Offshore Freshwater Aquifers: Which Law Will Apply?

Offshore Freshwater Aquifers: Which Law Will Apply ? From Omega in Action highlights inspiring people and organizations making meaningful change. From protecting the environment to empowering women, healing veterans, and serving nonprofits, you’ll find fresh perspectives, trending news, and the latest information on noteworthy events here at Omega and around the world.

This past December, vast groundwater reserves were discovered off the coasts of China, Australia, North America, Greenland, Suriname, Nigeria, and South Africa, raising hopes that these resources could offer a solution for water-scarce regions. However, there are technical and legal issues that must be resolved before these transboundary aquifers can be used.

Renee Martin-Nagle, a visiting scholar at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC, and secretary/treasurer of Omega’s board, addresses the pressing legal implications . The following is an excerpt from her article at .

In recent years, increasingly urgent voices have been warning of a global water crisis, as the human species consistently uses more water than is sustainably available. Pictures of parched lands, disappearing lakes and streams, and single-faucet villages have become commonplace as thirsty straws siphon life-giving water from above and below the surface of the earth. Currently a billion people — 40% of humanity — live in water-stressed conditions, and studies predict that the situation will deteriorate rapidly in the next few years, as the agricultural sector, which already accounts for an average of 70% of global fresh water use, struggles to feed an additional billion by 2030.

Figure 1: World map of topography and bathymetry showing known occurrences of fresh and brackish offshore groundwater. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: V. Post,, Offshore fresh groundwater reserves as a global phenomenon, Nature, Vol. 504, pp. 71—78 (5 December 2013) doi:10.1038/nature12858

Suddenly, in early December, a ray of hope appeared as a group of Australian scientists published a paper in Nature heralding discovery of vast meteoric fresh groundwater reserves off the coasts of China, Australia, North America, Greenland, Suriname, Nigeria and South Africa. The group’s leader, Dr. Vincent Post of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT) and the School of the Environment at Flinders University , predicted that the “volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900,” and went on to say that “[k]nowing about these reserves is great news because this volume of water could sustain some regions for decades.” In spite of a cautionary message in the article that “[o]ffshore groundwater is not the answer to global water crises”, one recent headline excitedly proclaimed, “ Aussie Scientists May Have Solved the Global Water Shortage Crisis .”

There are several reasons why the prospect of vast seabed aquifers should not distract us from addressing fresh water shortages. First, the article admits that “[d[espite convincing indications of the widespread presence of offshore paleo-groundwater, direct observations remain limited.” With very few exceptions, the presence of seabed aquifers has not been proven but is based on sporadic sampling and intensive modeling. Technical challenges must be overcome in order to locate and access the aquifers, without introducing contamination that would forever foul the confined waters. Further, the waters are not expected to be fresh, but rather either brackish or somewhat saline, meaning treatment will be required prior to use. Once the quantity and quality of the contained water is determined, it must be abstracted and transported to a treatment or desalination facility that would probably be located on-shore at some distance from the wellhead. Finally, after weighing the benefits and risks, one or more parties must be willing to invest substantial sums to find, recover and treat the water. The investors would be unusually philanthropic if they did not expect an economic return within a reasonable time, so a mechanism for monetizing the water would have to be agreed upon. If we accept Dr. Post’s statement that the seabed aquifers would meet our needs for only a few decades, any “solution” offered by the discovery would be short-lived at current consumption rates.

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by Staff