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International Symposium on Groundwater Sustainability (ISGWAS)

Urban Hydrogeology in Developing Countries: A Foreseeable Crisis

Hirata, Ricardo 1; Stimson, Jesse 2 and Varnier Claudia 1,3

of Geosciences University of So Paulo, Brazil

of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
3Geological Institute Environment Secretariat of the State of So Paulo, Brazil

In many cities in the developing world, groundwater is an important source of public water supply. It is
estimated that some 1.5 to 2.8 billion people worldwide are supplied by groundwater and twelve of 23
megacities (cities with more than 10 million inhabitants) utilize groundwater as an important component
of their water supply system. The groundwater under many urban areas, which have high population
densities, elevated groundwater exploitation, and many potential sources of contamination to the
subsurface, is extremely susceptible to overexploitation, subsidence and degradation. Peripheral, poorer
areas of many cities, that do not receive water supply or sanitation services and use shallow wells and
springs as their only source of potable water, are also poorly-protected against contamination. Leaks from
water supply distribution and sewer networks, along with discharge from septic systems and cesspools,
can also lead to groundwater level increases, that flood and cause geotechnical damages to foundations
and underground structures. The sustainable utilization of groundwater requires that a sensible
management program be conducted by a regulatory agency, that consults the affected communities.

Urbanization has increasingly intensified in the last few decades and now some 48% of the worlds
population lives in urban centres. By 2005, approximately 50% of the population in developing countries
will live in cities (International Year of Freshwater, 2003), with a significant portion of these inhabitants
residing in megacities (cities with populations of 10 million or more). The high population growth observed
in developing countries has alerted multilateral organizations and governments that in the near future
these inhabitants will require a much larger water supply and sanitation capacity, which will be difficult to
meet given the limited financial resource that developing countries possess. Given that groundwater is an
important source of water supply and susceptible to urban contamination, groundwater resources cannot
be ignored in water resource management of cities. By the year 2000, 1.5 to 2.8 billion people will be
served by groundwater as their source of potable water. Twelve of the 23 megacities in the world are
dependent on groundwater for more than 25% of their water supply, including Mexico City (25.8 million),


Urban Hydrogeology in Developing Countries: A Foreseeable Crisis

Calcutta (16.5 million), Tehran (13.6 million), Shanghai (13.3 million), Buenos Aires (13.2 million), and
Jakarta (13.2 million). In China, 500 medium-to-large cities are supplied by aquifer pumping for more than
60% of their water supply (Chn, 1996) and a third of all major Russian cities are dependent on
groundwater (UNEP, 2003). Similar proportions of groundwater use are observed for cities in Latin America
and Africa, although reliable data for water supply sources in Africa is lacking.
Even though the importance of groundwater is evident, little attention has been given to protecting this
important resource. Few groundwater protection and management programs are today in force in
developing countries, and these programs often do not consider aquifer vulnerability to anthropogenic
contamination and the need to define wellhead protection areas. These programs often do not include
management of groundwater extraction, in order to avoid aquifer overexploitation, even when excessive
groundwater extraction has reduced baseflow to rivers and wetlands, caused subsidence, or induced
saltwater intrusion. The lack of groundwater resource management has caused serious social problems for
poorer, periurban areas. In these peripheral zones, water supply and sanitation does not reach all
inhabitants. These communities often use poorly-constructed excavated wells or springs from shallow
aquifers for their water supply, which are located nearby and downgradient to cesspools and latrines
(Limaye et al., 2000).
This paper examines the principal problems caused by improper or nonexistent groundwater management
to the sustainability of water supply for cities dependent on groundwater in developing countries. Special
attention is given to the inadequate control of groundwater exploitation, subsidence and salt water
intrusion, rising groundwater levels from urban water sources, and the potential contamination of the


Urbanization changes drastically the hydrologic cycle of natural areas. Buildings, roads, sidewalks, and
parking lots make the land surface impermeable to the infiltration of precipitation, diminishing the natural
recharge of the aquifer.
A residencial area of moderate population density over a sedimentary watertable aquifer in So Paulo,
Brasil (Hirata et al., 2002) is estimated to cause an 82% reduction in aquifer recharge. Stephensen (1994)
has shown that decreased infiltration results in increased runoff. In his study of two watersheds in
Johannesburg, South Africa, he showed that runoff, as a percentage of total precipitation, is far more
significant for an urbanized catchment (15%) than for an undeveloped catchment (4%).
Although natural infiltration decreases, artificial recharge from inadvertent leaks and discharges from
water sources, such as water supply distribution and sewer systems, septic systems and cesspools, and
irrigation of parks, augments aquifer recharge. In So Paulo, Brazil, water losses from impermeabilization
of the land surface are compensated by this artificial recharge. Total recharge to the aquifer has decreased
little from predevelopment conditions (~355 mm a-1) to today (308 mm a-1), and losses from the water
supply and sewer network is approximately 241 mm a-1. Similar figures have been determined for other
urban areas around the world (Figure 1). In semiarid climates, this effect is more noticeable; in Lima, Peru,

Hirata, Ricardo; Stimson, Jesse and Varnier, Claudia

loss from irrigation, canals and the water supply distribution system is 66% greater than from natural
recharge (Lerner et al., 1982).

