Groundwater Shock: The Polluting of the World's Major Freshwater Stores

Groundwater Shock: The Polluting of the World's Major Freshwater Stores


The Mississippi River occupies a mythic place in the American imagination, in part because it is so huge. At any given moment, on average, about 2,100 billion liters of water are flowing across Big Muddy's broad bottom. If you were to dive about 35 feet down and lie on that bottom, you might feel a sense of awe that the whole river was on top of you. But in one very important sense, you'd be completely wrong. At any point in time, only 1 percent of the water in the Mississippi River system is in the part of the river that flows downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. The other 99 percent lies beneath the bottom, locked in massive strata of rock and sand.

This is a distinction of enormous consequence. The availability of clean water has come to be recognized as perhaps the most critical of all human security issues facing the world in the next quarter-century_and what is happening to water buried under the bottoms of rivers, or under our feet, is vastly different from what happens to the "surface" water of rivers, lakes, and streams. New research finds that contrary to popular belief, it is groundwater that is most dangerously threatened. Moreover, the Mississippi is not unique in its ratio of surface to underground water; worldwide, 97 percent of the planet's liquid freshwater is stored in aquifers.

In the early centuries of civilization, surface water was the only source we needed to know about. Human population was less than a tenth of one percent the size it is now; settlements were on river banks; and the water was relatively clean. We still think of surface water as being the main resource. So it's easy to think that the problem of contamination is mainly one of surface water: it is polluted rivers and streams that threaten health in times of flood, and that have made waterborne diseases a major killer of humankind. But in the past century, as population has almost quadrupled and rivers have become more depleted and polluted, our dependence on pumping groundwater has soared_and as it has, we've made a terrible discovery. Contrary to the popular impression that at least the waters from our springs and wells are pure, we're uncovering a pattern of pervasive pollution there too. And in these sources, unlike rivers, the pollution is generally irreversible.

This is largely the work of another hidden factor: the rate of groundwater renewal is very slow in comparison with that of surface water. It's true that some aquifers recharge fairly quickly, but the average recycling time for groundwater is 1,400 years, as opposed to only 20 days for river water. So when we pump out groundwater, we're effectively removing it from aquifers for generations to come. It may evaporate and return to the atmosphere quickly enough, but the resulting rainfall (most of which falls back into the oceans) may take centuries to recharge the aquifers once they've been depleted. And because water in aquifers moves through the Earth with glacial slowness, its pollutants continue to accumulate. Unlike rivers, which flush themselves into the oceans, aquifers become sinks for pollutants, decade after decade_thus further diminishing the amount of clean water they can yield for human use.

Perhaps the largest misconception being exploded by the spreading water crisis is the assumption that the ground we stand on_and what lies beneath it_is solid, unchanging, and inert. Just as the advent of climate change has awakened us to the fact that the air over our heads is an arena of enormous forces in the midst of titanic shifts, the water crisis has revealed that slow-moving though it may be, groundwater is part of a system of powerful hydrological interactions_between earth, surface water, sky, and sea_that we ignore at our peril. A few years ago, reflecting on how human activity is beginning to affect climate, Columbia University scientist Wallace Broecker warned, "The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks." A similar statement might now be made about the system under our feet. If we continue to drill holes into it_expecting it to swallow our waste and yield freshwater in return_we may be toying with an outcome no one could wish.

Valuing Groundwater

For most of human history, groundwater was tapped mainly in arid regions where surface water was in short supply. From Egypt to Iran, ancient Middle Eastern civilizations used periscope-like conduits to funnel spring water from mountain slopes to nearby towns_a technology that allowed settlement to spread out from the major rivers. Over the centuries, as populations and cropland expanded, innovative well-digging techniques evolved in China, India, and Europe. Water became such a valuable resource that some cultures developed elaborate mythologies imbuing underground water and its seekers with special powers. In medieval Europe, people called water witches or dowsers were believed to be able to detect groundwater using a forked stick and mystical insight.

In the second half of the 20th century, the soaring demand for water turned the dowsers' modern-day counterparts into a major industry. Today, major aquifers are tapped on every continent, and groundwater is the primary source of drinking water for more than 1.5 billion people worldwide (see table, page 12). The aquifer that lies beneath the Huang-Huai-Hai plain in eastern China alone supplies drinking water to nearly 160 million people. Asia as a whole relies on its groundwater for nearly one-third of its drinking water supply. Some of the largest cities in the developing world_Jakarta, Dhaka, Lima, and Mexico City, among them_depend on aquifers for almost all their water. And in rural areas, where centralized water supply systems are undeveloped, groundwater is typically the sole source of water. More than 95 percent of the rural U.S. population depends on groundwater for drinking.

