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UNESCO Hosts Meeting to Manage World's Aquifers

Water experts are meeting in Paris this week to discuss ways countries can cooperate on managing one of our planet's most precious resources - underground aquifers.

Most of us know the importance of rivers and lakes in providing us with drinking water.

But the vast majority of fresh water does not come from these bodies. Underground aquifers represent nearly 96 percent of the world's fresh water. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Malta and Tunisia, aquifers are often the only source of fresh water.

Groundwater coordinator Alicia Aureli, of the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, says many of the 273 known aquifers in the world are shared by several countries. "For human being, these reserves are crucially important. We have definitely to pursue countries to go together, to sit together, to cooperate and jointly manage these resources in order to avoid future problems for new generations - contaminations and dispersions of these resources," she said.

It is much harder to gather information about aquifers than about rivers or lakes because they cannot be mapped using satellite imagery. But recently some countries have forged agreements to manage aquifers they share, including one reached in August by four Latin American states.

Climate change is another critical factor says Shammy Pui, secretary general of the International Association of Hydrogeologists. "Aquifers, and fresh water in any sense, plays a very important role in the global climate variability that is increasing in the planet. One of the things underground waters and aquifers can do is to provide the buffer to severe drought conditions that appear every so often," Pui said.

The UNESCO aquifer conference paves the way for a possible international convention on transboundary aquifers that the United Nations will discuss next year.