Figure 1. Potential range of subsurface infiltration caused by urbanization (Foster et al.,1993).

The overexploitation of groundwater is one of the most pressing problems for sustainability of urban water
resources. Many cases of uncontrolled exploitation, resulting in large drawdowns of the aquifer water
levels, are reported throughout the world. Overexploitation can be defined as excessive drawdown which
1.) significantly increases the cost of drilling and pumping wells, 2.) necessitates the deepening of exisiting
wells, 3.) results in significant loss of saturated thickness (and production capactiy), 4.) results in poor
quality groundwater being displaced to shallower depths of the aquifer, and 5.) results in significant
reduction of baseflow to rivers, lakes and wetlands. These problems occur due to the imbalance between


Urban Hydrogeology in Developing Countries: A Foreseeable Crisis

recharge and extraction, and is accentuated by strong hydraulic interference that occurs between large
wells operating in an area of dense water captation. This problem has been described for many cities,
including Bangkok (Ramnarong, 1999), Calcutta (Choudhury et al., 1997), Jakarta (Schmidt et al., 1988),
Xian, China (Lee et al., 1996), Agra, India (Mukherjee and Raj, 1997) and Salta, Argentina (Bundschuh,
1998), to mention a few. In these localities, drawdown of water levels exceeding 30 m over a period of a
few decades of intense exploitation. Another unfortunate outcome of overexploitation in coastal areas is
the inducement of saltwater intrusion. Unfortunately, to date, no integral method to evaluate the social
costs of overexploitation exists.
The fact that groundwater levels are lowered due to pumping does not necessarily represent a case of
overexploitation. If drawdown does not cause a loss in the value to the groundwater resource, negative
impacts to riparian or wetland ecology, and subsidence, groundwater exploitation in of itself does not
constitute a resource crisis. In many urban areas of the world, the lack of proper conceptual models of
aquifer water balance, hydraulic interference between wells, and realistic costing of public water
extraction, results in the erroneous perception that aquifer overexploitation is occurring. The groundwater
resource manager ignores the fact that the very same aquifer exploitation leads to recharge through water
supply and sewage losses, which conteract water level declines.
A very serious outcome of excessive drawdown is the occurrence of subsidence of land surface, which has
very serious and irreversible consequences (Holzer and Johnson, 1985). The dewatering of thick
unconsolidated sedimentary basins, that are rich in clays, associated principally intermontaine valleys and,
in some cases, large coastal alluvial formations and glacial deposits, have provoked subsidence that
reaches values greater than 10 m in some cases. The subsidence observed in Mexico City is one of the most
studied cases, with measured subsidence reaching more than 9 meters in some areas of the city.
Subsidence has also been reported in Bangkok (Ramnarong, 1999), Calcutta (Choudhury et al., 1997), and
Jakarta (Schmidt et al., 1988).
Groundwater level rises have also been observed in urban areas. As cities stop groundwater extraction in
urban centers, generally due to contamination in former industrial areas, the aquifer tends to recuperate
or exceed its predevelopment water level, due to losses from water supply, sewage, cesspools and
irrigation, since this additional water is often imported from outside of the watershed (Abu-Rizaiza, 1999).
In the case of Riyadh, Saudia Arabia, where recharge is minimal, a considerable portion of water supplied
by desalinization plants is lost to the aquifer from leaks in the water supply distribution system, creating
high water levels of the aquifer (Foster et al., 1997).
This elevation of aquifer water levels causes serious geotechnical problems, such as flooding of basements,
underground structures, drains, and sewers, the uneven movement of foundations (caused by varying
pressure changes as the unsaturated zone is saturated), and the contaminating of streams and soils.
Another occasional consequence is the saturation of foundations with sulfate-rich groundwater, which
deteriorates the structural capacity of cement (Shanin, 1988). Water level rise in urban areas has been
reported from cities all over the world, such as Tehran (Shamsi and Ardeshir, 1999) and Buenos Aires
(Bianci and Leopardo, 2003).