A principal reason for the explosive rise in groundwater use since 1950 has been a dramatic expansion in irrigated agriculture. In India, the leading country in total irrigated area and the world's third largest grain producer, the number of shallow tubewells used to draw groundwater surged from 3,000 in 1960 to 6 million in 1990. While India doubled the amount of its land irrigated by surface water between 1950 and 1985, it increased the area watered by aquifers 113-fold. Today, aquifers supply water to more than half of India's irrigated land. The United States, with the third highest irrigated area in the world, uses groundwater for 43 percent of its irrigated farmland. Worldwide, irrigation is by far the biggest drain on freshwater: it accounts for about 70 percent of the water we draw from rivers and wells each year.

Other industries have been expanding their water use even faster than agriculture_and generating much higher profits in the process. On average, a ton of water used in industry generates roughly $14,000 worth of output_about 70 times as much profit as the same amount of water used to grow grain. Thus, as the world has industrialized, substantial amounts of water have been shifted from farms to more lucrative factories. Industry's share of total consumption has reached 19 percent and is likely to continue rising rapidly. The amount of water available for drinking is thus constrained not only by a limited resource base, but by competition with other, more powerful users.
And as rivers and lakes are stretched to their limits_many of them dammed, dried up, or polluted_we're growing more and more dependent on groundwater for all these uses. In Taiwan, for example, the share of water supplied by groundwater almost doubled from 21 percent in 1983 to over 40 percent in 1991. And Bangladesh, which was once almost entirely river- and stream-dependent, dug over a million wells in the 1970s to substitute for its badly polluted surface-water supply. Today, almost 90 percent of its people use only groundwater for drinking.

Even as our dependence on groundwater increases, the availability of the resource is becoming more limited. On almost every continent, many major aquifers are being drained faster than their natural rate of recharge. Groundwater depletion is most severe in parts of India, China, the United States, North Africa, and the Middle East. Under certain geological conditions, groundwater overdraft can cause aquifer sediments to compact, permanently shrinking the aquifer's storage capacity. This loss can be quite considerable, and irreversible. The amount of water storage capacity lost because of aquifer compaction in California's Central Valley, for example, is equal to more than 40 percent of the combined storage capacity of all human-made reservoirs across the state.

As the competition among factories, farms, and households intensifies, it's easy to overlook the extent to which freshwater is also required for essential ecological services. It is not just rainfall, but groundwater welling up from beneath, that replenishes rivers, lakes, and streams. In a study of 54 streams in different parts of the country, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that groundwater is the source for more than half the flow, on average. The 492 billion gallons (1.86 cubic kilometers) of water aquifers add to U.S. surface water bodies each day is nearly equal to the daily flow of the Mississippi. Groundwater provides the base contribution for the Mississippi, the Niger, the Yangtze, and many more of the world's great rivers_some of which would otherwise not be flowing year-round. Wetlands, important habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife, are often largely groundwater-fed, created in places where the water table overflows to the surface on a constant basis. And while providing surface bodies with enough water to keep them stable, aquifers also help prevent them from flooding: when it rains heavily, aquifers beneath rivers soak up the excess water, preventing the surface flow from rising too rapidly and overflowing onto neighboring fields and villages. In tropical Asia, where the hot season can last as long as 9 months, and where monsoon rains can be very intense, this dual hydrological service is of critical value.

Numerous studies have tracked the extent to which our increasing demand on water has made it a resource critical to a degree that even gold and oil have never been. It's the most valuable thing on Earth. Yet, ironically, it's the thing most consistently overlooked, and most widely used as a final resting place for our waste. And, of course, as contamination spreads, the supplies of usable water get tighter still. 

Tracking the Hidden Crisis

In 1940, during the Second World War, the U.S. Department of the Army acquired 70 square kilometers of land around Weldon Spring and its neighboring towns near St. Louis, Missouri. Where farmhouses and barns had been, the Army established the world's largest TNT-producing facility. In this sprawling warren of plants, toluene (a component of gasoline) was treated with nitric acid to produce more than a million tons of the explosive compound each day when production was at its peak.

Part of the manufacturing process involved purifying the TNT_washing off unwanted "nitroaromatic" compounds left behind by the chemical reaction between the toluene and nitric acid. Over the years, millions of gallons of this red-colored muck were generated. Some of it was treated at wastewater plants, but much of it ran off from the leaky treatment facilities into ditches and ravines, and soaked into the ground. In 1945, when the Army left the site, soldiers burned down the contaminated buildings but left the red-tinged soil and the rest of the site as they were. For decades, the site remained abandoned and unused.

