Groundwater Governance: From National and Regional Needs to Global Solutions
by Christine Abdallah Iskandar, Consultant, UNESCO - Section on Groundwater Systems Division of Water Sciences, International Hydrological Programme (IHP)
Water policies at national and transboundary levels remain focused almost exclusively on surface water issues. The ‘invisibility’ of groundwater in local and transboundary aquifers, the time over which impacts are eventually felt and the persistence of pollution, not to mention the differentiation between shallow and deep circulation, make governance problematic. Evidence of an effective management of groundwater resources able to sustain a set of social, economic and environmental services is virtually non-existent. An unprecedented increase in the use of groundwater, both in urban and rural areas, has occurred over the last few decades. This drastic change has been identified as the ‘silent revolution’ of water-supply, because it has occurred in many national as well as transboundary aquifers in a manner that has gone virtually unnoticed, unplanned and uncontrolled.
Similarly disproportionate are the levels of political consideration and financial investment attributed to the governance and management of groundwater versus surface water. The governance of groundwater resources has failed to feature prominently in either water policy dialogue or resource management at the local level. Consequently, agencies charged with managing groundwater often remain ineffective and poorly funded, and in some areas are non-existent. Furthermore, with a few exceptions, support from development agencies has also focused mainly on resource development as opposed to management and protection.
In response, the UNESCO International Hydrological Programme (IHP), together with the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Association of Hydrogeologists (IAH) and the World Bank, initiated the “Groundwater Governance Project: A Global Framework for Country Action” in January 2011. The overall objective of this three-year project is to encourage the inclusion of groundwater governance on national, regional and international political agendas.
The implementation process for the project consists of three components. Firstly, a series of Thematic Papers will serve as the main instrument for establishing a scope for action on groundwater governance in order to prompt active dialogue between policy makers and hydrogeologists. The Papers will synthesize current knowledge and experience in the key economic, policy, institutional, environmental and technical aspects of groundwater management, together with emerging issues and innovative approaches.
Secondly, a fundamental component is a series of Regional Consultations, the results of which will be crucial to the project. These Consultations will focus on the regional characteristics of groundwater use and will seek to answer questions about the significance of regional variation with regard to groundwater governance. The Thematic Papers will provide the background for debate during the Consultations, which will focus on challenges and priorities for the region, as well as possible visions for the future. The Consultations will also consider ‘twinning’, i.e. the bringing together of successful models of groundwater governance for future collaborations.
These Regional Consultations, taking place across the world, will play a vital role in achieving a shared vision based on realneeds and expectations both in the regions and at the country level. Their aim therefore is to:
1. Acquire first-hand knowledge of regional issues from water
policy-makers, water managers and groundwater experts;
2. Raise awareness and promote a global groundwater agenda;
3. Build partnerships amongst collaborating project agencies, cross-sectoral stakeholders, decision-makers and specialists.
The third component, which will be ongoing throughout the project, is the Permanent Consultation Mechanism (PCM). Expanding the PCM to include a large number of partners demonstrated the need to undertake a more formal stakeholder analysis to ensure representative engagement from both groundwater users and the managers directly responsible for implementing groundwater governance. Two recent events organised by UNESCO-IHP: the project Inception meeting, (6-7 September 2011), followed on November 2nd by a Side Event held during the 36th UNESCO General Conference, both generated considerable interest and a significant number of Member States, Permanent Delegates, experts and representatives of institutions expressed their desire to join the PCM.
The results of the above-mentioned components will then feed into a global “Framework of Action”, consisting of a set of best practices for the sustainable management of groundwater resources. Such a framework is essential if we are to ‘inspire’ rather than ‘scare’ potential stakeholders and actors. The project is designed in such a way that it summarises the stateof- the-art in terms of regional priorities to the point where the parties can articulate and agree to a global Framework of Action. The global Framework of Action seeks to penetrate political and economic consciousness and will be used to encourage countries to adopt a broad set of policy, regulatory, institutional, economic, and financial reforms, as well as to provide technical assistance. The ultimate goal is to achieve the sustainable management of groundwater resources.