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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July/August 2008

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Reversing the Race to the Bottom: Urban Groundwater Use in Developing Countries

On a flat floodplain, on the northwestern coast of the island of Java, modern office towers dominate the Jakarta skyline, lending the city an aura of strength and prosperity. But, like many large urban areas in the developing world, the majority of residents of Indonesia’s capital lack a reliable water supply from the city’s public water system, which comes largely from surface water sources. As a result, many depend on groundwater, and because civic authorities have historically not controlled withdrawals, the aquifers have been overdrawn. In 1998, a World Bank report indicated a precipitous decline in aquifer levels in the northern part of the city, with groundwater use continuing to rise dramatically. Not only has this threatened to ruin some of the aquifers, it has also resulted in saltwater intrusion and other forms of contamination. And without the aquifer water to hold up the substrate, the land began to subside.

Since 1998, the population depending on groundwater has increased from about 5 million people to 12 million people. If the current level of consumption continues, land subsidence will worsen, and contamination problems already faced by millions will deteriorate further, ultimately rendering the urban aquifers unusable. Water shortages and their consequences are not confined to Jakarta, though: most of the developing world mirrors the overexploitation of groundwater resources in the face of economic development and rapid urbanization found in Indonesia.

Urban households in developing countries try to get their water supply from public water systems. When a public water system is unavailable, insufficient, unaffordable, or inoperative, households pump groundwater privately to meet their needs. With no clear property rights over them, urban groundwater tables are open-access resources—subject to indiscriminate use—leading to a tragedy of the commons. Unless concrete measures coordinating groundwater use are developed and, more importantly, practiced, the welfare of more than a billion already impoverished people is at stake.

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