Then, in 1980, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed its "Superfund" legislation, which required the cleaning up of several sites in the country that were contaminated with hazardous waste. Weldon Spring made it to the list of sites that were the highest priority for cleanup. The Army Corps of Engineers was assigned the task, but what the Corps workers found baffled them. They expected the soil and vegetation around the site to be contaminated with the nitroaromatic wastes that had been discarded there. When they tested the groundwater, however, they found that the chemicals were showing up in people's wells, in towns several miles from the site_a possibility that no one had anticipated, because the original pollution had been completely localized. Geologists determined that there was an enormous plume of contamination in the water below the TNT factory_a plume that over the previous 35 years had flowed through fissures in the limestone rock to other parts of the aquifer.

The Weldon Spring story may sound like an exceptional case of clumsy planning combined with a particularly vulnerable geological structure. But in fact there is nothing exceptional about it all. Across the United States, as well as in parts of Europe, Asia, and Latin America, human activities are sending massive quantities of chemicals and pollutants into groundwater. This isn't entirely new, of course; the subterranean world has always been a receptacle for whatever we need to dispose of_whether our sewage, our garbage, or our dead. But the enormous volumes of waste we now send underground, and the deadly mixes of chemicals involved, have created problems never before imagined.

What Weldon Spring shows is that we can't always anticipate where the pollution is going to turn up in our water, or how long it will be from the time it was deposited until it reappears. Because groundwater typically moves very slowly_at a speed of less than a foot a day, in some cases_damage done to aquifers may not show up for decades. In many parts of the world, we are only just beginning to discover contamination caused by practices of 30 or 40 years ago. Some of the most egregious cases of aquifer contamination now being unearthed date back to Cold War era nuclear testing and weapons-making, for example. And once it gets into groundwater, the pollution usually persists: the enormous volume, inaccessibility, and slow rate at which groundwater moves make aquifers virtually impossible to purify.

As this covert crisis unfolds, we are barely beginning to understand its dimensions. Few countries track the health of their aquifers_their enormous size and remoteness make them extremely expensive to monitor. As the new century begins, even hydrogeologists and health officials have only a hazy impression of the likely extent of groundwater damage in different parts of the world. Nonetheless, given the data we now have, it is possible to sketch a rough map of the regions affected, and the principal threats they face (see map, page 18, and table, page 21).

The Filter that Failed:Pesticides in Your Water

Pesticides are designed to kill. The first synthetic pesticides were introduced in the 1940s, but it took several decades of increasingly heavy use before it became apparent that these chemicals were injuring non-target organisms_including humans. One reason for the delay was that some groups of pesticides, such as organochlorines, usually have little effect until they bioaccumulate.Their concentration in living tissue increases as they move up the food chain. So eventually, the top predators_birds of prey, for example_may end up carrying a disproportionately high burden of the toxin. But bioaccumulation takes time, and it may take still more time before the effects are discovered. In cases where reproductive systems are affected, the aftermath of this chemical accumulation may not show up for a generation.

Even when the health concerns of some pesticides were recognized in the 1960s, it was easily assumed that the real dangers lay in the dispersal of these chemicals among animals and plants_not deep underground. It was assumed that very little pesticide would leach below the upper layers of soil, and that if it did, it would be degraded before it could get any deeper. Soil, after all, is known to be a natural filter, which purifies water as it trickles through. It was thought that industrial or agricultural chemicals, like such natural contaminants as rock dust, or leaf mold, would be filtered out as the water percolated through the soil.

But over the past 35 years, this seemingly safe assumption has proved mistaken. Cases of extensive pesticide contamination of groundwater have come to light in farming regions of the United States, Western Europe, Latin America, and South Asia. What we now know is that pesticides not only leach into aquifers, but sometimes remain there long after the chemical is no longer used. DDT, for instance, is still found in U.S. waters even though its use was banned 30 years ago. In the San Joaquin Valley of California, the soil fumigant DBCP (dibromochloropropane), which was used intensively in fruit orchards before it was banned in 1977, still lurks in the region's water supplies. Of 4,507 wells sampled by the USGS between 1971 and 1988, nearly a third had DBCP levels that were at least 10 times higher than allowed by the current drinking water standard.

In places where organochlorines are still widely used, the risks continue to mount. After half a century of spraying in the eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Bihar, for example, the Central Pollution Control Board found DDT in groundwater at levels as high as 4,500 micrograms per liter_several thousand times higher than what is considered a safe dose.

The amount of chemical that reaches groundwater depends on the amount used above ground, the geology of the region, and the characteristics of the pesticide itself. In some parts of the midwestern United States, for example, although pesticides are used intensively, the impermeable soils of the region make it difficult for the chemicals to percolate underground. The fissured aquifers of southern Arizona, Florida, Maine, and southern California, on the other hand, are very vulnerable to pollution_and these too are places where pesticides are applied in large quantities. 

