Groundwater is the main source of drinking water and irrigated food production worldwide. The invisible resource is, however, under stress from climate change, societal water withdrawals and long-distance effects – telecouplings. Virtual water trade, that is the water contained in traded products, and remote water supply are two examples of how society manages groundwater in such de-localised contexts. The junior research group ‘regulate’ examines the social-ecological regulation of groundwater against telecoupling effects in an inter- and transdisciplinary research setting. Case studies in Germany, Spain and Croatia provide the empirical basis to inform sustainable groundwater governance in Europe.
Under the integrated water resources management approach (IWRM), river basins have been defined as management units, instead of administrative entities of hierarchical state authorities. The shift from administrative to hydrological scales in water management decades ago has been a key step forward to manage water resources sustainably. However, in the Anthropocene epoch, the basin-scale perspective is challenged by multiple social-ecological processes that easily transgress hydrological boundaries. Even groundwater, a thoroughly localized resource, is increasingly subject to new supra-regional social-ecological dynamics, such as climate change. Resulting groundwater impacts elude an explanation that attempts to consider the local situation only. Likewise, temporality plays a role in the time lags between management shifts and their effects on groundwater quality and quantity. This effect is aggravated by the invisibility of the resource, which prompts decision-makers to react when it is already too late. The fact that the resource body as well as infrastructure is in large parts hidden furthermore facilitates illegal groundwater abstraction. In addition, social-ecological interactions of groundwater as habitat for endemic species and in sustaining ecosystems are barely understood, let alone monitored.
What type of knowledge on groundwater is needed at the intersection of science and policy in order to strengthen sustainable groundwater management is a question under debate.
The exceptionally dry summers of 2018, 2019 and 2020 have made the societal and ecological relevance of healthy groundwater bodies visible. Forests falling dry as groundwater tables were sinking have drawn attention to the interactions between subterranean waters and surface ecosystems. Cities’ supply of drinking water mined in surrounding regions has entered into conflict with the intensified demand for irrigation water in agriculture and its commercial use in bottled water. Increasingly, pipelines have been installed to supply water from remote areas over long distances– not only to compensate for low local groundwater availability in quantity, but also by ‘bringing high quality groundwater’ to regions of lower groundwater quality. These examples vividly illustrate how groundwater is de-localised, being transferred via pipes, bottles, or as part of products such as fruits and vegetables grown in Spain for sale across Europe (virtual water) or in cotton for the fashion industry. These flows over large distances trigger social-ecological change at both ends of the flow (i.e., the aquifer where the water comes from and the social-ecological system where the water goes to). Next to water flows, flows of nutrients, medical substances and people (e.g., tourists) shape the availability and quality of groundwater.
The idea of telecoupling is to make the social-ecological effects of long distance flows of natural resources visible and comprehensible. Distinguishing between sending, receiving, and spillover systems makes it feasible to name the multiple (intended as well as unintended) effects of de-localised natural resource management in different places. Stemming from land system science, the concept has been introduced as a contribution „to more effective policies and action towards sustainable development“ .
Junior research group ‘regulate’
In our junior research group ‘regulate’ – regulation of groundwater in telecoupled social-ecological systems we conceptualise groundwater in telecoupled systems. We – that is an aquatic ecologist, two social hydrologists, two human geographers and one anthropologist – explore groundwater dynamics under the focal areas of groundwater quality, groundwater quantity, conflicts and power relations and institutions. We will conduct empirical research in three case studies in Europe, namely Sangerhausen in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, Júcar River in Valencia, Spain and Rjeka/Krk in Croatia. Here we assess disciplinary, inter- and transdisciplinary questions on groundwater in close collaboration with partners from practice. The overall objective is to gain understanding of the visible and hidden processes entailed in telecoupled groundwaters and to make this understanding accessible for policy-making. Given that a new framework for groundwater governance in the EU is needed after the Water Framework Directive phases out in 2027, ‘regulate’ addresses questions of timely relevance for EU groundwater governance. Against this background, ‘regulate’ seeks to outline a governance framework that adaptively responds to ongoing dynamics. Regular exchange and transdisciplinary assessments of case study findings with the project’s advisory board underpin this endeavour.