Governing groundwater for nexus gains: Solarizing irrigation, negotiating recharge, and including nature

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By Bryan Bruns and Ruth Meinzen-Dick

Water stored in aquifers provides a crucial resource for people, crops, and ecosystems as it flows into springs, wetlands, streams, and rivers, and is lifted from wells. Rising demand for water, along with increasing droughts, floods, and heatwaves, all make groundwater more valuable.

Groundwater is a shared resource, making collective action crucial to take advantage of its multiple uses equitably, efficiently, and sustainably. However, it is not easy to govern a common-pool resource that is mobile and storable, invisible, often poorly understood, and with many dispersed users. As part of exploring ways to improve groundwater governance under the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, we highlight three sets of challenges and opportunities at the nexus of water, energy, food, and ecosystems: finding pathways to sustainable solar-powered pumping, equitably sharing aquifer recharge, and including ecosystems in groundwater governance.

Pathways to solar irrigation

Solar-powered irrigation pumps offer the promise of more water, more food, and more money for farmers using renewable energy. However, solar pumps risk worsening aquifer depletion and inequitable gains and losses from groundwater use. This has already happened too often when groundwater extraction intensifies without effective governance to cope with the impacts on other users and the environment.

Excessive groundwater extraction is often driven by subsidies for pumps, wells, and energy, and by counterproductive policies concerning staple grains and export crops. There is a need to reshape incentives so that farmers achieve more equity, efficiency, and sustainability. In some cases, practical, politically feasible “second-best” approaches, such as separating electrical supplies for household power and irrigation pumping, can slow groundwater depletion, as could grid connections that incentivize farmers to sell solar-generated electricity and irrigate more frugally. Pathways and combinations of institutional tools for transformations in groundwater governance to equitable and sustainable solar-powered pumping need further exploration.

Negotiating groundwater recharge

Efforts to replenish groundwater create an opportunity to consider how benefits and costs will be shared. Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on governing commons, studied how “public entrepreneurs” in irrigation districts, water utilities, and cities in southern California sought to understand their aquifers and negotiate agreements about recharging groundwater and controlling extraction. Globally, increasing attention is being paid to managed aquifer recharge, but less attention paid to how the benefits and costs of recharge are and could be distributed whether from watershed projects that increase rainfall retention and infiltration, or deliberate efforts to spread or inject water, such as stormwater and treated wastewater. Recharge creates a new shared resource, a paracommons, which should raise critical questions about who gains or loses, who has a voice or a veto in decisions, and what rules will regulate how recharged water is withdrawn. If the goal is to increase groundwater storage and reserves, then planning for investments in groundwater recharge creates an opportunity to negotiate governance rules that ensure water will be available in the future to cope with drought and safeguard water security.

Avoiding landscapes of dispossession

Unchecked groundwater extraction can dry up domestic wells, springs, wetlands, groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and baseflows that feed streams and rivers, creating landscapes of “dispossession”. A key question is whether those affected by intensive groundwater extraction, including fellow groundwater users, have a remedy, meaning effective legal or political means to protect their access to water, or negotiate ways to avoid, minimize, mitigate, or reverse the impacts of falling water tables, including protecting or restoring biodiverse and abundant ecosystems. Legal doctrines, typically derived from colonial laws, may assert a “rule of capture” that overlying landowners may take as much groundwater as they want, regardless of impacts that harm others. However, many legal principles can govern groundwater, including public ownership and authority over groundwater, public trust obligations of governments, rights of Indigenous Peoples and of local communities over commons, water tenure in customary and formal laws, duties among those sharing an aquifer, environmental protection, and human rights to water.

Monitoring groundwater together

Participatory monitoring and management of groundwater can help anticipate and respond to potential problems. By the time groundwater outflows decline it may be difficult or impossible to reverse damage to domestic water sources and ecosystems. This means that underground flows between recharge sources and discharge sites need to be monitored and assessed. Protection of groundwater reserves and associated ecosystem services justifies developing capacity to combine local knowledge and hydrogeological analysis to track groundwater inflows, subsurface flows, stocks, and outflows and how they change over seasons, years, and decades. This can support decision-making that considers and protects the multiple benefits of groundwater for people and nature.

Institutional tools for nexus solutions

Experiences around the world illustrate the frequent failure of groundwater regulation and provide insights into the rare successes, which often combine co-management by communities and governments. NEXUS Gains is studying innovative governance tools, such as groundwater games, crop-water budgeting, and participatory groundwater monitoring. These can help build mutual understanding and agreement about improving groundwater governance, such as facilitating equitable access, organizing recharge, and balancing multiple uses. These tools may help not only in smaller-scale localized aquifers, but also as part of multi-stakeholder processes to craft solutions and negotiate acceptable and effective rules for coordinated governance across larger scales and longer periods of time.

Bryan Bruns is an Independent Researcher and Consultant based in Greenbelt, Maryland, USA and a consultant for NEXUS Gains. Ruth Meinzen-Dick is Senior Research Fellow in the Natural Resources and Resilience Unit at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); she leads NEXUS Gains Work Package 4 on Strengthening Nexus Governance.

This work was carried out under the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, which is grateful for the support of CGIAR Trust Fund contributors:


Header image: Introducing the groundwater game, an institutional tool that helps participants learn how coordinating choices to plant water-thirsty or water-thrifty crops could balance groundwater demand and supply. September 26, 2023, Barahathawa Municipality, Sarlahi District, Madhesh Province, Nepal. Photo by Bryan Bruns.

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