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Values in groundwater resilience – Personal reflections from World Water Week 2022

GRP’s Programme Officer, Shuchi Vora, shares her reflections from World Water Week 2022.

Written by: Shuchi Vora
GRP Areas of work: Innovation Knowledge Theme: Water

I belong to the salt desert of Kachchh in western India – a unique, fragile ecosystem where adapting to the dry conditions seems like second nature to all life including humans. Bhuj, the district headquarters of Kachchh, recently celebrated the “welcoming of the waters” of its water body, the Hamirsar Lake. The perennial lake in a dryland, groundwater-dependent ecosystem (a GDE), is central to the being of Bhuj. And the erstwhile scion of the kingdom (now the mayor of the city performs the ritual) welcomes the waters with pomp and splendour at the shores of the lake as it reaches full capacity. A sign of a good monsoon. A sign of full aquifers and teeming life during the rest of the year. 

The worth of Hamirsar may be celebrated in the monsoons, but its real significance lies in the fact that it indicates groundwater recharge and full alluvial aquifers in a groundwater dependent society. My ancestors spent the rest of the year honouring that balance of available life given by the invisible waters through their food, culture and celebrations of seasons. Things have changed since then; Bhuj is now a growing town in India, with the same pressures as every other Indian city of haphazard growth, increased water demands and exploitative relations with nature. The lake of Hamirsar now requires a lot more rain to reach full capacity and it is often dry before the by the time winter ends in India (February-March typically). Apart from the heavy groundwater abstraction, the rains falling in the wider catchment don’t reach the lake because of human-made obstructions, constructions and a broken link between groundwater and surface water. 

Re-painting the groundwater picture at Stockholm World Water Week 2022

The theme at the 2022 World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, was “Seeing the unseen: The value of water” and groundwater (including for those of us interested in groundwater resilience) finally felt seen. I was part of the Valuing Groundwater Seminar as a Young Professional on the Scientific Programme Committee, and we tried painting a picture of hope in what is otherwise often a glum scenario for groundwater.

Groundwater is the earth’s largest reserve of freshwater and provides almost half of all drinking water worldwide. It supplies half of all urban populations globally. It is the main source of water for rural populations out of reach of public or private water distribution systems as well as the primary source for irrigation during dry periods. Further, groundwater sustains ecosystems and regulates the water cycle, thereby playing a crucial role in climate resilience. Groundwater’s value to society is underpinned by its relative abundance and slow movement times.

However, over-abstraction and contamination pose critical risks to the groundwater reserves in the present and the future. Thus, in our seminar’s three sessions we had invited brilliant speakers to talk about the data, technology, economic and non-monetary values of groundwater that have emerged as directions for research and practice. We also brought to the fore knowledge, social norms and practices of local communities through the initial, virtual session that demonstrated successful cases in the local management of groundwater.

The Groundwater story in the Valuing Groundwater seminar

The story of groundwater’s value can often be seen painted in two binary ways – either the effectiveness of setting a price to its use, or the cost of (in)action and the financial worth of solutions that recharge or support sustainable use of groundwater. The societies dependent on groundwater are either victims of inadequate access or perpetrators of exploitation in this groundwater story. However, with each of our sessions, I noticed nuances that expanded the narrative from this extractive groundwater paradigm to one of collaboration and agency in action. 

In the first session Ear to the Ground: community-based approaches to groundwater management, Viviana Re interrogated and set out to bridge the classic hydrogeological approaches to understanding and managing groundwater with the emerging transdisciplinary approach of socio-hydrogeology. Other speakers presented their research on community-based approaches from India, Latin America and Indonesia. In the second session Innovative groundwater management: From ground to the sky, Veena Srinivasan and Seifu Kebede presented two complementary perspectives of what “state-of-the-art” innovation could mean for groundwater science, policy and practice with examples from the Indian and African context. Our other speakers shared experiences of digital tools, technologies and innovation that aid groundwater governance and management. A significant focus of the presenters was on groundwater quality and quantity monitoring at various scales – making the “unseen” seen. 

In the final session Valuing groundwater: Evidence from communities, science and innovation, Rob Hope set the tone of the session with a story of the groundwater game – one riddled with gambles and guesses due to data scarcity and primed for inequities, centring justice as a universal value for groundwater management. Aditi Mukherji reflected on the value of groundwater in the context of climate transitions to solar energy. The panellists – me included – addressed the value of groundwater from different perspectives: the cost-effectiveness of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) as a solution; a digital payment mechanism for irrigation in Nepal; and the oft-hidden value of groundwater ecosystems for policy and communities alike. In our panel discussion, we explored the significance of solutions and processes, and the barriers that hinder our ability to identify multiple values of groundwater, including those of GDEs.

Some personal reflections on groundwater, shared learning, knowing and resilience

We have clear evidence that groundwater is critical, especially since our food systems, cities and civilizations depend on it. As a resilience professional at the Global Resilience Partnership, I am interested in identifying a safe and just pathway for groundwater use – how can we restore the balance that my ancestors knew so well while holding the aspirations of current and future generations? Unfortunately, the traditional ways of knowing groundwater are eroding, and it is in the interest of humanity that we begin to contextualise science and merge it with these other ways of knowing soon. 

While the conversations in the seminar sessions were solutions-oriented, we did reflect on the need to focus on governance and institutional processes towards the end of the third session. However, with the sciences focused on innovation in solutions, how do we collaborate with each other so that people and processes aren’t an afterthought? Admittedly, collaborations are not about putting academics and practitioners of different disciplines in one room and expecting magic to happen. The need for a facilitated process of collaboration using foresight, complexity and resilience thinking tools is imminent. In case of groundwater, economists and hydrogeologists need to collaborate with not just the socio-hydrogeologists but also systems and futures thinkers, practitioners, communities and policymakers. However, one of the big drawbacks of such knowledge co-production processes is the commitment to a long, often arduous process of conversations. Instead, can we co-design agile processes to create learning ecosystems for groundwater and life? As the coordinator for the Resilience Knowledge Coalition, this question excites me as we focus on supporting communities of practice on cross-cutting issues such as water-resilient food systems.

Finally, not all my messages reflect the same urgency, and I have brought back with me from the World Water Week some provocations that we could ponder collectively as a community. These traditional, cultural, and spiritual ways of knowing, like the “welcoming of the waters” ceremony for Hamirsar, could be important entry points into otherwise difficult conversations of regenerative use of groundwater. With chronic water scarcity in conflict with the ever-increasing water demands of development, can we hold the space for emerging synergies to collectively identify those resilient pathways for development? Can we redesign the conversation from implementing economic trade-offs to collaborating through synergies? Enhancing resilience to shocks, stresses and uncertainties related to water, food, disasters and conflict in many parts of the world might start with newer imagination, conceptualisation and recognition of the value of groundwater.