Tuesday, August 31, 2021

What's news about socio-hydrogeology

by Enrico Cameron*

* National Coalition of Independent Scholars

Enrico Cameron
Groundwater is the most extracted raw material (estimated withdrawal around 1000 km3/year) (Margat and Van der Gun, 2013)
 and it delivers a wealth of ecosystem services, that is benefits that people obtain from ecosystems for free and can be used by humankind to guarantee and increase well-being (Daily, 1997; MA, 2005). Among these services the provision of water for human use and consumption, water storage, contaminant processing, nutrient cycling and the support of fisheries, wildlife, biodiversity and tourism. The so-called groundwater dependent ecosystems, also, rely upon groundwater for their continued existence.
In many parts of the world the quality and quantity of groundwater, and thus its ability to provide the aforesaid ecosystem services, are compromised or under threat because of anthropogenic drivers such as the release of chemicals into the environment (from agriculture, industrial processes and waste deposition), over-abstraction and alterations to the water cycle that are both local – induced for instance by modifications to the land cover - and global due to human related climate changes. Moreover, a fair access to adequate, safe and clean water (including groundwater) is hampered for billions of people for reasons that involve technical, political, economic and cultural aspects of different societies and groups as well as, often, inequalities stemming from power and gender disparities. The objective of the emerging discipline of socio-hydrogeology is to comprehend and assess the interaction between people and groundwater in order to help understanding and tackling these problems. Socio-hydrogeology seeks to integrate, in a structured way, the classical hydrogeological and hydrogeochemical assessments with social, behavioural and cognitive ones (Re, 2021) so as to investigate the reciprocal influence between individuals and communities one the one side and groundwater on the other side, consistently with the spirit of integrated water resources management which calls for "thinking beyond the aquifer"(Jakeman et al., 2016). Socio-hydrogeology, furthermore, aims to understand the impact of local know-how, risk perception, consumption and power relations on groundwater quality and quantity and to involve stakeholders and the public in order to build trust among groundwater users and managers and foster the implementation of sound science-based management practices for groundwater protection (Re, 2021). Theoretical and methodological tools and case studies are key for promoting the application of socio-hydrogeology. A relevant example in this respect is the Bir Al-Nas approach (Re, 2015, https://biralnas.wordpress.com/). Bir Al-Nas stands for Bottom-up IntegRated Approach for sustainabLe grouNdwater mAnagement in rural areaS, and is the acronym of a project – in the framework of the European Union's Marie Curie Fellowships - aimed at developing a replicable multidisciplinary example of integrated approach for science-based groundwater management practices, applied to the aquifer system in the Cap Bon Peninsula (Tunisia). The Arabic meaning of Bir Al-Nas, “the well of people”, emphasizes the effective inclusion of the social dimension into hydrogeological investigations (Re, 2015). An  important requirement of the Bir Al-Nas approach is to carry out a social network analysis (SNA) that investigates and categorizes the relationships between stakeholders and identifies the key actors that are likely to positively influence the implementation of new management practices resulting from a hydrogeochemical investigation.  The SNA, also, allows  to notice the presence of (and get in touch with) minorities, marginalized groups and ‘informal sectors’ that are directly affected by the water issue in question, but might not be considered through a traditional approach (Re, 2015). The Bir Al-Nas approach encourages hydrogeologists  to act as “social hydrologists” during their monitoring activities, which often bring them into contact with local communities and end users (and polluters) of water. Not only can they retrieve reliable information about traditional know-how and local issues, but they can also change the public perception of science and scientists to create the basis for mutual collaboration and understanding in view of implementing improved integrated groundwater management (Re, 2015).  Sociological data, in addition, can help to interpret and cross check the outcomes of standard hydrogeological and hydrogeochemical investigations concerning, for instance, the presence and characteristics of contamination sources as inferred from chemical analyses and from water users interviews (e.g. Re et al., 2017). Of course, the transdisciplinary nature of socio-hydrogeological studies points to involving multidisciplinary teams but these, often, are not available.
Geoethics underpins socio-hydrogeology first of all because the latter intrinsically acknowledges, and takes care of, the sociological aspects of the interactions between people and groundwater, promotes a more equitable use of groundwater resources and seeks information sharing as wells as the active participation of stakeholders and water users in studying and solving groundwater related problems. Geoethics, at the same time, offers a wider conceptual framework that, also, helps deciding what to do when dealing with competing and conflicting interests, views and values, that socio-hydrogeology may help to highlight and that are the norm when tackling environmental problems.


Daily G.C., Alexander S., Ehrlich P., Goulder L., Lubchenko J., Matson P.A., Mooney H.A., Postel S., Schneider S.H., Tilman D., Woodwell G.M. (1997). Ecosystem Services: Benefits Supplied to Human Societies by Natural Ecosystems, Issues in Ecology, 1:1-18.

Jakeman A.J., Barreteau O., Randall J.H., Rinaudo J.D., Ross A., Arshad M., Hamilton S. (2016). Integrated Groundwater Management: An Overview of Concepts and Challenges. In: Jakeman A.J., Barreteau O., Randall J.H., Rinaudo J.D., Ross A., eds. (2016). Integrated Groundwater Management – Concepts, Approaches and Challenges, SpringerOpen.

Margat J. and Van der Gun J. (2013). Groundwater around the World: A Geographic Synopsis, CRC Press.

MA (2005). Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

Re V. (2015). Incorporating the social dimension into hydrogeochemical investigations for rural development: the Bir Al-Nas approach for socio-hydrogeology. Hydrogeology Journal, 23: 1293–1304.

Re V., Sacchi E., Kammoun S., Tringali C., Trabelsi R., Zouari K., Daniele S. (2017). Integrated socio-hydrogeological approach to tackle nitrate contamination in groundwater resources. The case of Grombalia Basin (Tunisia). Science of the Total Environment 593, 664-676.

Re V. (2021) Socio-Hydrogeology and the power of transdisciplinary sciences (webinar), https://www.geoscienze.unipd.it/sites/geoscienze.unipd.it/files/Seminario_Re-Viviana_11-05-2021.pdf


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