IAHR 2015: Global groundwater indicators key to reduce investment risks

Published: 8 July 2015

“In many parts of the world groundwater use has surpassed natural groundwater recharge, leading to strong drops in groundwater tables, up to meters per decade”, warns Harm Duel, manager of the groundwater department of Deltares at the 2015 IAHR world congress. Duel notices there is a growing concern amongst governments and companies over the global decline in fresh water availability. “This is why we started the Global Groundwater Risk Indicators project together with the World Resources Institute (WRI), to provide relevant groundwater risk indicators to companies worldwide.”

Growing concern amongst companies, like oil companies over the global decline in fresh water availability. They make use of groundwater during their production processes

Growing concern amongst companies, like oil companies over the global decline in fresh water availability. They make use of groundwater during their production processes

Over 1400 hydro-engineers from all over the world gathered at the 36th edition of the annual world congress of the International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering and Research (IAHR) in the Hague, the Netherlands. The congress took place from 29 June till 3 July.

At the congress Deltares was awarded the IAHR Industry Innovation Award for its Open Source Software initiative. One of the software programmes that Deltares shares freely with the water community is iMOD, a graphical user interface that can model and visualize groundwater flows, from local to global scale.

Dried up rivers and lakes

At the Deltares booth, Harm Duel explains that the visualisation of groundwater flows, helps governments and companies to determine how much fresh water is available and how long it will last. The decline in groundwater availability results from over-extraction for human demand but also because of meteorological droughts. “We believe that this information about groundwater resources is key to solving the problem of future water scarcity under a growing population. This is why we work closely together with Utrecht University to apply a global scale groundwater flow model .”

Here Duel’s warning comes in at the IAHR congress. Hydro-engineers concentrate on the flows of surface water but according to Duel the solution lies in the conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater. “If we want to sustain agriculture and industrial development, we need to define sustainable withdrawal rates, use surface water and groundwater conjunctively, and manage the replenishment of aquifers. ”

Part of the solution

So the good news is that Duel believes aquifers are part of the solution. “Many dams in the world have been built to create reservoirs that can supply irrigation water to local farmers. However the effective space for dams is limited, and much of the water from reservoirs evaporates”. Therefore Duel advocates to store more fresh water in the underground. “This water does not evaporate and has the advantage that it takes up less space, which is especially relevant in densely built urban areas.”

Land subsidence

Duel points out that water scarcity and groundwater depletion also have a large effect on hydrological engineering in a more indirect way . “In many of the world’s major deltas, groundwater extraction leads to soil subsidence. It all starts with a few extraction wells with hardly any effect , but a concentration of many extraction wells has serious impact. It will not only lower the groundwater table so wells have to be deepened. In many areas around the world a concentration of many wells has led to serious land subsidence, which causes damage to infrastructure and increases the risk of river and coastal flooding.”

“Current global groundwater data is mainly based on satellite images and water balance studies”, Duel remarks finally. “The global model and our software is open to all parties and enables us to predict the effects of groundwater abstractions, climate change and water management scenarios all over the world.”


The resulting indicators will be relevant to international companies, international financing institutes and humanitarian aid organizations, to assess risks related to new investments, by predicting changes in water supply that may affect production processes and to timely plan adaptation measures. The results will be expected later this year.