by Isaiah Esipisu for the PAMACC News Agency
Photo: A hydrogeologist measuring the water table in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (I. Esipisu)
NAIROBI, Kenya (PAMACC News) – new study has revealed that use of hand-pumped boreholes to access deeper groundwater is the most resilient way of adapting to droughts caused by climate change for rural communities in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.
This comes amid concerns by scientists that the resource, which is hidden underground, is not well understood on the continent especially in the Sub Saharan Africa region.
According to a new study that compared performances of rural water supply techniques during drought periods in Ethiopia, scientists from the British Geological Survey (BGS) in collaboration with their colleagues from Addis Ababa University found that boreholes accessing deep (30 meters or more) groundwater were resilient to droughts.
The study, which was published in the Nature scientific Journal on March 4, further found that boreholes fitted with hand-pumps, had highest overall functionality during the monitoring period compared to motorised pumps in.
“While motorised boreholes generally also access even deeper groundwater, repairs [in rural settings] are more difficult and may take longer, resulting in lower levels of functionality as compared to hand-pumps,” explained Dr Donald John MacAllister, the lead author and a hydrogeologist from the British Geological Survey.
At the same time, the scientists observed that springs, open sources and protected wells experienced large declines in functionality, undermining, in particular, the water security of many lowland households who rely on these source types.
“By comparison, motorised, and crucially hand-pumped, boreholes which access deeper groundwater performed best during the drought,” said Seifu Kebede, a former Associate Professor of Hydrogeology for Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, and one of the researchers. Prof Kabede has since moved to the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa.
In collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Addis Ababa University and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), experts at the BGS examined the performance of a wide range of water source types, using a unique dataset of more than 5000 individual water points collected by UNICEF in rural Ethiopia during the 2015-16 drought.
In August last year, another study headed by scientists from the University College London (UCL) refuted earlier beliefs that groundwater was susceptible to climate change, and instead confirmed that extreme climate events characterised by floods were extremely significant in recharging groundwater aquifers in drylands across sub-Saharan Africa, making them important for climate change adaptation.
“Our study reveals, for the first time, how climate plays a dominant role in controlling the process by which groundwater is restocked,” said Richard Taylor, a Professor of Hydrogeology at the UCL.
However, experts believe that for African continent to take advantage of the groundwater resources, there is need to invest in research, in order to understand the nature of aquifers underground, how they are recharged, their sizes, their geography, how they behave in different climatic conditions, the quality of water therein, and how they can be protected.
According to Prof Daniel Olago, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geology, University of Nairobi, in Africa, groundwater in Africa remains a hidden resource that has not been studied exhaustively.
“When people want to access groundwater, they ask experts to go out there and do a hydro-geophysical survey basically to site a borehole without necessarily understanding the characteristics of that particular aquifer,” he said.
African Ministers Council on Water (AMCOW) estimates the volume of groundwater in Africa to be 0.66 million km3, which is more than 100 times the annual renewable freshwater resources. “But since it is hidden underground, it remains under-valued and underutilised,” said Dr Paul Orengoh, the Director of Programs at the council’s secretariat.
In October last year during a meeting in Nairobi, AMCOW launched an initiative that will help member states understand their groundwater resources, manage it sustainable, and use it for poverty alleviation in their respective countries.
According to Dr Orengoh, the AMCOW Pan-African Groundwater Programme (APAGroP) seeks to improve the policy and practice of groundwater in Africa for better lives and livelihoods in all the 55 member countries.
The BGS has already developed the ‘Africa Groundwater Atlas,’ which is a literature archive that avails all information about groundwater in Africa, published and unpublished (grey) on an online platform.
“Our aim is to provide a systematic summary of groundwater resources for each African country, compiled in collaboration with country hydrogeologists,” said Dr Kirsty Upton, a Hydrologist at the BGS.
So far, millions of households in Africa rely on groundwater for domestic and partly for agriculture production. However, scientists still believe that the resource is largely underutilised.
Studies have indicated that at least 320 million people in Africa lack access to safe water supplies. The problem is further exacerbated by frequent droughts caused by climate change.
“If well understood, groundwater has the potential of bridging the water scarcity gap, thus, reducing poverty on the African continent,” Prof Olago told PAMACC News.
The study in Ethiopia recommends investment in motorised boreholes and most importantly, investment in hand-pumps.
“In the face of climate change, the resilience of rural water supplies in East Africa is best achieved by prioritising access to groundwater via multiple improved sources and a portfolio of technologies, supported by on-going monitoring and responsive and proactive operation and maintenance,” said Dr MacAllister.
“What remains a major concern is lack of access to appropriate skills and expertise, spare parts and, for motorised systems the fuel, that is required to keep rural water supplies functioning, factors that are particularly challenging to ensure when demand on water sources increases during drought.”