Groundwater – more about the hidden resource

The photograph above is of groundwater discharges into the gorges of Karijini National Park, Western Australia,  providing a constant cool break from the Pilbara heat and dry landscape.

The benefits of groundwater…

When we think of fresh water we probably think of rivers, lakes and perhaps reservoirs. Yet even when we consider the huge lakes of North America or mighty rivers like the Amazon and the Ganges, over 97% of the planet’s fresh water is to be found beneath our feet in the form of groundwater.

In many parts of the world groundwater is the main source of water for day to day use. Wells dug by hand, or boreholes drilled by machine, down into the saturated layer under the ground yield water for domestic use, irrigation and industry, whilst groundwater is also used as a source of energy to heat our homes. Over a third of the world’s population is supplied with drinking water from groundwater and, of the 700 million people worldwide who don’t have an adequate water supply at present, most will have to be supplied from groundwater in the future. Groundwater also meets over 40% of irrigation water demand and provides about a quarter of all industrial supplies.

Groundwater has many benefits. It is cheap to utilise because of its naturally good quality and widespread occurrence. It is reliable even in times of drought due to the large amounts stored under the surface. It is also protected against catastrophic events – if natural disasters or war disrupt surface water distribution, then groundwater reserves can easily be developed.

Some areas near the surface may not be saturated with water and only have an intermittent supply of water. But, many areas deeper under the surface are saturated with water accumulated over hundreds or even thousands of years. These areas often supply permanent springs and can be tapped with boreholes to provide water. When we draw groundwater from deep aquifer supplies, we are tapping into water locked away under the surface and filtered through layer upon layer of rock. This is one of the reasons why groundwater is so reliable. The water in these areas may even be protected against recent surface pollution, providing a high quality supply where none was previously available.

As well as meeting demands for drinking water, food production and industrial water, groundwater also plays a key role in the environment by sustaining natural flows in our rivers and wetland habitats, which are especially important during periods of drought.

There are many challenges facing groundwater supplies in the future, including the impacts of changing climate and land use, and pollution from intensification of agriculture and increased urbanisation, with potential impacts on ecosystems and human health.

IAH seeks to bring about a better understanding of these challenges through our educational activities, scientific commissions and publications, and providing links to useful resources. Explore our website to find out more…

Find out more

What is hydrogeology and what do hydrogeologists do?

Groundwater links and videos – e.g. teaching resources, rural water supply, borehole and well construction

Information for students, hydrogeologists and other groundwater-related professionals, career development