Pesticides are often found in combination, because most farms use a range of toxins to destroy different kinds of insects, fungi, and plant diseases. The USGS detected two or more pesticides in groundwater at nearly a quarter of the sites sampled in its National Water Quality Assessment between 1993 and 1995. In the Central Columbia Plateau aquifer, which extends over the states of Washington and Idaho, more than two-thirds of water samples contained multiple pesticides. Scientists aren't entirely sure what happens when these chemicals and their various metabolites come together. We don't even have standards for the many hundred individual pesticides in use_the EPA has drinking water standards for just 33 of these compounds_to say nothing of the infinite variety of toxic blends now trickling into the groundwater.

While the most direct impacts may be on the water we drink, there is also concern about what occurs when the pesticide-laden water below farmland is pumped back up for irrigation. One apparent consequence is a reduction in crop yields.

In 1990, the now-defunct U.S. Office of Technology Assessment reported that herbicides in shallow groundwater had the effect of "pruning" crop roots, thereby retarding plant growth.


From Green Revolution to BlueBaby: the Slow Creep of Nitrogen

Since the early 1950s, farmers all over the world have stepped up their use of nitrogen fertilizers. Global fertilizer use has grown ninefold in that time. But the larger doses of nutrients often can't be fully utilized by plants. A study conducted over a 140,000 square kilometer region of Northern China, for example, found that crops used on average only 40 percent of the nitrogen that was applied. An almost identical degree of waste was found in Sri Lanka. Much of the excess fertilizer dissolves in irrigation water, eventually trickling through the soil into underlying aquifers.

Joining the excess chemical fertilizer from farm crops is the organic waste generated by farm animals, and the sewage produced by cities. Livestock waste forms a particularly potent tributary to the stream of excess nutrients flowing into the environment, because of its enormous volume. In the United States, farm animals produce 130 times as much waste as the country's people do_with the result that millions of tons of cow and pig feces are washed into streams and rivers, and some of the nitrogen they carry ends up in groundwater. To this Augean burden can be added the innumerable leaks and overflows from urban sewage systems, the fertilizer runoff from suburban lawns, golf courses, and landscaping, and the nitrates leaking (along with other pollutants) from landfills.

There is very little historical information available about trends in the pollution of aquifers. But several studies show that nitrate concentrations have increased as fertilizer applications and population size have grown. In California's San Joaquin-Tulare Valley, for instance, nitrate levels in groundwater increased 2.5 times between the 1950s and 1980s_a period in which fertilizer inputs grew six-fold. Levels in Danish groundwater have nearly tripled since the 1940s. As with pesticides, the aftermath of this multi-sided assault of excess nutrients has only recently begun to become visible, in part because of the slow speed at which nitrate moves underground.

What happens when nitrates get into drinking water? Consumed in high concentrations_at levels above 10 milligrams (mg) per liter, but usually on the order of 100 mg/liter_they can cause infant methemoglobinemia, or so-called blue-baby syndrome. Because of their low gastric acidity, infant digestive systems convert nitrate to nitrite, which blocks the oxygen-carrying capacity of a baby's blood, causing suffocation and death. Since 1945, about 3,000 cases have been reported worldwide_nearly half of them in Hungary, where private wells have particularly high concentrations of nitrates. Ruminant livestock such as goats, sheep, and cows, are vulnerable to methemoglobinemia in much the same way infants are, because their digestive systems also quickly convert nitrate to nitrite. Nitrates are also implicated in digestive tract cancers, although the epidemiological link is still uncertain.

In cropland, nitrate pollution of groundwater can have a paradoxical effect. Too much nitrate can weaken plants' immune systems, making them more vulnerable to pests and disease. So when nitrate-laden groundwater is used to irrigate crops that are also being fertilized, the net effect may be to reduce, rather than to increase production. This kind of over-fertilizing makes wheat more susceptible to wheat rust, for example, and it makes pear trees more vulnerable to fire blight.

In assembling studies of groundwater from around the world, we have found that nitrate pollution is pervasive_but has become particularly severe in the places where human population_and the demand for high food productivity_is most concentrated. In the northern Chinese counties of Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, and Shandong, nitrate concentrations in groundwater exceeded 50 mg/liter in more than half of the locations studied. (The World Health Organization [WHO] drinking water guideline is 10 mg/liter.) In some places, the concentration had risen as high as 300 mg/liter. Since then, these levels may have increased, as fertilizer applications have escalated since the tests were carried out in 1995 and will likely increase even more as China's population (and demand for food) swells, and as more farmland is lost to urbanization, industrial development, nutrient depletion, and erosion.

Reports from other regions show similar results. The USGS found that about 15 percent of shallow groundwater sampled below agricultural and urban areas in the United States had nitrate concentrations higher than the 10 mg/liter guideline. In Sri Lanka, 79 percent of wells sampled by the British Geological Survey had nitrate levels that exceeded this guideline. Some 56 percent of wells tested in the Yucat n peninsula in Mexico had levels above 45 mg/liter. And the European Topic Centre on Inland Waters found that in Romania and Moldova, more than 35 percent of the sites sampled had nitrate concentrations higher than 50 mg/liter.

