Is the Cape Town Time-bomb coming your way? Water Ministries and Operators need to do more to keep the water flowing

by Sean Furey (Skat) & Dr Anne Bousquet (GWOPA/UN-Habitat)

With water shortages in Cape Town, South Africa, hitting headlines worldwide, it was timely that the African Water Association (AfWA) convened their 19th Congress in Bamado, Mali around the theme of “Accelerating access to sanitation and water for all in Africa amidst the challenges of climate change”.

We were extremely fortunate that Dr Anne Bousquet of the Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Association (GWOPA) was able to attend and present the UPGro urban groundwater  study led by Prof. Stephen Foster last year. Her presentation was entitled “Groundwater – rational use to enhance urban water security under global change” [download presentation] .

Anne reflects on the presentation and the discussion with participants:


“The presentation aimed at sharing with the audience some preliminary results and reflections on a research led by Stephen Foster, on groundwater resources and utilities in tropical Africa, coordinated by Skat, the knowledge broker of the UPGro Programme (Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor).

“The research showed that where it has been possible (i.e. good quality and relatively shallow aquifers) people from both ends of the urban societies – the Poor and the Rich- have resorted to groundwater resources as one of the main sources of potable water in the cities, and gives some example of a few cities.

“For the wealthiest, costly private boreholes are resorted to because of lack of continuity of the conventional piped water supply, or as a long term economical strategy.

“For the Poor, resorting to shallow wells –unsafe but cheap water- is necessary in the absence of piped water supply. This is what Foster called the ‘self-help boom’, which may have dire consequences for the utilities relying on the same sources: potential contamination of the aquifers, unregulated competition for access to the resource and loss of many potential customers, thus reducing the available cash-flow for investment.

“Foster advocates for a rational use of groundwater in order to enhance the urban water security, with several potential advantages in doing so, such as allowing phased investment in supply expansion at a much lower capital cost (avoiding advanced treatment). Also, the lack of data on urban groundwater

“Yet, a rational use of groundwater resources requires many efforts such as a better coordination of piped and non-piped service provision and development of utility involvement and capacity for groundwater resource management and protection. For utilities, this could be done through the establishment of utility low-income user support units for the construction or operation of community stand-post boreholes and advisory/registration services for private water well users (with appropriate charging especially if generating sewer discharge).

“Ideally, well-fields should be established outside of the cities’ boundaries (with agreement between urban and rural municipalities involved on land-use controls), together with municipal water-well protection zones (to take advantage of parkland and prevent generation of polluting discharges). A series of recommendations deriving from the conclusions of the research were discussed with the audience.


“The issue of groundwater resources was rarely discussed during the AfWA Congress in Bamako, and even then never as the main focus of a session; Rather, groundwater resources were mentioned only through discussions on on-site sanitation and fecal sludge management; and the risk they pose in terms of contamination of the aquifers. AfWA doesn’t have a specific Task Force on groundwater and they only tackle this issue through the concept of Water Safety Plans (there is a specific AfWA Task Force on this topic).

“Operators expressed their concerns about the lack of regulation of the private boreholes, as they present a potential threat in terms of contamination but also because they are competitors for the same resource and at the same time their real consumption is unknown. Therefore it makes it very difficult to know about the recharge or the depletion of the aquifer (Bamako, Mali and Lome, Togo were mentioned as examples by participants).

“It seems that many countries have developed legal instruments for regulation (private boreholes should be licensed and registered) but there is an overall lack of enforcement. Also, utilities are usually not involved in resource management structures or institutions (very few river basin agencies exist in tropical Africa).

“Participants also mentioned the lack of coordination and consultation between utilities and urban planning authorities, as an important issue related to groundwater management. Local governments don’t consult with the utilities to decide on urban development, city extension etc. which means that they don’t prioritize together where new pipes should be laid, where boreholes should be located, or which zones should receive the extension of the sanitation network in priority.

“One participant from Uganda mentioned Kampala as a good example for consultation and coordination practices, as NWSC is part of a stakeholder group consulted by the Ministry of Water and Environment in charge of drilling new boreholes.

“Others emphasized also the impact on climate change and refer to the current crisis in Cape Town that makes a sustainable management and use of groundwater more crucial than ever.

“There was however a debate on the relevance of resorting more to groundwater in terms of cost (versus surface water, like in Kampala for example, as the treatment is getting more expensive with the increase pollution) and also in terms of sustainability: in Morocco, despite the availability of large aquifer, the country opted for desalination plants, leaving untapped the groundwater for future generations.

“All agreed that more research should be done, as an exhaustive mapping of the dependency of utilities on groundwater, mapping of institutions involved and identification of good practices from utilities that could be replicated.”