The unseen: merits, threats, and tales of groundwater


Even though water covers roughly 71% of the earth's surface, only 3% of it is fresh water and 2.5% of that freshwater is unattainable, stored in the form of glaciers, polar ice caps, atmosphere, and soil. It leaves us with just 0.5% of freshwater ready and accessible to be used for everyday life, mostly found in the form of surface water and groundwater. One-third of all freshwaters on Earth is stored in groundwater and it is 60 times more abundant than freshwater founds in lakes and river streams. However, groundwater faces great challenges and threats, more and more we find news like the pollution of groundwater and soil depletion related to unhealthy groundwater extraction. So, what is groundwater exactly and how can we fully comprehend it?

The distribution of water on, in, and above the Earth (Data by Water Science School, USGS)

We spoke with Yuniati Zevi, an environmental engineering lecturer at the Bandung Institute of Technology, to learn more about groundwater and its role in everyday life. She is an expert practitioner working in the fields of clean water, clean water management, and water conservation. She studied groundwater pollution and wastewater during her studies at Cornell University and now teaches several water-related courses, including Water Treatment Plan Development, Groundwater Pollution, Institutional and Financial Aspects of Water and Sanitation, conducts water-related research, and develops water quality measurement tools using visualization methods.

Understanding Groundwater and Water Cycle

When we talk about water, the hydrologic cycle will always be at the table. The hydrologic cycle is the continuous circulation of water in the Earth and atmosphere system. There are many processes involved in the cyle, including evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, and runoff. On the Earth-Atmosphere system, water may present in three forms: liquid (dew, surface water, etc.), solid (ice sheet and snow), and water vapor. 

The hydrological cycle (Graphic by Water Science School, USGS)

Interestingly, water cycle has no starting point. We can analyse the presence of water in each of the process.

Water that descends into the Earth as surface water may infiltrate the ground and recharge the aquifers within. The recharging process through artificial groundwater recharge can be rehabilitated and enhanced by implementing infiltration wells, bio-retention, injection wells, and groundwater reservoirs.

Groundwater in Our Daily Lives

Stated in the Indonesian 1945 Constitution Article 33 Paragraph (3), that water is a right of the people of Indonesia, meaning that all Indonesian people have the right to clean and drink water. But not all clean and drinking water can be obtained through piping water services provided by the governments. In Indonesia, it is often found that people who do not have access to state-owned/regional clean water facilities usually dig their own shallow wells to obtain groundwater. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, water sourced from the well is used by 27.04% of Indonesians across all provinces, placing it second only to bottled drinking water. It is not uncommon for shallow groundwater to be unavailable, forcing residents to dig up a deeper well. For example, following the 2018 disaster, the Sembalun area experienced a severe water shortage. Many wells in Sembalun were dug for hotel, commercial, and plantation purposes, causing the community to be unable to obtain water for domestic use due to over-extraction of wells, which is exacerbated by a lack of reliable distributions, forcing them to purchase water.

If the water obtained is coming from a confined aquifer (an area trapped by layers of poorly permeable rock, such as clay or shale, may be confined under pressure), water will rise above the top of the aquifer and even flow onto the land surface because the water is pressured by artesian pressure, hence the name artesian aquifer/artesian wells.

 (Graphic by USGS)

Groundwater management is adapted to the needs of each region. In some areas experiencing a groundwater crisis, such as DKI Jakarta, there is a regulation that says it is no longer allowed to take groundwater, especially for industry. Industries are no longer allowed to take groundwater excessively, but there is a limit on how much you can take and the cost of taking groundwater. The use of groundwater for industrial purposes is now more strictly regulated and inspected as well. However, some areas, particularly for household use, continue to be tolerated. Households are still given the freedom to take groundwater because it is considered not to be a burden on the environment. However, every house that takes groundwater should be recorded, including the carrying capacity of the environment, whether there is a recharge aquifer area, the type of well is deep/shallow well.

It becomes a dilemma if the use of groundwater for households is prohibited because if the government prohibits using groundwater, the government must provide clean water. Are the existing facilities are capable? Is the piping ready? This is the reason why the use of groundwater at home is still allowed.

Groundwater management: ideal cases and IKN

The ideal groundwater management can be achieved by implementing an integrated water management system. This system does not solely focus on groundwater but on the utilization of rainwater and surface water. This system is expected to optimize the utilization of rainwater to limit flooding and instead, the runoff can be integrated with aquifers as aquifer recharge.

As for groundwater management, if the government can provide clean water sourced from treated surface water, groundwater management should be easier, and it will reduce the burden on groundwater. Wetland is an effort to conserve natural retained water and can improve water quality.