From Tank of Gas to Drinking Glass: the Pervasiveness of Petrochemicals

Drive through any part of the United States, and you'll probably pass more gas stations than schools or churches. As you pull into a station to fill up, it may not occur to you that you're parked over one of the most pervasive threats to ground- water: an underground storage tank (UST) for petroleum. Many of these tanks were installed two or three decades ago and, having been left in place long past their expected lifetimes, have rusted through in places_allowing a steady leakage of gasoline into the ground. Because they're underground, they're expensive to dig up and repair, so the leakage in some cases continues for years.

Petroleum and its associated chemicals_benzene, toluene, and gasoline additives such as MTBE_constitute the most common category of groundwater contaminant found in aquifers in the United States. Many of these chemicals are also known or suspected to be cancer-causing. In 1998, the EPA found that over 100,000 commercially owned petroleum USTs were leaking, of which close to 18,000 are known to have contaminated groundwater. In Texas, 223 of 254 counties report leaky USTs, resulting in a silent disaster that, according to the EPA, "has affected, or has the potential to affect, virtually every major and minor aquifer in the state." Household tanks, which store home heating oil, are a problem as well. Although the household tanks aren't subject to the same regulations and inspections as commercial ones, the EPA says they are "undoubtedly leaking." Outside the United States, the world's ubiquitous petroleum storage tanks are even less monitored, but spot tests suggest that the threat of leakage is omnipresent in the industrialized world. In 1993, petroleum giant Shell reported that a third of its 1,100 gas stations in the United Kingdom were known to have contaminated soil and groundwater. Another example comes from the eastern Kazakh town of Semipalatinsk, where 6,460 tons of kerosene have collected in an aquifer under a military airport, seriously threatening the region's water supplies.

The widespread presence of petrochemicals in groundwater constitutes a kind of global malignancy, the danger of which has grown unobtrusively because there is such a great distance between cause and effect. An underground tank, for example, may take years to rust; it probably won't begin leaking until long after the people who bought it and installed it have left their jobs. Even after it begins to leak, it may take several more years before appreciable concentrations of chemicals appear in the aquifer_and it will likely be years beyond that before any health effects show up in the local population. By then, the trail may be decades old. So it's quite possible that any cancers occurring today as a result of leaking USTs might originate from tanks that were installed half a century ago. At that time, there were gas tanks sufficient to fuel 53 million cars in the world; today there are enough to fuel almost 10 times that number.

From Sediment to Solute: the Emerging Threat of Natural Contaminants

In the early 1990s, several villagers living near India's West Bengal border with Bangladesh began to complain of skin sores that wouldn't go away. A researcher at Calcutta's Jadavpur University, Dipanker Chakraborti, recognized the lesions immediately as early symptoms of chronic arsenic poisoning. In later stages, the disease can lead to gangrene, skin cancer, damage to vital organs, and eventually, death. In the months that followed, Chakraborti began to get letters from doctors and hospitals in Bangladesh, who were seeing streams of patients with similar symptoms. By 1995, it was clear that the country faced a crisis of untold proportions, and that the source of the poisoning was water from tubewells, from which 90 percent of the country gets its drinking water.

Chakraborti estimates that today, arsenic in drinking water could threaten the health of 38 million people in West Bengal, and up to 85 million Bangladeshis_more than half the country's population. As many as 1 million wells in the region may be contaminated with the heavy metal at levels between 5 and 100 times the WHO drinking water guideline of 0.01 mg/liter.

How did the arsenic get into groundwater? Until the early 1970s, rivers and ponds supplied most of Bangladesh's drinking water. Concerned about the risks of water-borne disease, the WHO and international aid agencies launched a well-drilling program to tap groundwater instead. However, the agencies, not aware that soils of the Ganges aquifers are naturally rich in arsenic, didn't test the sediment before drilling tubewells. Because the effects of chronic arsenic poisoning can take up to 15 years to appear, the epidemic was not prevented until it was well under way.

Scientists are still debating what chemical reactions released the arsenic from the mineral matrix in which it is naturally bound up. Some theories implicate human activities. One hypothesis is that as water was pumped out of the wells, atmospheric oxygen entered the aquifer, oxidizing the iron pyrite sediments, and causing the arsenic to dissolve. An October 1999 article in the scientific journal Nature by geologists from the Indian Institute of Technology suggests that phosphates from fertilizer runoff and decaying organic matter may have played a role. The nutrient might have spurred the growth of soil microorganisms, which helped to loosen arsenic from sediments.

