Groundwater: Making the invisible visible

Groundwater: Making the invisible visible

Water gushes out of an artesian well in Chai Nat. At 61 centimetres in diameter, it is the biggest of its kind in the country, capable of supplying water to 6,255 rai of farmland and 8,000 people. Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill
Water gushes out of an artesian well in Chai Nat. At 61 centimetres in diameter, it is the biggest of its kind in the country, capable of supplying water to 6,255 rai of farmland and 8,000 people. Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

Climate change is causing global temperatures to rise, putting our most visible sources of water at risk. From Spain to parts of the African continent, droughts are being experienced at unprecedented levels. Madagascar last year faced a food crisis that left 1.3 million people facing severe hunger following the worst drought in four decades.

Closer to home, Thailand experiences both severe flooding in the rainy season and extreme drought in the dry season, which represent the two major sources of the country's water crisis. The intrusion of saltwater into surface water sources as a result of rising sea levels is also becoming increasingly problematic.

Water plays a crucial role in Thailand, not only in sustaining the lives and livelihoods of almost 70 million people, but also supporting its most important sector -- agriculture. Thailand is the world's third biggest rice exporter, and agriculture as a whole employs around one-third of the country's workforce.

One source of water that is often overlooked is groundwater. Almost half of all drinking water worldwide and about 40% of water for irrigated agriculture comes from underground sources. Thailand relies on surface and groundwater sources, with the largest source of the latter in the Lower Central Plains surrounding Bangkok. Between 10 and 15% of the country's more than 700 million litres of rainwater is beneath the ground.

Despite its increasingly vital role, this invisible resource is poorly understood and effective ways to actively protect it are lacking. Human activities and climate variability are rapidly increasing the pressure on groundwater resources. A quarter of the world's population is now using water much faster than the planet can replenish its natural sources such as groundwater.

World Water Day, which fell on March 22, was celebrated under the theme "Groundwater -- Making the invisible visible". Experts around the world say the time is now to actively protect all our water resources, especially groundwater. To sustain drinking water supplies, sanitation systems, farming, industry and ecosystems, we need to utilise intelligent technology to ensure effective water management strategies and, in turn, protect and sustainably use groundwater.

The first approach is protecting the quality of this water source. Groundwater is especially vulnerable to pollutants from commercial or industrial activities, and even urban development. Thailand's groundwater sources face the issue of pollution from agricultural run-off pollutants, aquaculture, industrial waste and domestic sewage, but the extent of such contamination at the national level is not clearly known.

Demand and waste production go hand-in-hand -- the more we consume, the more waste we generate. Wastewater, when handled improperly, can have adverse effects on the biological diversity of aquatic ecosystems and disrupt the fundamental integrity of our life-support systems.

Recognising this, water solutions providers such as Grundfos are increasingly applying intelligent technology for wastewater management. Through the Internet of Things, advanced real-time data collection and sensors, treatment facilities can operate in a more predictive manner, reducing downtime and avoiding serious business and environmental consequences.

These systems are also able to ensure energy and other resources in the water filtration process are used as needed, achieving greater cost-effectiveness and sustainability, which can be key considerations for countries like Thailand.

Beyond mitigating contamination, protecting the overuse of groundwater is also important. Rising demand for groundwater has caused cities to sink due to groundwater exploitation. Notably, Thailand still lacks clear policies around sustainable groundwater extraction, and there is also limited information on groundwater extraction rates, with damage and sinkholes already occurring in and around Bangkok.

The need to protect groundwater from overexploitation -- where we are extracting more water than is recharged by rain and snow -- is more crucial now than ever. We must also protect groundwater from the pollution that currently haunts it, since it can lead to the depletion of this resource, extra costs of processing it, and sometimes even prevent its use.

Encouraging water reuse can be an important tool in diversifying resources and reducing reliance on groundwater. By ensuring wastewater is effectively treated to a quality that makes it possible to feed back into our water cycle, it allows us to save water in a time of scarcity.

Modern water treatment solutions can empower companies to reuse their wastewater, reduce costs and do their part to ensure that our natural water sources are not unnecessarily exploited.

It is also imperative that we think longer-term, specifically about our contributions to climate change. Climate change can affect the amounts of soil infiltration, and rising temperature increases evaporative demand over land, which affects the ability of groundwater resources to recharge.

Recognising the consequences of climate change, countries are already taking concrete steps towards decarbonisation, with a focus on renewable and clean energy to reduce harmful gas emissions.

However, water itself actually has an intrinsic relationship with energy use. Energy is required to make water resources available for municipal and industrial use, from pumping, transport, treatment and desalination.

With fossil fuels being the source of most of the energy produced today, water processes are indirectly responsible for producing large amounts of greenhouse gases, consequently contributing to climate change.

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of water processes is by making them more energy efficient. Digital or smart technologies are now available to enable pumps to be more intuitive and responsive to fluctuating demand, adjusting water use through real-time monitoring.

Last but not least, when it comes to strengthening a nation's water security, water solution providers can help the cause by introducing innovative solutions, as well as bring their own unique industry expertise to the table.

Partnerships have been crucial in supporting local agricultural water supply projects that use renewable energy resources, which in turn has helped establish self-reliant, climate-resilient water supply technology and infrastructure.

Grundfos, through its water access initiative Grundfos SafeWater, has helped over 2,000 farming households in Chanthaburi increase their water access by over 3 million cubic metres annually, providing water throughout the year to irrigate local orchards. Such initiatives aimed at providing basic water access to more communities will be essential in helping us achieve our goals of strengthening water security.

While many countries are dealing with the water crisis in their own way from groundwater extraction, it is crucial that we collectively work together to effectively manage our global water supply. To create meaningful and effective change, all of us -- from governments to businesses and individuals -- have a role to play.

Pia Yasuko Rask is senior director of Grundfos SafeWater.

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