Groundwater: Making the invisible visible through Rotary

By Erica Gwynn, Area of Focus Manager for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (M.S., MPH)

What if I told you that you were standing on top of a treasure – a treasure that is hidden from view, slowly flowing between cracks and spaces of the soil, sand and rock beneath your feet? I’m speaking of a treasure that plays a crucial role in human sustenance and global food security through drinking water supplies and irrigated agriculture. The treasure I’m referring to is groundwater, the largest available global freshwater resource.

On 22 March, Rotary will join the global celebration of World Water Day and its annual theme of “Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible.” Tens of thousands of people will raise the visibility of how this vital resource must be protected from pollution and over extraction, managed sustainably, and reflected in sustainable development policymaking. But what does this mean to Rotary? Why should Rotary members care about groundwater?  And what can Rotarians and Rotaractors do about groundwater through their service and projects?

  • Learn how groundwater is protected, managed, and used in your area. In the United States, groundwater makes up almost 40% of the water used for irrigation, bathing, and drinking. In Mexico City, one of the world’s most populated cities, 95% of the population relies on groundwater for their daily water needs. In Denmark, a staggering 99% of the drinking water for the entire country comes solely from groundwater.  However, in many regions, groundwater remains a hidden resource due to the limited amount of data about its availability, current state, and use. As a result, we often have insufficient insight into the water below the ground that we utilize daily. 

    For many of us, there is a disconnect.  For example, some communities may be polluting the groundwater reserves unknowingly through farming activities. This precious resource can become seriously contaminated just because we can’t see nor understand the effects our actions have below ground. This has consequences for everyone using the aquifer. Therefore, let’s educate ourselves more about groundwater and its major role in water supply, food production, climate change, health, pollution, development, ecosystem health, conflict, and human rights issues.
  • Raise awareness of the importance of taking care of groundwater in your local community. As civil society leaders and successful professionals, Rotary members have a powerful position and platform in their communities to influence change. Raising awareness is the first step. Take the opportunity this month to organize a World Water Day event in your community, utilizing activities, social media, posters, and panel discussions with local water experts, industry representatives, and farmers to spread the word about the importance of protecting and sustainably managing groundwater supplies. Gain ideas at and share your efforts by using the hashtag #WorldWaterDay on Twitter.
  • Understand the impact your project will have on the water cycle, especially groundwater. Before embarking in any service activity, consider the impact it will have on visible and non-visible water sources. Even small-scale construction can contribute high sediment loads to nearby streams and rivers. Septic systems, when not properly sited or maintained, can cause contamination of surface and groundwater resources, which leads to public health and pollution problems. Regularly consult with a hydrogeologist prior to drilling boreholes or installing latrines for a community to determine how these activities will impact groundwater supplies. By doing so, you will understand how much water can be withdrawn from an aquifer system, where and for how long, with acceptable physical, economic, environmental, social, cultural, institutional, and legal consequences.
  • Put in what you take out. Consider that every year over 200 times more groundwater is extracted than oil! Rotary members, as people of action, can ensure that their water, sanitation, and hygiene service projects include both groundwater recharge (e.g., check dams, trenches, reservoirs) and groundwater extraction activities (e.g., boreholes, wells, irrigation). Consult with a hydrologist or environmental engineer for the particular watershed you are working in to determine which recharge and protection activities will positively impact groundwater quantity and quality.   

Groundwater may be out of sight, but it must not be out of mind. Let’s celebrate this precious resource that sustains our daily lives and demonstrate how Rotary can make a long-term change through service in our communities.

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