Salt is another naturally-occurring groundwater pollutant that is introduced by human activity. Normally, water in coastal aquifers empties into the sea. But when too much water is pumped out of these aquifers, the process is reversed: seawater moves inland and enters the aquifer. Because of its high salt content, just 2 percent of seawater mixed with freshwater makes the water unusable for drinking or irrigation. And once salinized, a freshwater aquifer can remain contaminated for a very long time. Brackish aquifers often have to be abandoned because treatment can be very expensive.

In Manila, where water levels have fallen 50 to 80 meters because of overdraft, seawater has flowed as far as 5 kilometers into the Guadalupe aquifer that lies below the city. Saltwater has traveled several kilometers inland into aquifers beneath Jakarta and Madras, and in parts of the U.S. state of Florida. Saltwater intrusion is also a serious problem on islands such as the Maldives and Cyprus, which are very dependent on aquifers for water supply.

Fluoride is another natural contaminant that threatens millions in parts of Asia. Aquifers in the drier regions of western India, northern China, and parts of Thailand and Sri Lanka are naturally rich in fluoride deposits. Fluoride is an essential nutrient for bone and dental health, but when consumed in high concentrations, it can lead to crippling damage to the neck and back, and to a range of dental problems. The WHO estimates that 70 million people in northern China, and 30 million in northwestern India are drinking water with high fluoride levels.

A Chemical Soup

With just over a million residents, Ludhiana is the largest city in Punjab, India's breadbasket state. It is also an important industrial town, known for its textile factories, electroplating industries, and metal foundries. Although the city is entirely dependent on groundwater, its wells are now so polluted with industrial and urban wastes that the water is no longer safe to drink. Samples show high levels of cyanide, cadmium, lead, and pesticides. "Ludhiana city's groundwater is just short of poison," laments a senior official at India's Central Ground Water Board.

Like Ludhiana's residents, more than a third of the planet's people live and work in densely settled cities, which occupy just 2 percent of the Earth's land area. With the labor force thus concentrated, factories and other centers of employment also group together around the same urban areas. Aquifers in these areas are beginning to mirror the increasing density and diversity of the human activity above them. Whereas the pollutants emanating from hog farms or copper mines may be quite predictable, the waste streams flowing into the water under cities contain a witch's brew of contaminants.

Ironically, a major factor in such contamination is that in most places people have learned to dispose of waste_to remove it from sight and smell_so effectively that it is easy to forget that the Earth is a closed ecological system in which nothing permanently disappears. The methods normally used to conceal garbage and other waste_landfills, septic tanks, and sewers_become the major conduits of chemical pollution of groundwater. In the United States, businesses drain almost 2 million kilograms of assorted chemicals into septic systems each year, contaminating the drinking water of 1.3 million people. In many parts of the developing world, factories still dump their liquid effluents onto the ground and wait for it to disappear. In the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, for example, a shallow aquifer that is the city's main water source has had to soak up the brew of sulfates, nitrates, and chlorides dumped over it. And even protected landfills can be a potent source of aquifer pollution: the EPA found that a quarter of the landfills in the U.S. state of Maine, for example, had contaminated groundwater.

In industrial countries, waste that is too hazardous to landfill is routinely buried in underground tanks. But as these caskets age, like gasoline tanks, they eventually spring leaks. In California's Silicon Valley, where electronics industries store assorted waste solvents in underground tanks, local groundwater authorities found that 85 percent of the tanks they inspected had leaks. Silicon Valley now has more Superfund sites_most of them affecting groundwater_than any other area its size in the country. And 60 percent of the United States' liquid hazardous waste_34 billion liters of solvents, heavy metals, and radioactive materials_is directly injected into the ground. Although the effluents are injected below the deepest source of drinking water, some of these wastes have entered aquifers used for water supplies in parts of Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma.

Shenyang, China, and Jaipur, India, are among the scores of cities in the developing world that have had to seek out alternate supplies of water because their groundwater has become unusable. Santa Cruz has also struggled to find clean water. But as it has sunk deeper wells in pursuit of pure supplies, the effluent has traveled deeper into the aquifer to replace the water pumped out of it. In places where alternate supplies aren't easily available, utilities will have to resort to increasingly elaborate filtration set-ups to make the water safe for drinking. In heavily contaminated areas, hundreds of different filters may be necessary. At present, utilities in the U.S. Midwest spend $400 million each year to treat water for just one chemical_atrazine, the most commonly-detected pesticide in U.S. groundwater. When chemicals are found in unpredictable mixtures, rather than discretely, providing safe water may become even more expensive.

One Body, Many Wounds

The various incidents of aquifer pollution described may seem isolated. A group of wells in northern China have nitrate problems; another lot in the United Kingdom are laced with benzene. In each place it might seem that the problem is local and can be contained. But put them together, and you begin to see a bigger picture emerging. Perhaps most worrisome is that we've discovered as much damage as we have, despite the very limited monitoring and testing of underground water. And because of the time-lags involved_and given our high levels of chemical use and waste generation in recent decades_what's still to come may bring even more surprises.

