World Water Day celebrates the vital lifeline of existence—for people, species, and the planet itself. On March 22nd every year since 1993, we have an opportunity to come together and celebrate water but also take the time to recognize and raise awareness on access to safe and clean water that so many people, unfortunately, do not have access to.

This holiday was recommended at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and is recognized as a United Nations Observance. Each year, there is a different focus to the day, revealing the various importances of water and actions that can be taken for safe water access across the world. In 2022, the focus is on groundwater—making the invisible visible.

How World Wildlife Fund is Supporting

As this year’s focus is on groundwater, I wanted to take a look at what World Wildlife Fund is doing to protect and provide access to safe water for all. First, what exactly is groundwater? Almost all freshwater in the world (that is not frozen and locked away in ice caps and glaciers) is groundwater. 

World Wildlife Fund defines groundwater as “the water found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and rock. It is held in aquifers—permeable water-bearing rock and/or sediment – and can be extracted through wells or bubbles up naturally through a spring or is discharged into lakes or streams. Even though it’s underground, when it does bubble up, groundwater helps to replenish and maintain levels of surface water – the bodies of water that we are used to seeing such as rivers, lakes, streams. Groundwater helps to keep our rivers free-flowing.”

The main use for groundwater is crop irrigation and agricultural production however, it is also used for drinking water by close to 50 percent of the people in the United States.

Groundwater being used for crop irrigation in South Africa

Groundwater being used for crop irrigation in South Africa
© Peter Chadwick / WWF

“One place that critically relies on groundwater is the Rio Grande- Rio Bravo (RGRB) river basin, which creates the border between Southwest Texas and Mexico. More than 16 million people in this region in both the US and Mexico depend on this resource; it accounts for 25 percent of the water that is used for irrigated agriculture and public supply in the basin. Not just the people, but the local wildlife and the river itself also heavily rely on groundwater. In some stretches of the Rio Grande-Rio Bravo, such as the Big Bend region, more than 50 percent of the water that flows in the river comes from groundwater during the months when the river volumes get low. It’s also the main source of water for wetlands and springs, which are of critical importance for freshwater biodiversity and migratory bird conservation.” – World Wildlife Fund

The Rio Grande- Rio Bravo river basin is critically endangered. “Surface water in the basin is 150 percent overallocated and the basin’s groundwater resources are similarly overdrawn. The river itself has lost approximately 90 percent of its historic flows and has been declared one of the ten most endangered rivers, globally.”

Sunrise over the Rio Grande

Sunrise over the Rio Grande river
© Day’s Edge / WWF-US

Due to this area’s critical importance, World Wildlife Fund is helping with projects to protect the water supply here for people, wildlife, and the surrounding ecosystem. One project that is currently in motion is through WWF-Mexico. They are working on an Aquifer Recharge project on the Mexican portion of the Rio Grande- Rio Bravo (RGRB) river basin. The program has created a management plan focused on rainwater capture and ground infiltration to replenish the aquifers and stabilize ongoing usage. This work is considered a nature-based solution, which is a type of intervention that is aligned with nature and can help build resilience in the face of climate change.

As groundwater is under the ground, it is harder to protect than other sources of water. WWF notes the various challenges of groundwater, sharing that “groundwater levels are not easily monitored with the naked eye and so supplies can be unknowingly polluted or even overdrawn, meaning that more is taken out of the ground than can be sustainably replenished. Groundwater can be polluted by landfills, septic tanks, leaky underground gas tanks, and from overuse of fertilizers and pesticides.” All these things are difficult to notice and track, making groundwater more susceptible to pollution and disruptions in its ecosystem.

A glimmer of hope with groundwater is that it can be replenished. This can happen both naturally and artificially. When rain and snowmelt flow into the cracks and crevices beneath the land’s surface, the groundwater is replenished naturally. And when people take action to restore groundwater levels by redirecting water so it will be reabsorbed into the ground through canals, basins, or ponds, it happens artificially.

Beyond groundwater, WWF works extensively on freshwater initiatives including promoting good water governance, protecting freshwater ecosystems, managing water resources in a changing climate, and advancing corporate water stewardship.