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OPINION: Tapping the hidden potential of southern Africa’s groundwater

by James Sauramba | SADC Groundwater Management Institute
Thursday, 16 July 2020 20:15 GMT

Cracks are seen in the dried up municipal dam in drought-stricken Graaff-Reinet, South Africa, November 14, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The answer to the region's worsening water shortages may lie beneath its feet

James Sauramba is executive director of the SADC Groundwater Management Institute. 

Southern Africa is one of the most climate-vulnerable places in the world, where rising temperatures, increasingly variable rainfall and a rapidly growing population are exacerbating pressures on already depleted water resources.

Adapting to this new climate reality will not be easy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stressed that southern Africa’s adaptation efforts are currently insufficient for managing the long-term effects of climate change, confirming the need for more ambitious solutions at scale.

As the region’s policy makers explore strategies to navigate emerging climate scenarios, one solution lies right beneath their feet – groundwater. This resource has the potential to play a much greater role in social, economic and environmental sustainability.

In comparison to Southern Africa’s dwindling lakes and rivers, groundwater is a resilient yet under-utilised resource less vulnerable to the effects of low and more variable rainfall. As such, it may offer the region’s best hope of averting a ‘water crisis’ that threatens livelihoods and fragile ecosystems. 

Southern Africa’s groundwater is not entirely neglected. Within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), it represents 20% of water currently consumed by the agricultural sector. It is also widely used by households.

However, despite 70% of the SADC population – some 280 million people – relying on groundwater as their primary source of water, the resource is often of poor quality, not always safe and mostly inaccessible.    

And current extraction rates – around 2,500 cubic metres per capita per year – represent only 1.5% of the renewable groundwater resources available. This means that groundwater remains largely untapped at a time when the gap between water demand and availability is growing. 

Used sustainably, groundwater could provide potable water for the estimated 40% of SADC inhabitants that currently lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation services. It could also alleviate pressure on the region’s surface water and help communities endure dry spells. And, groundwater extraction could support sustainable smallholder agriculture, strengthening food security and supporting resilient livelihoods. 

Much of southern Africa’s groundwater is stored in 30 vast transboundary aquifers. This means that large-scale and sustained utilisation of southern Africa’s groundwater requires a regional approach and a shared understanding of groundwater dynamics.

However, many have been slow to explore groundwater’s benefits: the resource is not yet adequately addressed in national or regional policy, legal and regulatory frameworks.  

The SADC Groundwater Management Institute (SADC- GMI), funded by the Global Environment Facility and Cooperation in International Waters in Africa, was set up as a centre of excellence to promote equitable and sustainable groundwater management. It has been developing strategies for every one of Southern Africa’s transboundary aquifers and implementing several initiatives to address the region’s groundwater challenges.

The initiatives include capacity strengthening for SADC member states on improved data collection and management; identifying gaps in existing policies and institutional frameworks; research targeting transboundary water resources management; and small-scale projects that demonstrate practical solutions.     

The challenge, however, is mobilising sufficient funding to extend these measures. Although there are notable exceptions, funders continue to prioritise large-scale surface water infrastructure; and when they do fund groundwater projects these are mostly confined to small-scale projects.

With our partners, including the Climate Resilient Infrastructure Development Facility, supported by UK aid, we are now encouraging major funders to shift their priorities.

Extraction at scale requires additional funding to address knowledge gaps and undertake further research to quantify the amount of water stored in southern Africa’s aquifers, estimate recharge rates and optimal extraction levels, and conduct cost–benefit analyses. 

A lack of affordable extraction technologies is another obstacle that donor funding can help to address. The hand-dug wells that communities often rely upon cannot provide water throughout the year, and deeper wells require unaffordable energy-powered pumps.

More cost-effective alternatives like solar-powered pumps are beyond the means of most farmers. And in some locations, ageing infrastructure requires urgent rehabilitation.  

With additional funds to implement these measures and support the ongoing work of SADC-GMI and its partners, Southern Africa can seize a unique opportunity to address the region’s emerging water crisis, strengthen its climate resilience and improve the livelihoods of its people.