The exploitation of groundwater resources for human use dates from the earliest civilizations, but massive resource development has been largely restricted to the past 50 years. Although global in scope, the emphasis of this paper is on groundwater–based economies in a developing nation context, where accelerated resource development has brought major social and economic benefits over the past 20 years. This results from groundwater's significant role in urban water supply and in rural livelihoods, including irrigated agriculture. However, little of the economic benefit of resource development has been reinvested in groundwater management, and concerns about aquifer degradation and resource sustainability began to arise.
A general review, for a broad–based audience, is given of the mechanisms and significance of three semi–independent facets of aquifer degradation. These are (i) depletion of aquifer storage and its effects on groundwater availability, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; (ii) groundwater salinization arising from various different processes of induced hydraulic disturbance and soil fractionation; and (iii) vulnerability of aquifers to pollution from land–use and effluent discharge practices related to both urban development and agricultural intensification.
Globally, data with which to assess the status of aquifer degradation are of questionable reliability, inadequate coverage and poor compilation. Recourse has to be made to ‘type examples’ and assumptions about the extension of similar hydrogeological settings likely to be experiencing similar conditions of groundwater demand and subsurface contaminant load. It is concluded that (i) aquifer degradation is much more than a localized problem because the sustainability of the resource base for much of the rapid socio–economic development of the second half of the twentieth century is threatened on quite a widespread geographical basis; and (ii) major (and long overdue) investments in groundwater resource and quality protection are urgently needed. These investments include appropriate institutional provisions, demand–side management, supply–side enhancement and pollution control.