Transboundary Aquifiers & An Atlas of Hidden Water

As reported by the Environmental News Service, the UN General Assembly has a draft of a new international treaty to safeguard the enormous pools of underground water shared by more than one country which have long been neglected under international law despite their environmental, social, economic and strategic importance.  As the report notes

“…the draft Convention on Transboundary Aquifers applies to 96 percent of the planet’s freshwater resources – those that are to be found in underground aquifers, most of which straddle national boundaries.

…The draft treaty requires that aquifer states not harm existing aquifers and cooperate to prevent and control their pollution. Prepared over the past six years by the UN International Law Commission with the assistance of experts from UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme, the treaty is intended to fill a gap in the law.

…So far, the inventory includes 273 shared aquifers – 68 are in the Americas, 38 in Africa, 65 in eastern Europe, 90 in western Europe and 12 in Asia.

…Underground aquifers account for more than 70 percent of the water used in the European Union, and are often the only source of supply in arid and semi-arid zones.

Aquifers supply 100 percent of the water used in Saudi Arabia and Malta, 95 percent in Tunisia and 75 percent in Morocco.

Irrigation systems in many countries depend very largely on groundwater resources – 90 percent in the Libya, 89 percent in India, 84 percent in South Africa and 80 percent in Spain.

One of the largest aquifers in the world is the Guarani Aquifer, extending over 1.2 million square kilometers, shared by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

…The aquifers in Africa, which are some of the biggest in the world, are still under-exploited, the UN agency says, adding, “They have considerable potential, provided that their resources are managed on a sustainable basis.”

Since they generally extend across several national boundaries, the sustainable use of African aquifers depends on agreed management mechanisms that will help prevent pollution or over-exploitation.

Mechanisms of this kind have begun to emerge. In the 1990s Chad, Egypt, Libya and Sudan established a joint authority to manage the Nubian aquifer system.

In their project concerning the Iullemeden aquifer that extends over 500 000 square kilometers in the semi-arid tropical savanna ecoregion of West Africa, Niger, Nigeria and Mali have approved in principle a consultative mechanism for administering the aquifer system. UNESCO says such mechanisms still are rare but the new treaty may encourage their formation.

Additionally, there is an interesting post at the BLDG Blog, describing an “atlas of hidden water” to tag alone with the draft law to reveal where the world’s freshwater aquifers really lie


[Image: The “hidden water” of South America].

“What the UNESCO map reveals,” New Scientist adds, “is just how many aquifers cross international borders. So far, the organisation has identified 273 trans-boundary aquifers: 68 in the Americas, 38 in Africa, 155 in Eastern and Western Europe and 12 in Asia.” One of these is the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, whose waters are nearly a million years old.

According – somewhat oddly – to the International Atomic Energy Agency:

    The ancient system’s massive reserves, estimated at 375,000 cu km of water (equivalent to about 500 years of Nile River discharge), are confined deep inside the earth’s underground chambers – staggered, tiered, and pooled beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert, oasis settlements, wadis (dry riverbeds that contain water only during times of heavy rain), small villages, towns, and large cities.

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