Today is World Water Day and the theme of this year's celebration is groundwater - making the invisible visible. But what even is groundwater, and why should we care about it?
Groundwater lays below our soil, having reached there as rainwater filtering through the surface into rocks. The ability of water to travel underground depends on the permeability of the rocks. That's why the presence of groundwater differs across the UK depending on regional geology.
With most rivers and lakes partly supported by groundwater, the water we use for agriculture, industry, and drinking is either groundwater or has been at some point in the water cycle. Groundwater provides a third of the public water supply in England and plays an essential part in Wales and Scotland, making it a crucial source of drinking water for millions of people across the UK.
As well as helping to meet the UK's unquenchable thirst for water, groundwater also plays an essential environmental and economic function. During drier months with less rainfall, the flow of groundwater into bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes and wetlands, is vital to the health of the wildlife there.
Passing through permeable rocks helps clean the water of any pollutants it may carry. In doing so, groundwater is often cheaper to clean and closer to being safe drinking water when compared with other bodies of water such as rivers.
Hidden beneath our feet, groundwater can often be out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. But as our demand for water increases, along with pollution threats, our groundwater will be put at risk if not properly managed. By drawing attention to the essential yet invisible concept of groundwater as a natural resource, through the strapline of "making the invisible visible", World Water Day seeks to raise awareness around groundwater and its vital role to play.
At an individual level, we all have a role to play. We should all be mindful of our water consumption and what we are putting on and in the ground. For the former, from fixing leaky taps to watering your plants at the coolest time of the day, there are many ways that we can work to make our water consumption more efficient. For the latter, reducing the amount of chemicals we use in gardening or ensuring cigarette butts end up in the bin can help protect water quality. For example, studies have shown that a single cigarette butt can contaminate up to 1000 litres of water when littered.
Government policy can also work to protect our groundwater. The world-leading Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) prioritises soil health and quality, preserving and improving the state of our groundwater. Last week, Defra announced it would be setting targets to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment contribution from agriculture and targets to reduce metal pollution from abandoned mines to improve water quality.
Experts expect an additional 4,000 million litres of water a day to be required by 2050. Through a target to reduce the use of public water supply in England per head of population by 20% by 2037, announced last week by Defra, two-thirds of this capacity is expected to be met by demand reduction, including improvements to water supply infrastructure to reduce leakages.
But there is still more than can be done. Although Defra laid out its plans for specific water targets, the department has not yet announced an overall water quality target to replace the current target set to expire in 2027. Setting such a target will help to ensure all rivers are working towards an improved condition, across all pollutants, not just the ones explicitly mentioned within the new targets.
Throughout the course of this blog, I hope I have contributed to making our invisible groundwater more visible, by demonstrating what can be done in the political arena as well as in our personal lives. Groundwater may be out of sight, but it must not be out of mind, especially as the impacts of climate change worsen, making our groundwater an increasingly precious resource.
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