How much does a contaminated aquifer cost?

Image: Josh Marks


A country that has a secure supply of water must look after its reserves as carefully as those that have suffered conflicts due to the lack of this resource.

Groundwater is considered public domain property of the States of the Federation pursuant to Article 26, Item I, of the Federal Constitution and it is up to the States to manage it.

In this context, to collaborate in groundwater management procedures, especially with regard to its contamination by human activities, this article proposes a formulation for valuing the environmental damage of a contaminated aquifer. This formulation would contemplate the values ​​of the remediation techniques of the underground reservoir and the values ​​of its temporary non-use, due to the quality and quantity (volumes) of water lost/compromised (not used) over time.

Thus, the formulation proposed here would be VD =VR + VP + VIN, and should be considered as an initiative to solve the problem of valuing the damage of a contaminated aquifer or a portion of it, which may undergo adjustments and refinements when applied in a real case.

Thus, in order to try to give a theoretical answer to the valuation of the environmental damage of a contaminated aquifer, formulation VD =VR + VP + VIN should contain the following terms:

VD = amount of environmental damage to the aquifer or a portion of it;

VR = value (cost) of restoring the aquifer or a portion of it, which would include costs with hydrogeological studies, contamination studies, drilling, geophysics, remediation, sampling and water analysis, monitoring, conceptual modeling and mathematical modeling;

VP = value (cost) of the temporary “loss” of the use of the aquifer or a portion of it, which would account for the costs with wells that could have been built, pumping time, declaratory list of loss of functions and lost ecosystem services (costs) , costs of replacing the supply source, costs of canceling the installation of industries, etc., and costs of water that is no longer extracted and VIN = amount of indemnity or compensation for the aquifer or portion thereof lost, according to the use of water and/or the impairment of ecosystem services of the underground reservoir.

But after all, how much does a contaminated aquifer cost? Even if this question is apparently difficult to answer, it is understood that, as a first step, if by chance any accident occurs that could compromise an aquifer, based on this proposed formulation, its contamination could be easier to be investigated and therefore valued. In addition, it could also materialize a value for the damage caused and which must be paid by those directly responsible, leaving to those responsible for the environmental damage, at the end of the process, the complete restoration of the compromised underground reservoir.

“The notion of underground water abundance is common among the population, as well as the mistaken idea that such water circulates freely, as if they were 'rivers' under the ground. Even considering the large volume stored in aquifers, it is controversial to state that good quality water will never run out. The quality of this resource is a relevant factor, not least because water contaminated by chemical substances or microorganisms can cause some diseases or transmit others (cholera, schistosomiasis, etc.) and cause damage to the natural environments where they circulate.

A country that has a secure supply of water must look after its reserves as carefully as those that have suffered conflicts due to the lack of this resource. Water waste must always be fought, in addition to protecting aquifers and preserving their quality. […].

The care with these reserves must be constant. Because it is a strategic resource, the use of fresh water arouses passionate polemics, as in the case of the privatization of public services (cities like Paris have adopted the opposite path – 'deprivatization' – so that water services return to public control), the the São Francisco water project, in the Northeast, or even the proposal to use the gigantic Guarani aquifer to supply the city of São Paulo. […].

The explanation for the crisis, according to many scholars, lies in the increase in the human population, in environmentally inadequate practices and in the current lifestyle. Although technology has expanded human capacity to capture water for consumption, relative availability has become critical due to several factors. The increase in world population stimulates agricultural and industrial production, increasing demand, and imposes a growing occupation of land, affecting water sources. Excessive consumption patterns have amplified demand almost limitlessly. Finally, the uncontrolled release of industrial and domestic waste into flowing waters contaminates reserves and makes their use difficult.” [1]

To conclude, in these difficult times we live in, under the baton of an authoritarian and extreme right-wing federal government like the current one, things are not easy for the population in their daily lives. However, we must not lose heart and forget that “We are responsible for what we do, what we do not do and what we prevent from doing.”, as the French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus. In other words, one day the bill arrives for the holders of power and the detonators of the environment and it will undoubtedly come with interest and monetary correction.

* Heraldo Campos, a geologist, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Hydraulics and Sanitation at the School of Engineering of São Carlos-USP.


[1] Carneiro, CDR; Campos, HCNS; Mendonça, JLG Underground rivers: myth or reality? Science Today, Rio de Janeiro (RJ), vol. 43, nº 253, p. 18 – 25, October 2008.


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