How we can protect the elixir of life

China has introduced its first national plan on groundwater pollution control, which is an important step to tackle water scarcity in the country.

With about 20 percent of the world's population but only about 7 percent of global freshwater resources, China has been feeling the impact of water scarcity on its economic development and its people's livelihoods in many areas. China draws groundwater heavily, a large proportion of which is used to irrigate more than 40 percent of the country's farmlands.

The country has been suffering the combined effects of extensive and increasing contamination of surface water and the effects of climate change, and about 70 percent of its people in the northern regions are using groundwater for drinking.

Although relatively few detailed studies have been conducted and limited data are available, it is clear that groundwater resources are under threat and have already been polluted in many areas. The rapid urban development and intensified agricultural activities have created many environmental pressures. Similar to over-pumping and depletion of groundwater resources, contamination of groundwater now poses a serious threat to people in China.

In urban and industrial areas, poor infrastructure for wastewater treatment and disposal, and leakage of chemical and heavy metal pollutants pose risks of groundwater contamination. Government reports estimate that more than half of the cities under the ambit of groundwater monitoring had poor water quality last year. Improvement and maintenance of infrastructure in China's urban areas is a big challenge to effective protection of groundwater.

Overuse of fertilizers and large numbers of livestock in rural areas are other key concerns. In many cases nitrate and bacteriological contamination exceeds the natural absorption capacity and makes groundwater unsuitable for direct human consumption.

Studies indicate that in many areas 20-50 percent of applied nitrogen fertilizer could reach the groundwater table and slowly accumulate to unsafe levels. The use of fertilizer is often referred to as a non-point pollution source, because it is not possible to indicate specific polluters. These non-point pollution sources have a long-term impact on groundwater quality, and no easy technical solutions are available to reduce pollution.

Once underground water reservoirs or aquifers are polluted, their use becomes much more restricted. And even if technical solutions are feasible, significant investments are needed to mitigate the effects of poor groundwater management.

Arguably, the greatest concern is the high "social costs", because a large percentage of the rural population does not have easy access to clean groundwater sources or such technical solutions. Studies by the World Bank and the World Health Organization suggest that a significant percentage of the Chinese population suffers from some sort of water-borne diseases.

The challenges that the central and local governments face in protecting the country's groundwater resources are enormous. The scale of the problem and the general lack of awareness both are of key concerns. It is understandable that many people are not aware of the importance of protecting groundwater. Groundwater is often referred to as a "hidden" resource, and many people don't immediately link their activities with the risk of polluting the "hidden" resource.

Effective groundwater protection and management requires tackling the problem at regional basin as well as local levels. This can be achieved through regional "top-down" action, especially because groundwater is a common resource and usually one groundwater basin is shared by several jurisdictional areas.

In 2008, the central government took an important step forward by amending the Water Pollution Prevention Control Law, which among other things increased the responsibility of local governments to reduce water pollution, create an atmosphere for public participation, and impose tougher fines. With the adoption of the new national plan, the government has taken another important step that could mobilize additional financial resources to ensure the protection of groundwater resources.

As part of its China Country Partnership Strategy, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has been supporting the central and local governments to improve water resources management, including groundwater protection.

Aspects that ADB promotes include (i) increased efficiency in the use of groundwater in conjunction with surface water, (ii) recognition that water, including groundwater, has an economic value, (iii) improved monitoring of groundwater quality and use, (iv) technical solution to recharge groundwater resources, and (v) empowerment of local communities to manage and protect their groundwater resources.

To increase knowledge about groundwater pollution and protection, an effective groundwater monitoring network has to be established urgently. Without actual information on groundwater extraction and pollution, it will be difficult to raise future generations' awareness and make them aware of the importance of groundwater resources. Communities and local governments need to understand that continued pollution will irreversibly destroy critical water sources for their children and grandchildren.

Addressing non-point pollution like fertilizer overuse will require additional efforts, because straightforward technical or regulatory solutions are not applicable. Governments will need to continue working with farmers and farmers' associations to reduce the use of agro-chemicals and improve overall agricultural practices. This requires a long-term participatory approach in which local communities have to change the ongoing non-sustainable practices and behaviors. For instance, contrary to popular belief, farmers need to be convinced that the use of less fertilizer may often result in equal or even higher farm yields.

Finally, there is urgent need to increase the awareness and capacity of the central and local governments in managing information, assessing the scale and priorities of the problem, and enforcing legislation.

For example, at the national level, efforts could be increased to remind industries of their social corporate responsibility, which includes compliance with national pollution control standards and regulations. And in rural areas, a broader recognition that economic development should not come at the cost of the environment and groundwater resources may be necessary. The process of deterioration of groundwater resources is almost irreversible, and cleaning up at a later stage is not a realistic option.