Governing a shared hidden resource: A review of governance mechanisms for transboundary groundwater security

Published in Water Security, v. 2:43-56

Albrecht, T., R. G. Varady, A. A. Zuniga, A. K. Gerlak, and C. Staddon.

Publication year 2017

Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85719, United States
School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85719, United States
Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of the West of England, Bristol BS16 1QY, UK

IAI Program


This work was undertaken as part of the International Water Security Network, a project funded by
Lloyd&rsquos Register Foundation, a charitable foundation helping to protect life and property by supporting
engineering-related education, public engagement and the application of research. We further
acknowledge the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI), for Project SGP-CRA005,
supported by U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant No. GEO-1138881. The paper also
benefited from support by the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation in Tucson, Arizona.

IAI Project GP-CRA005


We formulate five recommendations for transboundary groundwater security
We integrate perspectives from groundwater management, security, governance and law
Transboundary contexts are diverse and require flexible, context-specific governance.
Groundwater governance needs better data and expanded institutional capacity.


Globally, groundwater is by far the largest store of liquid freshwater, making it a key component of a secure water supply. However, over the past few decades the amount of usable groundwater available around the world has rapidly decreased. This depletion is caused primarily by mismanagement (e.g., overpumping, contamination, and under-regulation), but also by reduced natural recharge due to climate change and urbanization. Management of groundwater resources is particularly challenging for the nearly 600 aquifers that are transboundary, meaning that they extend across international political borders. To understand how governance mechanisms can reduce water insecurity in transboundary groundwater contexts, we review key literature from what we view as the most relevant fields: groundwater management, water security, international water law and international water governance. We then formulate a set of recommendations for improved groundwater governance that can address the specific physical nature of groundwater systems, enhance water security, and apply to transboundary groundwater settings. We argue that groundwater governance in transboundary contexts requires processes that (1) enhance context-specific and flexible international mechanisms (2) address the perpetual need for groundwater data and information (3) prioritize the precautionary principle and pollution prevention, in particular (4) where appropriate, integrate governance of surface and subsurface water and land and (5) expand institutional capacity, especially of binational or multinational actors.