Groundwater: environmental change effects on availability, quality and flood risk

BGS research on groundwater has made major contributions to the understanding of groundwater systems around the world and the effects of short- and long-term environmental change on groundwater availability and quality, and flood risk. Our research has directly influenced European and national legislation, government policy, and decision making. It has established standards for the protection of groundwater and the environment and enabled evaluation of economic and societal impacts of environmental change on water resources. In developing countries, it has improved access to clean and sustainable supplies of groundwater with direct benefits to human health and well-being.


Artesian borehole on Arran

Groundwater makes up more than 30 per cent of all the world's fresh water and many people and industries are reliant on it for their water supply. It can also be responsible for widespread flooding, as experienced across the south of England in early 2014.

BGS groundwater scientists have a consistent and long history of published research studying the physical properties of aquifers, evolution of natural groundwater chemistry (UK Baseline reports), contaminant behaviour, understanding levels/flows and ecology, and process-based model development. Fundamental research into groundwater has enabled the development of practical tools to support decision-making e.g. groundwater vulnerability maps (2010) and shale gas risk screening tools (2012).

The publications and their supporting information are routinely used in abstraction licensing, water resource modelling, planning applications and remediation of contaminated land and groundwater.

Groundwater flooding

BGS research and expertise assisted in the development of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which implemented the EU Floods Directive. It has helped steer the Environment Agency's strategy on groundwater flooding monitoring and has developed a national assessment of groundwater flooding susceptibility (2009) which is used by local authorities for their preliminary flood risk assessments. The data are also used by developers and businesses to assess flood risk to properties and infrastructure in order to minimise future economic losses.

Working with then Centre for Hydrology & Ecology (CEH), BGS operates the national hydrological monitoring programme (NHMP) and analyses groundwater levels to produce regular reports on hydrological conditions throughout the UK, financially supported by a range of organisations (e.g. Defra and Ofwat). This information underpins the scientific advice we provide to Government and others on issues such as flooding and droughts (National Droughts Group, Cabinet Office and Government Chief Scientist).

Groundwater quality

Monitoring of methane in groundwater

BGS research into understanding the chemistry of natural groundwater systems and how and why they change has led to improved management and protection of water resources and the natural environment. BGS has undertaken a comprehensive evaluation of the natural (baseline) quality of groundwater across the UK, jointly funded with the Environment Agency (EA) and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).

These data support

  • the risk assessment from a wide range of industrial activities with the potential to impact on groundwater
  • the establishment of environmental permit conditions
  • the derivation of remedial targets for remediation of contaminated land and groundwater (from 2007 onwards)

More recently (2009 onwards) the information has been used to establish groundwater standards (threshold values) as part of a formal requirement of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Groundwater Directive (GWD).

Advice to Government and evidence to the Royal Society's and the Royal Academy of Engineers' review on impacts of shale gas extraction on groundwater has led directly to recommendations and requirements for baseline monitoring ahead of any development of the industry.

Groundwater in developing countries

Water pump in Africa

Our research has shown that, in developing countries, access to improved water supplies has a significant beneficial effect on human health. Collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of medical and engineering scientists directly influenced the Government's decision to award extra funding for water supply and sanitation in Africa (2011). Health risks associated with poor quality water have been communicated to WaterAid through guidance on water quality issues in the African countries in which it works.

We are also actively involved in a wide range of projects on the sustainable management and protection of groundwater in developing countries around the world. Our work on the resilience of African groundwater to climate change and the links to livelihoods and well-being has received worldwide attention, with both the public and the media becoming much more informed about groundwater resources in Africa (2012).

Water resources in a changing climate

Aquifer productivity map for Africa

BGS has completed collaborative research — Future Flows and Groundwater Levels — with Defra, UK Water Industry Research Ltd (UKWIR), the EA and CEH to examine the impact of climate change on groundwater levels in the major aquifers of England and Wales for the coming century (2010–12). This represents the first UK-scale assessment of climate impacts on groundwater. The data are being used by the EA to underpin policy and by water companies, Natural England and others to support decision making and water resource planning (2012).

Modelling of the potential impacts of climate change on UK groundwater resources over the next 50 years was used to support the development of the Government's Water White Paper and the EA's supporting technical justification 'Case for Change'. The model outputs are also being used by water companies to undertake the Ofwat Periodic Review 2014 and will have significant implications for future infrastructure investment and pricing.

Research on resilience of groundwater in Africa to climate change (2012) stimulated global debate on water availability following the conclusion that groundwater storage is a freshwater resource 100 times larger than is usually used in water scarcity assessments. The research is being used by donor agencies (e.g. WaterAid) to inform actions and priorities, and it has informed debate within the Department for International Development (DfID), the World Bank and the Gates Foundation, and been included in high level ministerial meetings on groundwater resources within Africa.



All groundwater publications

Water Framework Directive/Groundwater Directive

Technical report on recommendations for the review of Annex I and II of the Groundwater Directive (2006/118/EC) 408 KB pdf

Groundwater flooding

BGS groundwater flood susceptibility dataset

Groundwater flooding science briefing 207 KB pdf

DEFRA/Environment Agency — Making Space for Water report

Wiltshire County Council: example use of BGS groundwater flooding susceptibility maps/data

Natural quality of groundwater (baseline)

Environment Agency: example use of baseline information

Baselines for England/Wales and Scotland

UK Government Direction (2010): establishing threshold values for groundwater. Values for natural substances are directly derived from BGS baseline studies 1 MB pdf

Groundwater in developing countries

Quantitative maps of groundwater resources in Africa

Impacts of climate change on groundwater

Future flows and groundwater levels: projections for the 21st century

Wider programme outputs

BGS groundwater science