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Project December 10, 2015

Pumped Dry: The Global Crisis of Vanishing Groundwater

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Media file: pumpeddry2-california.jpg
Image by Steve Elfers. United States, 2015.

Much of the planet relies on groundwater. And in places around the world—from the United States to Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America—so much water is pumped from the ground that aquifers are being rapidly depleted and wells are going dry.

Groundwater is disappearing beneath cornfields in Kansas, rice paddies in India, asparagus farms in Peru and orange groves in Morocco. As these critical water reserves are pumped beyond their limits, the threats are mounting for people who depend on aquifers to supply agriculture, sustain economies and provide drinking water. In some areas, fields have already turned to dust and farmers are struggling.

Climate change is projected to increase the stresses on water supplies, and heated disputes are erupting in places where those with deep wells can keep pumping and leave others with dry wells. Even as satellite measurements have revealed the problem's severity on a global scale, many regions have failed to adequately address the problem. Aquifers largely remain unmanaged and unregulated, and water that seeped underground over tens of thousands of years is being gradually used up.

In this project, Ian James of The Desert Sun and Steve Elfers of USA Today investigate the consequences of this emerging crisis in several of the world's hotspots of groundwater depletion. On four continents, they tell stories of people who are being forced to confront questions of how to safeguard their aquifers for the future—and in some cases, how to cope as the water runs out.

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