Land subsidence vs excessive groundwater extraction-Part-1
Updated: May 16
A case of existential crisis & dilemma facing Industrial Civilization (IC)
“In many countries..current pathways for water use are not sustainable. The world faces a worsening series of local & regional water quantity and quality problems. Water resource constraints and water degradation are weakening one of the resource bases on which human
Society is built.” -UN COMPREHENSIVE ASSESSMENT OF THE FRESHWATER RESOURCES, 1997. (From Limits to Growth: The 30-year update)
The signboards on the pole denote the level at which the land used to be at each designated year (San Joaquin Valley southwest of Mendota, California). It is truly unfathomable to comprehend that unsustainable water extraction could lead to such a drastic drop in soil level. When a large amount of water is extracted from the ground, the rocks and sediments that hold the water tend to collapse and fall in on themselves. This then causes a drastic change in the elevation of land on a large scale .1 It is a silent hazard, caused by the combination of excessive groundwater extraction, huge constructions, and tectonic activities. This phenomenon, known as land subsidence, occurs at rates measured in centimeters per year. The irreversible accumulation of its effects means that it is qualified as an impact of the anthropogenic agency that causes permanent flooding of lands, exacerbates flooding, changes geographical elements, ruptures the land surface, and reduces the capacity of aquifers to store water.2
Groundwater is a critical non-renewable resource constraint for the growth & sustenance of the complex globalized economy. It refers to the water that fills into the pores, cracks of rocks and soil present beneath the surface of the Earth. Depending on the climate and geographical features, it is replenished in varying quantities, through rain or melting snow, which seeps into the ground.3 A major source of fresh water, groundwater played a crucial role in the trajectory of human civilization from simple to complex agricultural societies, to even more complex post-modern industrial societies. The complexity of our civilization is influenced by (and influences) the natural resources present in the environment. The stability of our complex systems depends upon the consistent maintenance of such resources, failure of which leads to collapse.4
The increasing complexity of societal structures and demands led to increased stress on natural resources. Exponential population growth meant that there was a need to increase crop yield and land usage for agriculture. An increase in agricultural output was facilitated by the development of advanced industrial technology. This was powered by machinery that worked on coal, which required heavy use of water, in order to maintain the amount of coal extracted, and processed.5 Also, the decline of underground water is not instantaneous and takes years to finish. The delay is caused by the time required for the drainage of water from the fine-grained beds in aquifer systems to reach its limit.2 Simultaneously, the increasing unsustainable throughput of food, energy, etc. negatively impacts the quality and amount of freshwater. As these factors combined and humans continuously pumped water out of the natural reservoirs at a rate faster than it could replenish itself, the equilibrium of the ecosystem was disturbed, pushing the limits of the groundwater levels. Hence, we now face extremely life-threatening situations of land subsidence and depleting groundwater table (due to unsustainable extraction).
The economist Hernan Daly had stated that, for a renewable resource like water, a sustainable rate of use cannot be greater than the rate of regeneration of its source.6 Water is undoubtedly one of the most essential resources which directly influences essential throughputs like food, energy, and the ecosystem. And although freshwater is a regional resource, if unsustainable pumping of groundwater continues it would inevitably lead to the destruction of water aquifers through drying up, salination, or land subsidence. This would then have effects on the global level as it would be felt throughout the industries and ecosystem in the form of food shortages and an increase in the prices of grains.
Losses due to land subsidence, Viets (2010) and Abidin et al. (2014); Abidin, Hasanuddin Z., et al. "Environmental impacts of land subsidence in urban areas of Indonesia."
The impacts of land subsidence can be categorized into infrastructural, environmental, economic, and social impacts. These will inevitably increase the maintenance and rehabilitation costs for the affected area, buildings, and infrastructures whilst affecting the quality of life like health and sanitation conditions, and socio-economic aspects of life. The impacts can be seen in various forms, like cracking of roads, tilting and/or sinking of houses and buildings, changes in river canals and drain flow systems, and an increase in the inland sea-water intrusion. If the coastal areas of a city have high subsidence rates, then coastal flooding can occur during the high tides.7 (Abidin, Hasanuddin Z., et al. "Environmental impacts of land subsidence in urban areas of Indonesia." FIG Working Week. Sofia, Bulgaria: TS 3—Positioning and Measurement, 2015)
Characteristics of land subsidence impacts; Abidin, Hasanuddin Z., et al. "Environmental impacts of land subsidence in urban areas of Indonesia."
The complex structure of our modern civilization does not allow for an easy maneuver through the crisis, and so the solutions are not easy to execute. The collapsed land cannot be inflated or swelled back into normalcy by pumping water back into it. One positive is that increasing awareness among countries has mobilized them to look for viable solutions and consistent monitoring of underground land movements through satellite and radar scanning.8 In Bangkok, land subsidence and water extraction were controlled by introducing strict regulations and restrictions. The groundwater act (1977) helped identify and designate vulnerable areas as critical zones.9 A systematic and consistent monitoring of land subsidence in urban areas is extremely important and can be observed using several methods, like leveling, GPS survey, InSAR, microgravity, and geometric-historic. Every method has its own strengths and limitations in revealing characteristics of subsidence phenomena in urban areas. Thus, to have reliable information on land subsidence phenomena, results from various geodetic observation results should be integrated.7
The dilemma here is that the issue is a part of an inter-connected & interdependent web of even more complex issues related to increasing population, decreasing land area for agriculture, decreasing crop yield, reduction in soil fertility, climate change causing uneven weather patterns, shortages in minerals, and fossil fuels. Every element of the ecosystem, organic and inorganic is becoming increasingly vulnerable as the dependence upon a fragile ecosystem keeps increasing. Asking people to simply “save water” by turning off the taps isn’t going to make much difference to the core issue. Companies and governments might as well spread “save water” campaigns and continue with their “business as usual” policies, while the groundwater keeps getting extracted for industrial machinery, unsustainable agricultural practices, and the land below us keeps sinking down.
According to data generated by UNESCO, by 2040, land subsidence could affect almost 19% of the world’s population.10 This will result in human civilization and the ecosystem being vulnerable from multiple angles. As has been stressed by scholars of strong sustainability before, we need measures that focus on the modern industrial society’s way of working and bring in strict regulations. Since the issue is deeply embedded in a layer of complex issues, the solution won’t come easy, but will take a radical change in the mindset of the society, that would have to come in the form of new economic and political systems that do not adhere to an idea of infinite growth at the expense of the ecosystem.
In short, there is no practical way to deal with this dilemma without seriously questioning the elephant in the room - The Ecological Sustainability of the resource & energy-intensive, complex & integrated Industrial Civilization (IC) with critical socio-politico-economic human systems strictly adaptive to infinite economic growth.
2: Holzer, Thomas L., and Devin L. Galloway. "Impacts of land subsidence caused by the withdrawal of underground ﬂuids in the United States." Humans as geologic agents 16 (2005)
4: Korowicz, David. "Tipping Point." Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production An Outline Review. Feasta & The Risk/Resilience Network, Dublin (2010)
5: Scheidler, Fabian. The End of the Megamachine: A Brief History of a Failing Civilization. John Hunt Publishing, 2020
6: Meadows, Dennis, and Jorgan Randers. The limits to growth: the 30-year update. Routledge, 2012.
7: Abidin, Hasanuddin Z., et al. "Environmental impacts of land subsidence in urban areas of Indonesia." FIG Working Week. Sofia, Bulgaria: TS 3—Positioning and Measurement, 2015