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Better use of groundwater in Africa: the challenge of avoiding water shortages

Water Aid / Dennis Lupenga

Contrary to many communications that point to a lack of water in Africa, a report issued by the British NGO WaterAid estimates that the region has enough water to satisfy different needs, provided that the resources are managed better.




The assertion is strong: the groundwater resources of sub-Saharan Africa are sufficient to transform farming in the region and supply its populations with enough drinking water to satisfy their needs, if the resources are managed better. 130 litres of drinking water a day per person could be supplied by the groundwater present, thereby offsetting the lack of rainfall.

This observation was made by the British NGO WaterAid, which collaborated with the British Geological Survey in the framework of a new publication “Groundwater: the world’s neglected defence against climate change”, issued on the occasion of the World Water Day. According to them, most African countries could survive at least five years of drought, and some more than 50, thanks to their groundwater reserves.

Our results demystify the myth according to which Africa lacks water. But the tragedy is that millions of people on the continent still lack drinking water. Huge reserves of water lie just under their feet, and may are recharged every year by rain and other surface waters, but they cannot get to it because their services are chronically under-financed.” for Tim Wainwright, general manager of WaterAid UK.

The intact potential of groundwater

Groundwater, which is found below the surface in aquifers, rocks and soil, makes up about 99% of all the freshwater on Earth. At present it corresponds to a quarter of all the freshwater used by human beings for irrigation and domestic use.

The challenge is obvious: at the global level, the demand for water will increase by 1% a year over the next 30 years, so the potential of groundwater must be exploited more efficiently and aquifers protected well and sustainably.

Furthermore, the latest United Nations report on water was devoted to groundwater and the need to “render the invisible visible”. Groundwater is abundant in much of Africa but not necessarily utilised: according to the report, 3% of the farmland if sub-Saharan Africa is equipped for irrigation, and groundwater is used for only 5% of this surface area.

The reason is the lack of investment which leaves farmland unexploited or poorly managed. Richard Connor, the main author and editor in chief of the United Nations report for UNESCO, also points to the shortage of trained professionals and organisations capable of developing knowhow linked to the resource.


And the need to manage it well

Although groundwater represents a genuine source of wealth for African countries, allowing irrigation and supplying clean and safe water, it is exhausted quickly or polluted if used non-sustainably.

Furthermore, in several regions of the world, the overexploitation of groundwater has already led to critical situations. In the Middle East, pumping from aquifers formed since thousands of years ago and which have remained intact for the purposes of building towns in the desert jeopardises water resources. In India, the government has been encouraging farmers to extract water for 30 years but the governance of the assistance structures to ensure the water is shared fairly and managed in the long term has not been developed, leading to rampant overexploitation, with the exhaustion of groundwater beyond its natural recharging capacity.

In other regions, groundwater is naturally contaminated by arsenic and fluoride, which can lead to illness and even death. In both South Asia and Africa groundwater is vulnerable to pollution by fertilisers and pesticides used in intensive agriculture, and by toxic products emanating from poorly regulated industrial activities or defective wastewater treatment.

It is therefore necessary to extract and use groundwater efficiently and sustainably, so it remains available for future generations. This implies investments as well as governance that associates local communities so that they are not dispossessed of a resource that is a common good. Regarding this, the Oakland Institute published another study, “Drying Out African Lands: Expansion of Large-Scale Agriculture Threatens Access to Water in Africa”, giving 15 cases of large scale agricultural projects in 11 African countries where big companies have obtained rights to exploit land and water, often for crops intended for export.


Discover the UNESCO international report on water ressources in a video

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