REGULATE - Regulation of Groundwater in Telecoupled Social-Ecological Systems

Subproject: Quantity – Availability and Uncertainty

Regulate is a junior research group exploring current challenges in management of the hidden resource groundwater in Europe, against the background of long-distance environmental and societal feedbacks (telecouplings). The project addresses dynamics in groundwater quantity and quality that lead to environmental risks, such as droughts and pollution, associated societal conflicts and institutional settings with perspectives from natural and social sciences as well as from stakeholders at the European and local levels.

Groundwater is the most important source of drinking water for half the world's population, a key resource for food production, and is characterized by unique biodiversity and essential ecosystem services. At the same time, groundwater bodies are threatened by climate change, overexploitation, and pollution. Declining groundwater levels can limit drinking water production, dry out groundwater-dependent ecosystems, create urban-rural conflicts, and lead to crop failures. Qualitative pollution by nitrates and trace substances also leads to high costs in drinking water treatment and negative impacts on ecosystems. Europe has comparatively comprehensive regulations in the form of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Groundwater Directive, but their "good chemical" and "good quantitative status" targets set for 2027 are unlikely to be achieved across the board. The reasons for this lie in the insufficient consideration of the interactions of groundwater availability (social-ecological regulation), which is increasingly embedded in supra-regional cause-effect relationships, and in the lack of vertical and horizontal integration across multiple scales and policies.

The aim of the project is to design approaches for adaptive governance of groundwater in Europe against a background of uncertain natural and social conditions. Ecological interactions and socio-cultural dynamics are investigated as a component of social-ecological regulation and considered in the transdisciplinary development of a governance framework. In order to address the manifold groundwater related problems, the project considers the following sub-aspects:

  1. Quality - Stressors and Effects
  2. Quantity - Availability and Uncertainty
  3. Conflicts - Power relations and Inequalities
  4. Institutions - Practices and Norms

The project integrates scientific disciplines such as anthropology, groundwater ecology, hydrology and political ecology as well as stakeholders on different levels (local as well as European). The project explicitly contributes to the diffusion of inter- and transdisciplinary forms of work and organization in the participating disciplines. The different disciplines will work on cross-disciplinary issues in joint case studies across Europe to look at groundwater-related problems from different perspectives.

Depending on the specific working packages, expected outcomes include 1) basic research on anthropogenic impacts on groundwater fauna, 2) consideration of uncertainties due to climate change and water use, 3) the role of power relations in groundwater governance and 4) everyday practices, and conflicting impacts of policies.

Our contribution
Groundwater is Europe’s most important source of drinking water. However, in many regions its quantity has dropped over the past hot and dry years as the result of a combination of climate change effects and anthropogenic water use patterns. The subproject “Quantity - Availability and Uncertainty” investigates these combined effects on groundwater availability and the inherent uncertainties in forecasting water consumption patterns and the effects of climate change in order to inform local and pan-European groundwater management.

The main objective is the analysis and scenario-based assessment of the effects of climate change and societal water use on groundwater quantity, taking uncertainty into account. The subproject contributes to the consideration of uncertainty in the estimation of current and future groundwater availability in a participatory, model-based process. The research thus contributes both to the further development of integrative modeling methods that consider societal processes in addition to natural processes, and to the understanding of the drivers of societal/sectoral water demand. Finally, the impacts of both climate change and societal water use, in particular, the uncertainties or risks they contain are integrated through participatory modeling techniques such as Bayesian networks, which are also used to quantify the impacts of actor-specific courses of action. The goal is to explore, in a participatory manner with local practice partners, how irreducible uncertainties can best be taken into account in the development of solution strategies.

Prof Dr Petra Döll
MSc Linda Söller

September 2020 – August 2025

The research group is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) as part of the programme “Research for sustainable development (FONA)”.

In cooperation with the Institute for Social-Ecological Research and the University of Koblenz-Landau.

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