Yuniati hopes that in the construction of the Ibu Kota Nusantara (IKN), water conservation and integrated water management can be developed. Because it will be difficult to develop in an already crowded urban area; the land has already been formed, and the water and piping infrastructure has been constructed and cannot be reverted. If you start building an integrated water system in a well-established city, social conflicts will arise and the need for relocation will arise. If this happens, the government and related parties must carry out smooth reconciliation, providing compensation and supporting the economy, so that the impacted society can live comfortably.

The water source in the IKN development area is rather limited. The river is far away and difficult to utilize, the rock is hard and not made for aquifers. But if the integrated development is developed, implementing wetlands, retention, rainwater tamping, good water management should be possible.

Groundwater Challenges Across Indonesia

  1. The island of Java is fortunate in that it has a lot of groundwater potential. It is surrounded by highlands that serve as a catchment area, as well as numerous small river branches that interact with groundwater during the hydrological cycle. The challenge for groundwater in Java is its depth and the technology it requires. Meanwhile, seawater intrusion and groundwater pollution, both of which are becoming more common, are the more concerning issues. E. coli and heavy metals have been found in some groundwater in dense areas such as DKI Jakarta. Some areas of Java's groundwater are polluted downstream.
  2. In some areas in Indonesia that are not yet densely populated, groundwater quality is still good because there is no excessive extraction industry.
  3. In the coastal and island area of Indonesia, water is often scarce. Even if the local communities dig a well, fresh water will not be guaranteed. Saltwater intrusion is a problem in the archipelago, and the only available water is brackish. To overcome this, they can develop a rainwater collection system that paid attention to the ratio of the rainwater depth to the reservoir volume to minimalize the evapotranspiration factors.
  4. In Sumatra and Kalimantan, the areas are dominated by the peatland ecosystem. Causing the groundwater to have high turbidity and contain a high concentration of minerals and organic matter. Palm oil plantations and the over-drainage conditions of the peat ecosystem also cause the groundwater level to fall. In Kalimantan, there are generally several large rivers, but their tributaries do not spread, causing surface water to not be close to the community.

Water-Stress around Indonesia: Water Availability and Challenges

In the latest study "Indonesia Vision 2045: Toward Water Security" published by The World Bank in 2021, there are distribution data on the water-stress levels in Indonesia and the GDP of the area. 

Half of the country's GDP is produced in river basins that suffer 'high' or 'severe' water stress in the dry season (Graphic by The World Bank, "Indonesia Vision 2045: Toward Water Security", 2021)

Water availability and quality have a direct impact on people's health quality. People require clean water and sanitation facilities to keep their living spaces clean and ensure that the food they consume is safe and free of pathogens. People can be more productive when they are healthy. Productivity can occur elsewhere when water is available and close to the community: When compared to walking for hours looking for water, having a nearby water source allows people to save time looking for water, allowing them to use that time to work, learn, or engage in other productive activities.

According to Yuniati, there are approximately 387 regional water companies (PDAM) grouped by their performance and operational conditions (healthy, poor performing, etc.). Take Java Island as an example; the performance of PDAM there is better (supported by both human and water resources), so that on average, the water service on Java is higher, resulting in higher GDP in the said area. Because water has a direct impact on industries such as factories for goods production, tourism, agriculture, and others, a lack of clean and usable water could halt economic growth.

Over time, the individual's water needs are increasing. Water needs are measured in liter/person /day units and are influenced by several aspects such as gender, age, education, and socioeconomics. It is known at the upper-middle economic class, the use of water is higher than the lower middle class. This is due to an increase in the use of water in the upper-middle economic class, such as when using a washing machine, washing a vehicle, or watering plants. On the other hand, with rising water demands, demand for the PDAM is rising as well, even though the amount of raw water available remains constant. Although the water company may be pleased with the increased demand, the calculations may reveal that some people will be unable to be served.

It is Yuniati's hope that people's rights to water and sanitation will be strengthened since there are still 30-40% of people unable to access water.

The Role of Youth and Local Communities in Protecting Groundwater

In her years of experience, she observed that communities had made efforts in monitoring wastewater disposal, maintaining water springs, replanting forests, and maintaining catchment areas. Such local wisdom is important to conserve water and to use water wisely. Taking inspiration from the United States, Yuniati exemplified how local communities could build retention ponds to water their farmland, which will make the soil healthier and reduce the intake of groundwater.

However, she marked that young people tend to focus more on surface water. Groundwater, she claims, is invisible, making it more difficult to act on. Following the celebration of World Water Day, it is hoped that the theme raises awareness on groundwater, making the invisible visible.

 Written by Amanda Abiella Resmana (The Water Agency)

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