Groundwater: why visibility may not improve governability

The theme of World Water Day 2022 is “Groundwater, making the invisible visible”. Three networks join forces in an online seminar on March 22 to discuss ” Why visibility may not improve governability. Critical questions about groundwater governance”.

Behind the idea of “making groundwater visible”, hailed also on the occasion of World Water Day 2022, often lies the assumption that we need to produce more and even more accurate data and information about groundwater dynamics. A lot of attention and funding for instance go to the development of advanced tools and modelling techniques to make ‘knowing’ groundwater easier.

By asking “Why visibility may not improve governability?” we want to critically reflect on the assumed innocence and goodness of more and better knowledge, and of projects of visualization.

For one, critical social science scholars have long shown how mapping and visualization may contribute to projects of environmental and societal colonization, empire or resource grabbing. This happens for instance by quite literally portraying aquifers as untapped reservoirs of water that can provide the foundation for economic growth or ‘development’. Recent reviews of groundwater scholarship indeed show that much of it is distinctly resource-oriented, narrowly considering groundwater as an optimizable input to production (food or profits). What is more, many scholars treat the main cause of over-extraction of groundwater, agricultural intensification, as mere context, as a given. Or, without better and more explicitly inserting projects of groundwater visualization in more encompassing transformations to sustainability, they risk ending up accelerating rather than slowing down rates of depletion.

Secondly, we have informed doubts about whether better visibility – better maps and numbers – leads to better management or governance. This doubt partly stems from documented evidence that to date the success of state efforts to curb groundwater depletion has been minimal, evidence that itself underscores how making make groundwater visible should be part of wider reflections about how to best govern it.

As we argued in a collective article on the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, transformation towards groundwater sustainability can be achieved by pluralizing the way we understand and practice groundwater governance. Paying more and better attention to promising community activities around aquifers can foster the development of such new imaginaries.

We will address these issues in the online seminar “Why visibility may not improve governability: critical questions about groundwater governance” on March 22 (10am-12 pm CET). The seminar is co-organised by three networks for research and action on (ground)water:

NEWAVE, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Innovotive Training Network (ITN) funded by the EU Research and Innovation Programme Horizon 2020 (H2020) focusing (among other things) on training a new generation of water governance scholars.

T2GS, a project funded in the context of the Norface Belmont-Forum “Transformations to Sustainability” programme. The project comparatively studies promising grass-roots initiatives of people organizing around groundwater in places where pressures on the resource are particularly acute. The overall aim of the proposed project is to establish a network of excellence that joins researchers, activists, communities and policy makers in a shared quest to achieve more sustainable and equitable modes of groundwater governance.

The European Climate Pact (ECP) Netherlands. ECP is a movement of people launched by the European Commission united to help build a more sustainable Europe. It is part of the European Green Deal, with its goal of being the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050.

Here the full programme of the seminar and here the link to register. Do not miss it!

Cite this blog post
Margreet Zwarteveen (2022, March 18). Groundwater: why visibility may not improve governability. FLOWs. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from

Margreet Zwarteveen

I am professor of Water Governance at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and the University of Amsterdam. Trained as both an engineer and a social scientist, I study water allocation policies and practices, focusing on questions of equity and justice. My research includes the study of different institutional and technical modalities for allocating water and regulating water flows, and of different ways to understand or legitimize these. I use an interdisciplinary approach, seeing water allocation as the often contested outcome of interactions between nature, technologies and society.

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