The twenty-first century has pulled aquifers up from the relative obscurity they enjoyed in the twentieth century; increasingly, people across the world realize that 99 percent of available freshwater1 sits underground (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2015). This awareness is linked to increased water extraction. Since the 1950s, the world’s use of subterranean water has increased fourfold. Aquifers currently face unprecedented pressures leading to depletion, salinization, and pollution (Konikow, 2011). In 2016, a group of international organizations called for an overhaul of groundwater governance (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2015). Specifically, they invited audiences to avoid irreversibly damaging aquifer systems and called attention to the fact that doing so requires public guardianship and collective responsibility based on science (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2015:3). 

What if achieving the goal of securing the future of aquifers required something else, something like a fundamental shift in our imagination?2 What if the most powerful thing we could do is stop talking about groundwater and instead speak of aquifers? Some might say this is merely a semantic shift. I suggest the opposite. Aquifers are radically different formations than groundwater.

Groundwater, as a substance, can be quantified and turned into a decontextualized unit of a liquid: a number of liters or gallons. Think about how groundwater is allocated. Different actors negotiate a certain quantity of water during a particular period of time, abstracting the liquid without attending to much more than whether they have reached the quantity they have committed to use or escaped having to make the commitment in the first place. This is the case in the Central Valley in CA, for example, where decades of unregulated groundwater extraction have left whole towns without water.3 Thinking in terms of groundwater quantity enables this kind of dissociation from territory, history, economic systems, and social organization. Water’s historical and spatial connections are severed to make it an input in a production or consumption process. 

Aquifers, on the other hand, are spatial formations characterized by dynamic movement and deep relations. Aquifers are dynamic and spongy architectures sucking and seeping, swelling and shrinking, absorbing and oozing (Ballestero, 2018). They require people to stop and think about their form, realizing that they need to think water and stone together, inseparably. Aquifers privilege movement, the difficult and never frictionless encounter between water and stone. They remind us of the dynamic interconnection between life in the surface and subsurface worlds. They exist as a kind of choreography where technical, scientific, gender, emotional, legal, political, and economic aspects are always activated, always part of the world (Ballestero, 2019b). When we think about aquifers, we face emplaced formations with legacies that persist. Aquifers are place specific and hold historical ties. They are intertwined with lively dynamics—human, geophysical, more than human. Reducing groundwater to quantified units masks those legacies; aquifers, on the other hand, resist that erasure through their persistent connection to place. Imagine the Río Blanco aquifer on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. It sits at the doors of the country’s most important port, a site where most of the exports start the international travel they undertake as part of the commodity chain they are part of; it undergirds a community aqueduct association led by a fearless woman who has made history by becoming the first to be elected president of the aqueduct association; it erupts into people’s backyards as its extremely high water table constantly reminds residents of its vulnerability to pollution; it inspires children who draw their relation to water in order to create the logo of the commission that is dedicated to its protection; it inspires negotiations between community water providers and logistics companies lodged in the area who put have to confront measures of financial profit with the risk of depleting the aquifer. Aquifers are all of these relations, conflicts, and possibilities. Always more than a number of liters per second or foots per acre.

Dropping groundwater and embracing aquifers has another effect. It moves discussions away from scarcity (diminishing units of groundwater available) and moves it towards emplaced justice; justice for humans but also for the non-human beings with whom we share our world. A focus on scarcity locks us into the quantity discussion. A focus on justice opens our horizon to consider multidimensional relations as they happen in time and space; in Rio Blanco, Costa Rica; in the Imperial Valley in California, USA, in Andra Pradesh, India. Yes, a complex and challenging route, and yet, the only serious one we can take considering our current condition. The only serious one if we want to reroute the future history of water today (Ballestero, 2019a).

  1. Fresh water is naturally occurring water that has low enough concentrations of salt to make it usable and drinkable by humans and other animals not adapted to live in the Ocean or consume salty water ↩︎
  2. Anthropologists have studied the multiple forms, values, and institutional arrangements through which water participates in social worlds. For a review see Ballestero 2019c ↩︎
  3. La Ganga, María L., Gabrielle La Marr LeMee, and Ian James. 2021. “A Frenzy of Well Drilling by California Farmers Leaves Residents without Running Water.” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2021. ↩︎

Works Cited

Ballestero, A. (2018). Spongiform. Theorizing the Contemporary. Retrieved from 

Ballestero, A. (2019a). A Future History of Water. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ballestero, A. (2019b). Underground as Infrastructure? Figure/Ground Reversals and Dissolution in Sardinal. In K. Hetherington (Ed.), Environment, Infrastructure and Life in the Anthropocene (pp. 17-44). Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Ballestero, A. (2019c). The Anthropology of Water.  Annual Review of Anthropology 48:405-421.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). (2015). Shared Global Vision for Groundwater Governance 2030 and A call-for-action. Retrieved from Rome: 

Konikow, L. F. (2011). Contribution of global groundwater depletion since 1900 to sea‐level rise. Geophysical Research Letters, 38(17).