's previous successes in promoting transboundary cooperation in shared surface waters.

Bo Libert, UNECE Regional Adviser, shares the examples of successful UNECE projects that facilitated transboundary (surface) water cooperation such as in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The UNECE has taken the same approach towards groundwater and has been promoting groundwater cooperative management locally. UNECE Secretariat has recently serviced the Water Convention’s efforts to support the regional dialogue in the Senegal-Mauritanian Aquafier Basin (SMAB) to establish transboundary cooperation for a concerted sustainable management of the basin. For example, the design phase of the joint project was able to come up with an action plan for the transboundary aquifer management and was able to identify various issues associated with it. This design phase of the project will soon end with the political validation of the transboundary cooperation proposals issued by the Working Group and the launching of the joint project.



We have looked at 5 main challenges that groundwater depletion problem faces that falls under the buckets of

  1. Participation

  2. Wicked problem

  3. Partnerships

  4. Technical challenges

  5. Regional cooperation

which associates with UNECE Water Convention expanding its mandate universally and the groundwater depletion being an inherently a challenging problem to monitor, assess and define. However, with the Water Convention expanding its mandate, coverage, financial and technical capacity over the next decades as depletion becomes a more significant problem, the blog's positive assumption is that UNECE will start to have more successes in governing the groundwater as it had succeeded in governing the transboundary surface waters in the recent decades.


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