Hirata, Ricardo; Stimson, Jesse and Varnier, Claudia


Due to the large number of anthropogenic contamination sources in cities, and the failure of the soil and
vadose zone to attenuate them, groundwater can easily be degraded. This phenomenon is especially
serious in cities located over watertable aquifers, but also is present in urban areas that overlie
semiconfined and confined aquifers. Most urban contamination is considered to be from dispersed sources,
such as in situ sanitation and sewer, which leads to increases in salinity and nutrient and pathogen
groundwater concentrations (Wakida and Lerner, 2005; Zubair and Rippey, 1999).
In San Jos, Costa Rica, nitrate concentrations have increased over the last two decades in the principal
spring, Puente Mulas, which supplies potable water to the city. Reynolds et al. (in submission) has
suggested, using nitrogen isotopes and geochemistry, that the replacement of coffee plantations by
residencial areas with in situ sanitation is the probable cause of this increase. Poorly-constructed sanitary
well seals have been suggested as the cause of elevated pathogen contamination in the Patio Aquifer in
Asuncion, Paraguay, where 70% of drilled wells are contaminated with fecal coliforms. In the middle and
upper class neighborhoods of So Paulo, Brasil, 60% of drilled wells have pathogenic contamination
(Hirata et al., 2002). Mangore and Taigbenu (2004) found that 27% of wells in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, were
contaminated with coliform bacteria, which was thought to be caused by leaking sewers.
Poor well design and the proximity of wells to in situ sanitation is one of the principal causes of the high
incidence of child mortality from water-bourne diseases in poor countries. Foster et al. (1998) determined
that 90% of water that is served to a household is discharged to septic systems or cesspools. The high
density of cesspools, often located next to excavated wells in poorer neighborhood, does not permit the
degradation and dilution of nutrients and pathogens by the soil and aquifer matrix before reaching the
drinking water source.
In Urnia, Brasil, where a sewer system has been installed for the last 30 years, elevated nitrate
concentrations (up to 160 mg NO3 L-1) are found in unconfined, oxidized groundwaters to a depth of 60
m, which illustrates that the existence of a public sewer system does not assure that other sources of
wastewater contaminate the aquifer (Cagnon and Hirata, 2004).
The presence of industries, gasoline stations, unregulated garbage dumps, and the improper handling of
dangerous products in cities, make these point sources important contributors to aquifer contamination.
The presence of unlined landfills upgradient from the citys only wellfields in Granada, Nicaragua, in an
unconfined, permeable, volcanic aquifer, are threatening the water supply and may have already increased
nitrate concentrations in the drinking water (Stimson and Espinoza, in submission).
Another pressing problem for city authorities is the management of urban areas that were contaminated
by previous activities, but have since been resold and rebuilt as residential or business districts. In many of
these rezoned areas, there has not been a proper evaluation of abandoned contamination of soil and
groundwater, thus exposing the property owners and neighbors to environmental risks. In So Paulo, Brasil,
there are more than 4 200 abandoned properties, of which approximately half have the potential to
contaminate groundwater (CETESB, 2005).


Urban Hydrogeology in Developing Countries: A Foreseeable Crisis


Water resources management in cities is often conducted through national institututions or, in some cases,
local agencies. However, the involvement and participation of the local communities in groundwater
management, which depends on many interlocking policy decisions about public and private water supply,
sanitation, and zoning, is paramount. The framework for a groundwater management program should
include the following components (Foster et al, 1998):
1.) the development of a clear definition of water rights (separate from property rights), by enforcing
licencing and fee payment for groundwater exploitation.
2.) the requirement that discharge of liquid effluents and deposition of solid wastes be allowed only with
a permit.
3.) the creation of a national or local regulating agency, providing technical and financial support to
supervise environmental permitting programs, whose jurisdiction is delimited by hydrologic
watersheds, which permits an integrated approach to managing both surface water and groundwater.
Public water wells are often placed in close proximity to private wells. In many developing countries, the
lack of a water well registration program results in the fact that water resource managers do not have data
on the extraction rates, location or even existence of most private wells. Even when an agency has
implemented a registration program, this step is not sufficient to protect the groundwater resource, given
i.) there is a lack of technically-trained personnel and financial experts to run these registration programs
for extraction and contaminant discharge.
ii) the sustainable extraction potential and the vulnerability to contamination of the aquifer is not clearly
known due to hydrogeological uncertainties.
One reason why the regulatory agency should canvass the affected communities, through public
consultations and environmental education programs, is to convince the public of the importance of
adhering to these programs to protect groundwater. The public must not only be informed about the
negative impact of overexploitation and contamination to the sustainability of the resource, but that the
lack of such management policies can result in real, immediate financial losses to the community due to
more expensive extraction regimes and water treatment programs. Avoiding groundwater contamination
and overexploitation will guarantee that the resource is preserved for future generations.

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