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   Infocentre

Published: 28 November 2017  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
EnvironmentClimate & global change  |  Ecosystems, incl. land, inland waters, marine
Innovation
Research policyHorizon 2020
Countries involved in the project described in the article
Netherlands
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Understanding an invisible resource - groundwater

The EU-funded Invisible Waters project is studying groundwater and competing uses in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile to develop an analytical framework for visualising, understanding and ultimately conserving this most vital resource.

Image of the desert with mountains in background

© PeekCC - fotolia.com

Almost all of the world’s accessible fresh water is contained within underground aquifers, geological formations that have become essential to humans for sustaining water security and adapting to climate variability. Such groundwater sources provide drinking water to about half of the world’s population and nurture some 42 % of irrigated land.

An invisible resource at increasing risk of overexploitation and pollution, groundwater is falling victim to a lack of effective governance, according to experts. The key to better understanding the problem is accurate data for mapping current supplies and typical water use practices under different climatic, political, socio-economic, ethnographic and geographic conditions.

It is a vast and complex challenge. One that the EU-funded INVISIBLE WATERS project has taken up as part of an ethnographic field study in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, the world’s most arid desert. The project is developing an analytical framework to understand how society is affected by various groundwater practices, focusing on socio-economic and eco-political inequalities.

“Overexploitation and pollution of aquifer systems jeopardises future water security, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions,” says senior researcher Cristóbal Bonelli based at the host institution Stichting IHE Delft, the Netherlands.

“And because groundwater is essentially a local resource, we need effective governance, as well as institutional and technological innovations built from realities on the ground – literally.”

Can you visualise it?

Despite broad understanding of climate change and sustainability challenges, information and public awareness about the global exploitation of groundwater is scant and fragmented.

The project focuses on a particular problem millions of people face every day as they draw on groundwater sources – the fact that it is hidden from the human eye. INVISIBLE WATERS, therefore, explores new techniques for ‘visualising’ aquifers as a prelude to reshaping existing tensions between individual and collective interests including industry, farming and mining.

“We urgently need to raise public awareness of the social significance of groundwater practices for human development, and even for human survival,” says Bonelli. “The research we’re doing should kick-start that.”

INVISIBLE WATER’s multidisciplinary approach combines ethnographic fieldwork with analyses of cartographic studies (maps) and other visual representations of groundwater practices carried out by indigenous peoples, hydrologists and state actors.

Bonelli is keen to emphasise that the project’s work challenges current thinking on water-human interaction by:

  • studying varied groundwater practices in Chile, a country that has implemented one of the most extreme neoliberal water governance models in the world;
  • shedding light on how so-called invisible aquifers are identified and viewed;
  • describing what indigenous people, hydro-geologists and administrators actually do with groundwater;
  • assessing emerging tensions between individuals and collective interests triggered by different groundwater practices.

A must for strong policymaking

One of the first things Bonelli realised is that the scientific study of groundwater practices cannot be conflated with the work of hydrologists and mining experts alone.

INVISIBLE WATER’s inclusion of ethnographic and diverse scientific disciplines has opened up new paths to knowledge, including indigenous experiences, and highlighted the importance of interacting with different actors.

Knowledge acquired in INVISIBLE WATERS feeds into EU climate, sustainable and environmental commitments.

The project enabled Bonelli – who received funding through the EU’s Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie fellowship programme – to gain experience and skills in a wide range of disciplines related to groundwater while learning from, and collaborating with, professionals in Europe and Latin America.

“Better understanding of the dynamics among groundwater practices, power and culture is not just good for my career, obviously – it is a must for strong policymaking to implement the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,” Bonelli says.

Project details

  • Project acronym: INVISIBLE WATERS
  • Participants: Netherlands (Coordinator)
  • Project N°: 706346
  • Total costs: € 190 862
  • EU contribution: € 190 862
  • Duration: January 2017 to June 2019

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