When we address transboundary aquifer management we are talking about a boundary that passes above and through a certain aquifer. This boundary is not a natural boundary but one defined by people with the aim to demarcate and protect their culture, identity, property and resources from ‘others'. Thus transboundary aquifer management is a human conduct or rephrased: transboundary aquifer management is about people.
When studying a TBA, a thorough socio-economic analysis of the area is essential. The following aspects (among many more) seem to be important to address:
- Groundwater use and access,
- Groundwater, the economic perspective,
- Socio-economic aspects and the environmental dimension,
- Socio-economic aspects and the institutional / legal dimension.
Groundwater use and access
In a society, people basically try to fulfill their needs by deploying various activities like food production and trade. People do this on various scales ranging from the individual scale (basic survival), to family and community scales (subsistence and livelihood development) to firms and whole nations leading to higher order socio-economic development.
The activities people and the groups of people are able to deploy is strongly dependent on the access to and control over various kinds of assets and forms of capital. These capital forms may be of the natural, physical, social and financial type. For many of the human activities, the use of water (a natural capital source) is essential and often non-substitutable (drinking and sanitation, watering, crop production, industrial activities).
Hence, a socio-economic assessment starts with analyzing which human activities are deployed in a certain area and how much water (and in our case more specifically groundwater) is needed for it. One can categorize this water use geographically, temporally (seasonality, trends) and functionally (domestic, agricultural and industrial sector). Another way of categorizing water use is by prioritization (based on essence and substitutability). For example, groundwater use for basic survival normally has a higher priority, than for food production. In many countries groundwater use for food production is preferred over industrial use.
From the socio-economic aspect, access, and even more importantly control over groundwater resources, is often asymmetric. In relation to TBA a legitimate question to ask is whether there is a strong asymmetry in access and control over groundwater resources between different States? And, are groundwater resources in State A allocated to low-priority use while people in State B are lacking water even for basic survival?
Groundwater, the economic perspective
From an economic perspective groundwater is a unique type of good. It was already noticed that it is an essential and non-substitutable input for many human activities. Globally, it seems omnipresent and often in huge volumes. Parts of these volumes are continually renewed and considered as a flow of goods while in non-renewable aquifers groundwater is a stock. Appropriation of groundwater is technically relatively easy. Because of its overall presence, groundwater abstraction may be on the location of demand (no need for storage and distribution infrastructure). Quality of the groundwater is generally high and hence for most uses only limited treatment is needed. The availability is often not subject to seasonality and hence there is a continuously, secure and clean source. This makes appropriation and groundwater use relatively cheap.
From basic economic theory, groundwater is a so-called common pool resource. This basically means that the ability to withheld potential users from appropriating and using groundwater is limited (open access) while using the resources by one user will diminish the availability of groundwater for other
Physically speaking, groundwater is a fluid and a possibly migratory substance. Aquifers are diffusive in nature and hence hydrogeological effects of an intervention in the aquifer at one location migrate through the aquifer to other locations. For example, groundwater pumping will cause a groundwater table decline that dissipates through the aquifer. A spillage of a toxic substance will be transported with the flowing groundwater in a plume and may reach down-gradient locations.
So, a groundwater user at location A may affect the groundwater availability and quality at other locations and in that way influence other user's ability to appropriate and use groundwater. The groundwater user at location A causes economic externalities (non-compensated extra pumping or treatment costs) inflicted upon other users at a location B. When location A is in State A and location B in State B, it becomes clear that it is specifically the issue of economic externalities which is of great importance in transboundary aquifer management. Therefore, an inventory of groundwater use induced externalities (scale and location, causes and consequences) should be a standard part of a TBA socio-economic analysis.
Socio-economic aspects and the environmental dimension
So far we only considered human use of groundwater resources. In the traditional groundwater development paradigm, groundwater is predominantly valuated in its extractive and consumptive or productive form and aquifers are valuated for its provisional characteristics. The notion of sustainability and other new concepts like ecosystem services also value groundwater in its in-situ and non-use form. Currently, it is acknowledged that groundwater systems also have strong regeneration, buffering and supporting characteristics. They are of great importance in sustaining ecological systems (e.g. groundwater fed wetlands and vegetation, base flow to rivers, habitat to micro-organisms, providing strength to soil matrix and preventing sea water intrusion)
Groundwater use in State A may change the groundwater regime in State B and affect the functioning of ecosystems. So besides economic externalities also environmental externalities may be caused in transboundary aquifers. In the socio-economic analysis of groundwater use and demand it is important to include groundwater dependent ecosystem sustainability in the countries sharing the aquifer system.
Socio-economic aspects and the institutional / legal dimension
There is obviously a strong relationship between the socio-economic aspects (lets' say "the people") and the institutional and legal dimensions of TBA. The institutional and legal dimensions are not just abstract autonomies in a country being independent from the people living there. On the contrary it's the people that determine and shape those institutions and laws. In countries with a high level of good governance such institutions are demand driven, representative and work in a participatory way. In countries with less democratic traditions often two types of institutions exist: formal (governmental) rules, rights, regulations and organizations and informal ones, often based on old traditions, local norms and beliefs.
Various institutions, policies and laws are used as instruments to influence groundwater use behavior of the people, For example policies favoring food production and energy subsidies strongly encourage groundwater use. Environmental taxes, water pricing and well licensing will favor groundwater preservation. The success of any policy and/or environmental tax trying to regulate groundwater use is strongly dependent on people's willingness to comply with it. The same is true for legal arrangements dealing with transboundary aquifer management. Signing of the agreements by the States involved does not implicitly guarantee good transboundary aquifer management. Such agreements will only work out when people of all countries involved and at all levels (from the government to the grassroot) are willing to commit to the agreements. Hence within the institutional and legal dimension of TBA management the participation and commitment of the people is of most importance.