African aquifers can protect against climate change

Groundwater storage for Africa based on the effective porosity and saturated aquifer thickness. Panel (a) shows a map of groundwater storage expressed as water depth in millimetres with modern annual recharge for comparison (Döll and Fiedler 2008). Panel (b) shows the volume of groundwater storage for each country; the error bars are calculated by recalculating storage using the full ranges of effective porosity and thickness for each aquifer, rather than the best estimate. Annual renewable freshwater availability (FAO 2005) generally used in water scarcity assessments is shown for comparison (from MacDonald 2012)

Floods and droughts, feasts and famines: the challenge of living with an African climate has always been its variability, from the lush rainforests of the Congo to the extreme dry of the Sahara and Namib deserts. In north western Europe, drizzle and rain is generally spread quite evenly across the year, as anyone who has gone camping in British summer will tell you. But when annual rainfall happens within just a few months or weeks of the year then it is a massive challenge for farmers, towns and industry to access enough water through long dry seasons and to protect themselves and their land from flooding and mudslides when the rains come.

New research[1] suggests that Africa’s aquifers could be the key to managing water better. Professor Richard Taylor at UCL explains: “What we found is that groundwater in tropical regions – and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular – is primarily replenished from intense rainfall events – heavy downpours. This means that aquifers are an essential way of storing the heavy rain from the rainy season for use during the dry season, and for keeping rivers flowing.”

Many African climates are variable now, but are becoming even more unpredictable with climate change. So how can heavy rain be directed underground more effectively?

Award-winning UPGro research[2],[3] found a way, in Tigray Regional State in Ethiopia. MetaMeta[4] of the Netherlands, together with its partners Mekelle University[5] and Tigray Government looked at ways and means of collecting water with the roads – from culverts, drains, borrow pits, road surface, river crossings, as these have massive impact on how rain run-off moves across a landscape. The idea then scaled up quickly – in 2014 the Tigray Government implemented road water harvesting activities in all its districts. The results have been spectacular in increased water tables, better soil moisture, reduced erosion from roads, less local flooding and moreover much better crop yields. Their guidebook “How to Make Water Wise Roads” [6] helps others who want to apply these methods in their own areas.

Professor Taylor: “Having a buffer is essential to protect people and livelihoods from extreme hydrological events; groundwater can play an important role, but aquifers need to be well understood, well managed, and this needs good data and competent hydrogeologists in each of these countries. This is what GroFutures[7], and the other UPGro research projects, are working on.”

The GroFutures project will be hosting a workshop 31st March 2016 in Iringa, Tanzania to examine the potential of groundwater to expand irrigation and increase access to safe water in Tanzania.

Further information:[8]

UPGro GroFutures:

Professor Japhet Kashaigili (SUA):
Professor Richard Taylor (UCL): +44 (0)207 679 0591

UPGro Road Recharge

Dr Frank van Steenbergen (MetaMeta): +31 (0)73 62 38 206

NERC media office
01793 411939
07785 459139

Figure – Groundwater storage for Africa based on the effective porosity and saturated aquifer thickness. Map is of groundwater storage expressed as water depth in millimetres with modern annual recharge for comparison (MacDonald et al 2012 – this work led to the UPGro programme being established)

[1] Jasechko, S & Taylor, R.G ‘Intensive rainfall recharges tropical groundwaters’  Environmental Research Letters 11 December 2015

[2]Optimising Road Development for Groundwater Recharge and Retention” was one of fifteen UPGro ‘Catalyst’ projects. More details on this project can be found at

[3] “UPGro – Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor” is a seven-year international research programme (2013-2019) which is jointly funded by UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and in principle the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It focuses on improving the evidence base around groundwater availability and management in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to enable developing countries and partners in SSA to use groundwater in a sustainable way in order to benefit the poor. UPGro projects are interdisciplinary, linking the social and natural sciences to address this challenge. They will be delivered through collaborative partnerships of the world’s best researchers. The programme’s success will be measured by the way that its research generates new knowledge which can be used to benefit the poor in a sustainable manner.



[6] Steenbergen, F. van, K. Woldearegay, H.M. van Beusekom, D. Garcia Landarte, and M. Al-Abyadh (2014) “How to Make Water Wise Roads” IFAD, Rome


[8] More details can be found on ; The Knowledge Broker for UPGro is Skat Foundation, based in St Gallen, Switzerland. Contact: Sean Furey ( for more information.

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