The vital need for better groundwater research

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10 Jun, 2024

This post was originally published on Sustainability Matters

The theme of this year’s World Environment Day (5 June 2024) — land restoration, desertification and drought resilience — has drawn attention to the importance of groundwater in sustaining a rising world population as the climate changes.

In Australia, groundwater supplies between one-fifth and one-third of water consumption. It accounts for more than 90% of all water used across almost 50% of Australia’s land area and is the main water source over more than 80% of the country.

To help improve groundwater research globally, a group of Australian experts from government, the mining sector, Indigenous water science and academia have collaborated on a new research priorities publication.

The report has been issued by the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT) at Flinders University.

“Groundwater is critical to our water, food and energy security,” said Flinders University Professor Peter Cook, Co-Director of NCGRT. “In Australia, almost one-third of the nation’s irrigation is dependent on groundwater and 38% of our metal ore mining development.

“Groundwater also provides value beyond that derived from its extractive use, as it supports our tourism and forestry industries.

“The health of traditional lands, of which water is an intrinsic and sacred part, is intimately linked to the cultural and spiritual identity of Indigenous people and communities.

“Groundwater also plays a critical role in sustaining ecosystems and maintains springs, streamflow in most of Australia’s perennial streams and waterholes in ephemeral and intermittent streams, during dry seasons and during droughts,” Cook added.

Professor Peter Cook. Image courtesy of Flinders University.

Cook, a professor of hydrogeology, said significant advances in groundwater science, management and policy have been made over recent decades, but there are several contemporary and emerging challenges that will increase pressure on groundwater resources.

The report responds to projections that while the Australian population is expected to grow to between 37.4 and 49.2 million by 2066, a quarter of Australia’s 288 groundwater management areas are already over-allocated.

“Australia is not ready to manage a doubling of groundwater demand within the next few decades without addressing key knowledge gaps,” Cook said.

“Climate change is predicted to reduce groundwater replenishment in many of Australia’s productive agricultural regions, further threatening groundwater supplies. Improved science and management will be required to ensure Australia’s food, water and energy security and protect the environment.”

In their report, the groundwater experts have recommended 18 research priorities to prepare for a growing demand on groundwater due to the joint impacts of climate change, impending El Nino conditions, population growth, an increase in mining and a shift in Australia’s energy mix. These include:

  • Understanding the impacts of climate change on groundwater replenishment, water demand and cropping systems.
  • Developing better water infrastructure and management systems that allow us to switch between using rivers, dams and groundwater depending on climatic conditions.
  • Creating a framework to support explicit groundwater management/allocation to protect Indigenous cultural values.
  • Better understanding the errors in models to predict future changes in water availability and how to quantify them.
  • Exploring the potential productive use of saline groundwater, including the potential to substitute saline water for existing freshwater use in industry and mining.
  • Developing methods and materials to support building community knowledge of groundwater and the need to use it sustainably.

The National Groundwater Research Priorities report June 2024 is available to read online.

Top image caption: NCGRT report graphic. Image courtesy of Flinders University.

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