Groundwater Key to Sustainable Development Goals

by Frederick Bouckaert

Greetings from the “Groundwater, key to the Sustainable Development Goals” Conference, organised by the International Association of Hydrogeologists in collaboration with UNESCO at Sorbonne University, Paris, 18-20 May, 2022.

During the year of groundwater, I had the good fortune to be able to attend this conference in Paris to learn more about how groundwater relates to the 17 SDGs. After all, groundwater is not an explicit goal, but constitutes an important part of freshwater management, reflected in SDG6 Water and Sanitation. As such, it interacts with multiple SDG goals and targets.

This bilingual conference (English – French) was attended by 520 participants, with delegates from 58 countries: France (44%), Europe, (18.7%), Asia and Oceania (7.2%) and the Americas (4.8%). The opening ceremony kicked off with a couple of key messages highlighting the importance of groundwater as a defence against human deprivation and poverty, relevant to 2.5 billion people worldwide who depend on it to satisfy their basic daily water needs. Groundwater also plays a role in promoting international stability and protecting ecosystem loss. Participants were therefore encouraged to become signatories of the São Paulo – Brussels Groundwater Declaration promoting the value of groundwater, and recognising its vulnerability.

The keynote opening presentations highlighted the fact that groundwater is invisible but provides a crucial contribution to SDGs, but often is ignored by decision-makers. Only one target makes explicit reference to groundwater, but 53 targets are interlinked in different ways. Groundwater is directly targeted by wastewater flows and pollution (6.3), sustainable withdrawals (6.4), IWRM and transboundary cooperation (6.5) and protection of aquifers (6.6). Management of groundwater itself may have a positive or negative impact on other targets, including food security, income, access to drinking water, access to schools, protection of ecosystems and biodiversity, economic growth and decent work. The 2030 agenda is systemic and requires coordinated action across agriculture, industry, energy, cities and ecosystems to achieve SDG targets, and groundwater plays a significant role in this process. The French government has developed an innovative tool to measure the magnitude of impacts of groundwater projects.

Setting the scene, the importance was highlighted of managing groundwater sustainably by using a system approach while accounting for interactions at SDG and target levels within the political space of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. The interaction of groundwater with sustainable development goals revealed that there are more synergies than trade-offs, but that there are serious challenges to manage groundwater sustainably: global unsafely treated wastewater, lack of water quality data, insufficient transboundary cooperation and low level of community participation in decision making for water and sanitation. For groundwater as part of SDG6, achieving targets depends also on availability of progress with other targets, such as those for sustainable food production systems (2.4), conservation of freshwater ecosystems (15.1) and others.

The topics discussed at the conference were wide ranging, and included implementing SDGs for groundwater management in Germany, the Nile Basin initiative, solar irrigation and groundwater management in India, surface and groundwater management for SDGs in Africa, legal and governance instruments and water rights for groundwater environments, contribution of groundwater to agriculture in different contexts, groundwater and healthy ecosystems, and climate change and urbanisation, to mention only the most significant ones.

The conference was well organised with a lot of breaks for catering, and the standing only option meant that many of the participants were very keen to network in a very open, dynamic and receptive context. Very refreshing was also the active poster sessions which received a lot of interest as they were displayed adjacent to the food and drinks, and invited participants to gather around a poster for a conversation. Sessions changed on a daily basis, and the conference app Whova ensured that all abstracts from presentations and posters were available to all participants.

Key messages emerging from the conference were aimed at young professionals and can be summarised into challenges, initiatives and need for support. Challenges include governance, regulation and transboundary multi-use management while maintaining renewable potential: this will require simultaneously managing climate change, overexploitation and pollution of groundwater sources. Research, education and technical know-how will be needed to ensure investments for rational and equitable use. Initiatives emerging from young professionals reveal a strong interest in education and research, communication and lobbying and developing validating technology. Further support is needed to implement recommendations articulated by young professionals and developing programs for transferring competencies and technologies. This is particularly important, given that we are off track in terms of attaining numerous of the 169 targets of the SDGs. The conference concluded with a strong appeal for actions to manage, preserve and remediate groundwater sources by sharing data and competencies, developing locally integrated governance of water and integrating groundwater in economic and ecosystem frameworks from local to global spatial scales. Groundwater should be included into the global water contribution to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

Frederick Bouckaert
Casual Senior Research Fellow
International Water Centre
Griffith University