Managing Groundwater: The Political Blackbox

‘Politics’ is widely considered a dirty word. Dictionaries provide a wide range of definitions, from the benign “… the aggregate of relationships of people in society…” to the more  sinister “…any activity concerned with the acquisition of power, gaining one’s own end, etc…”

So how does groundwater get affected by politics? The answer is, much like any other natural resource that is scarce enough to be of value. Additionally:

  • Groundwater is depleting very, very fast. It forms about 60% of all water loss.
  • Physical boundaries of groundwater reserves often cut across administrative and political boundaries
  • Groundwater can be accessed relatively easily by individuals/small groups. Extraction by one user often affects its availability for others.  Additionally, groundwater resources are not very well mapped; there is a lack of data on how much is available, who is using it and how much, leaving much scope for contesting claims and conflict.

Political tussle over groundwater can be observed even in the most stable regions of the world, even between neighbours with good relations. Conflict, an extreme outcome of politics, accentuates the problem and makes it stark.

Ethiopia has been through a tumultuous transition from being a monarchy to a Communist experiment and then finally the present-day federal republic, roughly between 1974 and 1991. The period saw much violent conflict in the country and has shaped its politics ever since.

Groundwater resources depleted drastically due to the instability, as user groups were locked in conflict with each other and their main focus was extraction. Recharging aquifers is key to developing and maintaining groundwater assets, but it requires consensus and action across the spectrum of stakeholders, which in turn needs peace and stability.

In the last three years, expectations of the scope of groundwater have risen considerably. It is hoped that this groundwater will help unlock the agriculture potential of several regions. For a country that depended on food aid for a long time, this is very significant. Raya-Kobo valley, the epicenter of the horrific 1984 famine, is one such region. The government is steadily developing groundwater resources in the region. As part of the effort, it has dug many wells. Many of these wells have been often found destroyed, most probably by local residents who suspect that private investors could exploit them and suck the aquifers dry. This shows how relationship between local stakeholders can affect the path groundwater development takes in Ethiopia.

In Palestinian territories, groundwater is the only significant source of freshwater. Most groundwater reservoirs in the West Bank are shared with Israel, which has built a system of military orders to control the water resources and prevent the Palestinians from developing their water resources. The water use from these aquifers was meticulously divided during the peace negotiations that culminated into the Oslo Accords (1993 and 1995). These agreements were supposed to lead to the final status negotiations within three years but were never fully initiated.

The unequal power relations with Israel limits the development of groundwater potential in the Palestinian territories. For example, rehabilitation of wells, drilling of new ones, and the change from diesel to electric pumping all need to be discussed and agreed upon by both Palestinians and Israelis. Obtaining the right permit can take many years.

Israelis and Palestinians become more and more divided every year by the construction of the separation wall and the countless checkpoints. In Qalailya governorate, for example, groundwater is available, but often not accessible as the wall separates many villages from each other. Farmers have lost large tracts of their lands due to the construction of the wall and surrounding Israeli settlements.


Water there, thus, has become a political commodity for a substantial part, governed at the highest political levels. As one Palestinian puts it: ‘We have to get our own water from the top (political level) before we can use it locally’.

In Yemen, use of groundwater is governed by traditional laws, which gives rights to people to use groundwater that flows under their land. These rules date back to times when upstream tapped a marginal amount of the flow, leaving ample for their downstream neighbours. Over the past twenty years, groundwater use has increased several-fold and water tables have plummeted at an alarming rate.

There are some real big disaster spots areas abandoned as falling groundwater tables undermined the resource base – causing considerable drama in, for instance, coastal Tihama and Al Munjelis. What was once a lush and important date growing region has gradually become a barren dune area, forcing local inhabitants to turn to marginal economic activities like fishing. Largely responsible for the desertification in this area is the construction of an upstream dam that prevents groundwater recharge for the Al Munjelis.

There have been efforts from the government to study and regulate groundwater use; there is now a National Water Resource Authority and a National Water Law. Checks and balances have contained local conflicts between users so far. However, there aren’t any significant improvements yet in groundwater governance yet. The political turmoil in Yemen following the Arab Spring movements have only made the challenge stiffer.

The cases of Ethiopia, Palestine and Yemen highlight how intrinsic politics is to groundwater management. But can politics be an entry point for interventions aimed at improving groundwater management? Unfortunately, even to those for whom politics is no longer a dirty word, it continues to be a bit of a black box. Political interests and political will continue to be either inscrutable or so context-specific that it seems almost impossible to draw any general conclusions at all.

For more info on Ethiopia, Yemen, Palestine and groundwater in the political domain, visit The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research online

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The underground drought  
January 24, 2014  
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