Ensuring Sustainable Groundwater Use

22 Mar 2014

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An Op-Ed on the occasion of the 22 March, 2014, the World Water day and its relevance for the Kosovo today

Groundwater has always been an invaluable source of water, and is used across the globe for many as a primary source, and for others as a back-up water supply. Kosovo has an unequal distribution of water, with the majority of the surface water concentrated in the west of the country, where the largest groundwater reserves are also situated. In the east and southeast of the country, where water demand is higher, fewer groundwater reserves can be found. While there are a small number of natural lakes and reservoirs in Kosovo, the surface water supply is being impacted by the increasingly obvious effects of climate change. As surface water reserves are becoming more unreliable and unpredictable, Kosovars have been relying more and more on groundwater for their water needs. Groundwater is somewhat less susceptible to sudden changes in climate and so can provide a seemingly steadier source. Currently, 45% of the tap water is sourced from groundwater, and this does not include privately owned wells or springs.

While using groundwater for everyday needs appears to be a perfect solution to the problem of scarce surface water, it is one which needs to be well managed if it is to be sustainable. Knowledge and understanding of groundwater systems in the Balkan region is low due to a lack of research in the area. There have been very few studies done on the situation in Kosovo as well, despite the sharp increase in well digging and groundwater use in the country.

In 2007, investigations were conducted into the state of groundwater reserves in the south eastern part of the country, in Gjilan/Gnjilane and Ferizaj/Uroševac specifically. The results indicate that an increasing industrial demand for water in Gjilan/Gnjilane could be putting stress on the system, leading to the possibility of a negative impact on the regions aquifers (the bodies of permeable rock which contain and transmit groundwater). While the seasonal flooding of the area plays an important part in replenishing the reserves, this also brings the risk of groundwater contamination. This calls for the implementation of safe flooding mechanisms in the area. During the survey of the Nerodime/Nerodimlje region, the well ran dry from pumping and had yet to recover by the end of the study. This occurrence highlighted the conclusion that there is a likelihood of the spring running dry if subjected to increased pumping. It was recommended not to escalate future groundwater extraction in the region for fear of depleting the aquifers. An alarming survey of groundwater supplies for the KFOR base in Camp Bondsteel revealed a substantial drop in the water table in the area over a period of two years, with the potential for it to completely dry up in the successive five years. Even with all the evidence we have, limited as it is, pointing to the urgency of controlling the manner in which groundwater is being used, the problem is still being overlooked.

While the diminishing volumes of water in underground aquifers can cause serious geological damage, lead to contamination and eventually the full depletion of water reserves, more immediate inconveniences can also arise. The drop in water level can become directly problematic to the user sooner than the decrease in volume: the lower the water level, the more energy that is needed to pump it to the surface and, ultimately, the rise in energy consumption can render it financially impractical for use.

There is a strong need for increased research on groundwater reserves, which are under more stress than ever, due to the current water shortages. This research will help inform regulation and appropriate protection for Kosovar groundwater use.

In the meantime, voluntary limits on use and water sharing techniques can be employed. In areas where groundwater is scarce, community management methods have been practiced for years in order to preserve the precious resource. The acequia culture, which has its 10,000 year roots in the Middle East, was brought to Spain by the Moors and is now practiced in the south-west of the United States, relies on voluntary community regulation of water sources, including governance of water distribution and water scarcity plans. Recently, in the absence of official water use regulation, communities in water-scarce Texan regions have come together and adopted voluntary limits on their water use. These measures taken freely by local communities have successfully protected and maintained the water sources.

By being mindful of the water that we are taking from the ground, and taking it at a rate which allows for the adequate replenishment of the reserves, we can continue to use the available groundwater as a back-up water supply. Embracing groundwater as a communal resource and coming together to protect it can foster the cooperation that will help us become more resilient in the face of the worsening climate change challenges that lie ahead.

During the last two years in Kosovo there was less than usual precipitation, rainfall or snowfall. As a result of that surface water resources are indeed threatened, but little attention is being paid to underground water. The government (both local and central) and partners are already taking measures with regards to increasing the surface water source reserves for Prishtinë/Priština region. On the 22 of March, World Water Day, it is only appropriate to rethink some of the general policies on the usage of both the surface water and the underground water in Kosovo with sustainability in mind. Every drop counts!