Some of the greatest shocks may be felt in places where chemical use and disposal has climbed in the last few decades, and where the most basic measures to shield groundwater have not been taken. In India, for example, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) surveyed 22 major industrial zones and found that groundwater in every one of them was unfit for drinking. When asked about these findings, CPCB chairman D.K. Biswas remarked, "The result is frightening, and it is my belief that we will get more shocks in the future."

Jack Barbash, an environmental chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey, points out that we may not need to wait for expensive tests to alert us to what to expect in our groundwater. "If you want to know what you're likely to find in aquifers near Shanghai or Calcutta, just look at what's used above ground," he says. "If you've been applying DDT to a field for 20 years, for example, that's one of the chemicals you're likely to find in the underlying groundwater." The full consequences of today's chemical-dependent and waste-producing economies may not become apparent for another generation, but Barbash and other scientists are beginning to get a sense of just how serious those consequences are likely to be if present consumption and disposal practices continue.

Changing Course

Farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley began tapping the area's seemingly boundless groundwater store in the late-nineteenth century. By 1912, the aquifer was so depleted that the water table had fallen by as much as 400 feet in some places. But the farmers continued to tap the resource to keep up with demand for their produce. Over time, the dehydration of the aquifer caused its clay soil to shrink, and the ground began to sink_or as geologists put it, to "subside." In some parts of the valley, the ground has subsided as much as 29 feet_cracking foundations, canals, and aqueducts.

When the San Joaquin farmers could no longer pump enough groundwater to meet their irrigation demands, they began to bring in water from the northern part of the state via the California Aqueduct. The imported water seeped into the compacted aquifer, which was not able to hold all of the incoming flow. The water table then rose to an abnormally high level, dissolving salts and minerals in soils that had not been previously submerged. The salty groundwater, welling up from below, began to poison crop roots. In response, the farmers installed drains under irrigated fields_designed to capture the excess water and divert it to rivers and reservoirs in the valley so that it wouldn't evaporate and leave its salts in the soil.

But the farmers didn't realize that the rocks and soils of the region contained substantial amounts of the mineral selenium, which is toxic at high doses. Some of the selenium leached into the drainage water, which was routed to the region's wetlands. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that the aftermath of this solution became apparent: ecologists noticed that thousands of waterfowl in the nearby Kesterson Reservoir were dying of selenium poisoning.
Hydrological systems are not easy to outmaneuver, and the San Joaquin farmers' experience serves as a kind of cautionary tale. Each of their stopgap solutions temporarily took care of an immediate obstacle, but led to a longer-term problem more severe than the original one. "Human understanding has lagged one step behind the inflexible realities governing the aquifer system," observes USGS hydrologist Frank Chapelle.

Around the world, human responses to aquifer pollution thus far have essentially reenacted the San Joaquin Valley farmers' well-meaning but inadequate approach. In many places, various authorities and industries have fought back the contamination leak by leak, or chemical by chemical_only to find that the individual fixes simply don't add up. As we line landfills to reduce leakage, for instance, tons of pesticide may be running off nearby farms and into aquifers. As we mend holes in underground gas tanks, acid from mines may be seeping into groundwater. Clearly, it's essential to control the damage we've already inflicted, and to protect communities and ecosystems from the poisoned fallout. But given what we already know_that damage done to aquifers is mostly irreversible, that it can take years before groundwater pollution reveals itself, that chemicals react synergistically, and often in unanticipated ways_it's now clear that a patchwork response isn't going to be effective. Given how much damage this pollution inflicts on public health, the environment, and the economy once it gets into the water, it's critical that emphasis be shifted from filtering out toxins to not using them in the first place. Andrew Skinner, who heads the International Association of Hydrogeologists, puts it this way: "Prevention is the only credible strategy."

To do this requires looking not just at individual factories, gas stations, cornfields, and dry cleaning plants, but at the whole social, industrial, and agricultural systems of which these businesses are a part. The ecological untenability of these systems is what's really poisoning the world's water. It is the predominant system of high-input agriculture, for example, that not only shrinks biodiversity with its vast monocultures, but also overwhelms the land_and the underlying water_with its massive applications of agricultural chemicals. It's the system of car-dominated, geographically expanding cities that not only generates unsustainable amounts of climate-disrupting greenhouse gases and acid rain-causing air pollutants, but also overwhelms aquifers and soils with petrochemicals, heavy metals, and sewage. An adequate response will require a thorough overhaul of each of these systems.

