Opinion piece by Dr Matthys Dippenaar.
Following the 16th conference of the Ground Water Division held in Port Elizabeth 21-23 October 2020, I’ve had some thoughts on this.
I remember learning in high school about all the natural cycles. The water cycle was always a favourite as it made everything seem so simple, interrelated and uncomplicated. Why is that, I now wonder 20 years after entering university as a first-year student?
Other cycles followed – the nitrogen and carbon cycles. Later, at university, the rock cycle. All very important simplifications of natural systems, with the water cycle most prominently maintaining its faux simplicity. So much of our existence depends on these very rudimentary, toned-down line art models of very complicated natural systems. All of them, simplified to the extent that suddenly it is very easy to distrust scientists who seem to overcomplicate matters with terms such as “climate change”, “sustainability” and “resilience”, and to become part of some conspiracy theory claiming that science is propaganda paid for by some evil corporation.
Everything we do or have is a direct function of our ability to objectively interpret facts. With emotion and bias removed, we become able to separate reality from fiction, and we can optimise our existence. When we choose to buy in to some fictional narrative, our decisions are inherently unsound and compromise our ability to further optimise our existence in the long term.
The scientific skill set is not one where a single person has the ability to correctly, accurately and safely tweak all of natural science. That is why we have the scientific method: a set of skills to remove subjectivity in order to stimulate objective growth in ideas. Science is based on hypothesising and rigorous testing under peer scrutiny. That is why I get to support climate change without being a climatologist or meteorologist: I have the utmost faith in the scientific method.
Science denialism is growing exactly because of this. The fact that science is per definition continuously subjected to testing and reinforcement of ideas means that science grows. While something is still developing, it can never truly be one hundred percent correct, and subsequently our 99.999% certainties are misinterpreted as having (albeit a very low) chance of failure. Everything has a failure rate. Sadly, it is very easy to rely on personal narrative or survivor bias, and nor report on risk, and all objectivity is lost. Sadly, in the 21st century, those not conforming to law and regulation seem to have no liability.
Think water supply. When a team of hydrogeologists (groundwater scientists) do a water supply scheme, it is a costly affair. We have to comply with national legislation warranting professional conduct and environmental conservation. We are professionally liable for misconduct and adversely affecting that very complex water cycle. We disclose bad data, limitations, assumptions and risks. Because that is how we reduce reductions in water levels or quality over time.
Any development, regardless of how insignificant it seems, has an effect on the environment. But drilling without monitoring is going to affect the future environment more, yet the consequence is not being detected as it is voluntarily not being recorded. That’s not a success. That’s an unreported failure by any account.
There is this funny misperception about groundwater, namely that it is hard to find water underground. Surprise: it is not, although the amount is not guaranteed. Groundwater literally outweighs fresh surface water by orders of magnitude in abundance. The presence of groundwater is not contested, even though we do understand that it’s distribution is not homogenous and that the quantities may be insufficient. We need more than that.
When we site drilling targets, we don’t only look for water. When we site drilling targets, we are designing supply systems with long-term sustainable yields that can continue to supply given volumes of water without compromising the integrity of the aquifer, surface water, future water users, or the ecosystem. If boreholes fail in time or are not monitored, then what constitutes success? Because that simplified water cycle matters: abusing groundwater impacts surface water elsewhere. And with changing climate, the interrelationships between different components of the water cycle becomes increasingly complex.
As hydrogeologists, we place the water cycle first. Our client is the water cycle with all its intricacies. Treating it well means we can use that water to the benefit of the people.
Social responsibility relies on our ability to be environmentally sustainable. We need to verify the parameters before starting to tap into a resource. There is maintenance and management required when using groundwater.
We need to change this perception that groundwater is a point-source independent of the water cycle and that finding (any amount of any quality of) water is the ultimate target. We need to change this perception that the water cycle is simple.
And we need to treat our water well(!)*
(* well = borehole; treat = improve quality)