Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Goodnews on Groundwater in Africa: what next?

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step". -- Lao Tzu

In many places in Africa, water remains a scarce commodity. Many households travel long distances in search of water. Water availability and accessibility continues to create tension between communities and countries. When it is said that water is life and you do not understand it, come to Africa and you will come to appreciate that statement very much. On a continent that has about 60 percent of the total labor force, engaged in agricultural labor, the importance of water cannot be over-emphasised. Many communities are still struggling to get access to drinking water.

The UN suggests that each person needs 20-50 litres of safe freshwater a day to ensure their basic needs for drinking, cooking and cleaning; in most parts of Africa, this is a luxury. The population of Africans without access to improved drinking water sources increased by 61 million, from 280 million in 1990 to 341 million in 2006. Whereas the population is increasing, increases in coverage are not keeping pace with population growth. It is already established that Africa is not on track to meet the MDG drinking water target and even when the MDG drinking water target is met, 253 million Africans will still be without access to an improved drinking water source.

Agriculture in most parts of Africa is rainfall dependent; only 3 percent of land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, compared to more than 20 percent globally. Already some 218 million people in Africa, around 30 percent of the total population, are estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition. In most African countries, agriculture supports the survival and well-being of up to 70 percent of the population. So it becomes very scary when projections of climate change seem to suggest that the continent is likely to suffer from reduced rainfall; something likely to worsen the water situation of the continent.

The above information on the importance of water in the daily life of many people in Africa made me shout for joy upon learning of a positive study on groundwater resources in Africa, “Quantitative maps of groundwater resources in Africa” by MacDonald and others. In Africa, groundwater is very important to us. It is the major source of drinking water and its use for irrigation is forecast to increase substantially to combat growing food insecurity. Here are a few of the highlights of the report that made me happy:

1. Africa has huge reserves of water underground and it is estimated that total groundwater storage of 0.66 million km3 (0.36–1.75 million km3) in Africa

2. The groundwater reserve is estimated to be more than a hundred times the annual renewable freshwater resources

So, isn’t there good news? There is good news! It is also known that groundwater possesses a high resilience to climate change in Africa and should be central to adaptation strategies.

Whichever way I look at it, I think it is good news! But the issues do not end there? I asked myself the question is accessibility. How can we tap into this resource to meet our adaptation needs? The researchers found that "for many African countries appropriately sited and constructed boreholes will be able to sustain community handpumps and for most of the populated areas of Africa, groundwater levels are likely to be sufficiently shallow to be accessed using a handpump".

BUT, I won’t end without this advice: “we should not just start sinking boreholes everywhere to tap the water, like how many interventions on our continent have been handled haphazardly”. The researchers emphasise the importance of taking into consideration the rate at which this stored water can be replenished. For instance, in the arid region of North Africa where the largest groundwater reserves lie, the reserves, about seventy five meters, deep, were filled five thousand years ago when the region was much wetter. Whatever is taken out is not replenished so we need to plan well.

Whichever way I look at it, I think it is good news! The study by McDonald and others does not deal with the issues of salinization or contamination, but generally the stored water is purer than surface water, according to one of the report's authors, Helen Bonsor of the British Geological Survey.

So the report is out! Let the debate begin! Where do we go from here? Surely, there is the need for more local research in moving forward.

“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step”. -- C. S. Lewis