Key Concepts for Groundwater Management in Arid Regions

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If we compare the amount of hydrologist vs. the amount of hydrogeologist, we can see that there is a gap in between the number of specialists in surface water and groundwater. Traditionally, the hydrology as a academic course is related to surface hydrology while the underground hydrology (hydrogeology) has been scarcely treated in typical undergraduate or graduate studies. As a comparison with then chicken and the egg, the lower or less popular academic opportunities in hydrogeology has produced a limited number of groundwater specialist who deal with a limited sort of groundwater studies.

We know of sound and extensive master programs in hydrogeology and hydroinformatics that in fact produce the type of professional capable to deal with the complexities of the groundwater flow system, the hydroinformatics tools and holistic scope of assessing current and future demands; however, when we consider arid regions this type of top-of-the-league professional is not available and we end up with a less trained group of professionals with many aims of solving the local water challenges and few capabilities. 

As the author of this post, I come from an arid region in the south coast of Peru, and I am interested in writing this article in a more narrative way than in a technical way because the article is intended to be read for the diverse group of water professional in a arid region context rather than in a university institute of hydroinformatics. The particular interest in arid regions come from my last trip to the southernmost city of Peru called Tacna where its basin is heavily influenced by the most arid desert of the world: the Atacama desert. Many ideas came from the conference I gave there specially towards solution definition related to the water supply and ecosystem protection. I would like to keep the momentum and inspiration of this experience to delineate some key aspects of the groundwater management in arid regions.


A new perspective of an old problem

Nowadays we can not talk of groundwater management properly, we can talk about some items in the legislation that address the groundwater use and conservation, and some projects related to the water supply and maybe some measures to generate groundwater protection zones. Groundwater management as the technique to organize and coordinate the activities of groundwater use to achieve sustainability on current and future conditions is practically unknown in arid regions, therefore we have to give the first steps into the concept of management and for that we came to a very good example, that we will describe later on.

We would like to list the groundwater users, those are population, agriculture, industry and ecosystem; everyone of them have their own groundwater demands and for the purpose of the example we will call them “sons”.
In order to provide a useful approach into the groundwater management in arid regions we can talk that the groundwater flow system in arid regions is a mother / father that became widow / widower of four children. This complex social situation also reflects the complex groundwater use scenario in arid regions. The parallel among the widow/widower with the groundwater management is driven by a common problem: the limited resources to satisfy the demands. Every dollar that the widow / widower would spend in the education/transportation/nourishment of her/his kids will be highly planned in order to keep the resources while preserving equal rights to the demands of the others kids.


Key aspects

Taking into account the mentioned exampled and based on our experience on developing studies in these type of region we have thought that some first steps towards a sustainable management of our groundwater resources can be achieved with the following aspects:


Water is scarce in arid regions, streamflows are not permanent, wetlands and limited, water levels in observation points are decreasing, however it is important to measure them. In order to change the speech of “our rivers are drying” into technical approaches we need to have records related to superficial and underground flow regimes. Some of the most important records to achieve better evaluations are: precipitation, temperature, flow, water level on the basin scale.


Inhabitants from  arid regions need to know that they actually live in arid regions. This is another approach that escapes from the point of view of a common engineer. Few initiatives will get a momentum if the inhabitants have not landed the importance of preserving the water resources.  Culture is an learned behavior, so the care for water resources is a task on the available media and transversal with education.

Numerical modeling

The comprehension of the groundwater flow system needs a intensive amount of numerical modeling to identify and measure flow and available amounts to satisfy demands. Numerical modeling is the most advanced tool available to represent the current conditions of the underground water resources and to simulate future requirements from the human activity and climate change. As long as a model or a group of models are developed and continuously updated and re-calibrated, we can have a better diagnosis of the available groundwater resources

Water use accounting

As we have said, there are many “sons” demanding water from the groundwater flow regime. Water demand / use accounting is key to comprehend and manage the available resources. 

Smart solutions

The human became intelligent due to his ability to solve problems. If we face complex problems, then we have to think in better solutions. There are even most complex solutions as change human activities to ones that are less water demanding, alternative to change shepperds to agriculture might be required or to even think new technologies of seawater desalinization.


Solutions and initiatives have a price, and they can fail. No solution is 100% effective but by sure than any solution schema is better than doing nothing. It is advisable to have a budget estimate of the cost involved in a complete solution schema even if we don't know the accuracy of results because this amount will be reference for the stakeholders when they provide money for the water resources management.

Saul Montoya

Saul Montoya es Ingeniero Civil graduado de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú en Lima con estudios de postgrado en Manejo e Ingeniería de Recursos Hídricos (Programa WAREM) de la Universidad de Stuttgart con mención en Ingeniería de Aguas Subterráneas y Hidroinformática.

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