Begin with industrial agriculture. Farm runoff is a leading cause of groundwater pollution in many parts of Europe, the United States, China, and India. Lessening its impact calls for adopting practices that sharply reduce this runoff_or, better still, that require far smaller inputs to begin with. In most places, current practices are excessively wasteful. In Colombia, for example, growers spray flowers with as much as 6,000 liters of pesticide per hectare. In Brazil, orchards get almost 10,000 liters per hectare. Experts at the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization say that with modified application techniques, these chemicals could be applied at one-tenth those amounts and still be effective. But while using more efficient pesticide applications would constitute a major improvement, there is also the possibility of reorienting agriculture to use very little synthetic pesticide at all. Recent studies suggest that farms can maintain high yields while using little or no synthetic input. One decade-long investigation by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, for example, compared traditional manure and legume-based cropping systems which used no synthetic fertilizer or pesticides, with a conventional, high-intensity system. All three fields were planted with maize and soybeans. The researchers found that the traditional systems retained more soil organic matter and nitrogen_indicators of soil fertility_and leached 60 percent less nitrate than the conventional system. Although organic fertilizer (like its synthetic counterpart) is typically a potent source of nitrate, the rotations of diverse legumes and grasses helped fix and retain nitrogen in the soil. Yields for the maize and soybean crops differed by less than 1 percent between the three cropping systems over the 10-year period.

In industrial settings, building "closed-loop" production and consumption systems can help slash the quantities of waste that factories and cities send to landfills, sewers, and dumps_thus protecting aquifers from leaking pollutants. In places as far-ranging as Tennessee, Fiji, Namibia, and Denmark, environmentally conscious investors have begun to build "industrial symbiosis" parks in which the unusable wastes from one firm become the input for another. An industrial park in Kalundborg, Denmark diverts more than 1.3 million tons of effluent from landfills and septic systems each year, while preventing some 135,000 tons of carbon and sulfur from leaking into the atmosphere. Households, too, can become a part of this systemic change by reusing and repairing products. In a campaign organized by the Global Action Plan for the Earth, an international non-governmental organization, thoughtful consumption habits have enabled some 60,000 households in the United States and Europe to reduce their waste by 42 percent and their water use by 25 percent.

As it becomes clearer to decisionmakers that the most serious threats to human security are no longer those of military attack but of pervasive environmental and social decline, experts worry about the difficulty of mustering sufficient political will to bring about the kinds of systemic_and therefore revolutionary_changes in human life necessary to turn the tide in time. In confronting the now heavily documented assaults of climate change and biodiversity loss, leaders seem on one hand paralyzed by how bleak the big picture appears to be_and on the other hand too easily drawn into denial or delay by the seeming lack of immediate consequences of such delay. But protecting aquifers may provide a more immediate incentive for change, if only because it simply may not be possible to live with contaminated groundwater for as long as we could make do with a gradually more irritable climate or polluted air or impoverished wildlife. Although we've damaged portions of some aquifers to the point of no return, scientists believe that a large part of the resource still remains pure_for the moment. That's not likely to remain the case if we continue to depend on simply stepping up the present reactive tactics of cleaning up more of the chemical spills, replacing more of the leaking gasoline tanks, placing more plastic liners under landfills, or issuing more fines to careless hog farms and copper mines. To save the water in time requires the same fundamental restructuring of the global economy as does the stabilizing of the climate and biosphere as a whole_the rapid transition from a resource-depleting, oil- and coal-fueled, high-input industrial and agricultural economy to one that is based on renewable energy, compact cities, and a very light human footprint. We've been slow to come to grips with this, but it may be our thirst that finally makes us act.

"Heaven is Under Our Feet"

Throughout human history, people have feared that the skies would be the source of great destruction. During the Cold War, industrial nations feared nuclear attack from above, and spent vast amounts of their wealth to avert it. Now some of that fear has shifted to the threats of atmospheric climate change: of increasing ultraviolet radiation through the ozone hole, and the rising intensity of global warming-driven hurricanes and typhoons. Yet, all the while, as the worldwide pollution of aquifers now reveals, we've been slowly poisoning ourselves from beneath. What lies under terra firma may, in fact, be of as much concern as what happens in the firmament above.

The ancient Greeks created an elaborate mythology about the Underworld, or Hades, which they described as a dismal, lifeless place completely lacking the abundant fertility of the world above. Science and human experience have taught us differently. Hydrologists now know that healthy aquifers are essential to the life above ground_that they play a vital role not just in providing water to drink, but in replenishing rivers and wetlands and, through their ultimate effects on rainfall and climate, in nurturing the life of the land and air as well. But ironically, our neglectful actions now threaten to make the Greek myth a reality after all. To avert that threat now will require taking to heart what the hydrologists have found. As Henry David Thoreau observed a century-and-a-half ago, "Heaven is under our feet, as well as over our heads."

Payal Sampat is a staff researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.

 

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 15, 1999

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