A National Geographic article on the global water crisis refocuses attention on the depleting supplies of underground water. Some of the world’s driest regions are located in the Middle East and Africa. These are also some of the oldest inhabited lands of the world. For centuries, these countries have relied on underground water, deep stored naturally in aquifers. But underground ‘paleowater’ is a finite resource. In these dry regions, it is the only reason for sustenance. The perishability of the underground reservoirs makes them as valuable as oil.
An oil rich country like Libya receives very little rain. Libya lives because of its aquifers, some them are more than 75,000 years old. Groundwater resources are already on the wane. Libya has started a massive water infrastructure project that will link 1,300 paleowater wells and source 230 million cubic feet of H2O every day.
Mike Edmunds, a hydrogeologist at Oxford University in the Great Britain says –
“You can apply the economics of mining because you are depleting a finite resource.”
Now, take the turn of events in countries like Jordan which also have huge ancient sources of underground water. Its U.S. $600 million project to exploit the last primary water reserve, the Disi aquifer, on the border with Saudi Arabia, has run into a serious stumbling block. The water was tested for radioactive contamination and was found to contain levels 20 times above the norm. The water is contaminated naturally by sandstone, which has percolated radioactive contaminants over the ages. It is also peculiar to many sources in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Libya.
Exhausted aquifers are also sinks for other contaminants which leach from surrounding areas. For instance, salt water. Fast depleting aquifers changes the rock pressures which also can entrap deeper lying water layers permanently.
Unlike sub-surface level underground water, fossil water cannot be replenished. There is a basic lack of understanding on renewability as people are concerned only with how much water they can use. Not with how much is there and how long it’s going to last.
Satellite technology is helping to map out resources. Ground level water management is theoretically sound, but practically proving difficult to implement. Just like Yemen where fossil water is nearly a thing of the past, a lot of other regions could very soon stare at the same approaching fate.