Dr Robinah Kulabako of Makerere University describes the research work of T-GroUP – one of five projects in the UPGro (Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor) and her work on Transition Management to trigger community action to improve access to safe water.
A new study that was recently published in the Nature scientific journal shows that groundwater is one of the most climate resilient natural resources especially for the African continent. This is contrary to the earlier understanding by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report , that groundwater was susceptible to climate change in dryland areas.
Though it has not been a subject for major discussions at the 2019 UN Conference of Parties (COP25) on climate change in Madrid, experts believe that groundwater will be at the centre of climate adaptation particularly for African countries.
Richard Taylor, a Professor of Hydrogeology from University College London (UCL) and one of the lead researchers of the Nature study explained why groundwater should be a focal point for climate discussions.
IE: How important is groundwater to climate change adaptation especially in Africa?
RT: Groundwater plays a fundamental role in enabling communities in Africa to adapt to climate change. As our world warms, rainfall becomes less frequent but more intensive resulting in longer droughts and worsening floods – changes that occur most strongly in the tropics.
Adapting to this greater variability in water resources relies on the ability to draw water from stores such as groundwater or to store water in dams for example.
For cities in Africa that have recently experienced severe droughts such as Cape Town and Dar es Salaam, groundwater has played a critical role in enabling residents in those cities to adapt to water scarcity.
Less frequent rainfalls also reduce crop yields. Increasing cropland irrigation is a critical strategy to improve food security in Africa under climate change. As smallholder farmers account for the vast majority of food production in Sub-Saharan Africa, distributed groundwater supplies are often the most cost-effective and sustainable sources of water for irrigation.
IE: How resilient or vulnerable is groundwater to climate change?
RT: Groundwater resources are generally resilient to climate change. Recent evidence from a pan-African study shows that replenishment of groundwater occurs preferentially from heavy rainfalls so that changes in rainfall brought about by climate change favour groundwater replenishment. Alas, these same changes in rainfall reduce soil moisture and lead to greater and more frequent flood events.
IE: Why do you think this subject has not been able to attract the attention of climate change negotiators for the past 25 years of negotiation?
That is a good question. Groundwater is often called the hidden or invisible resource as it lies unseen beneath our feet. Limited understanding of groundwater by both policy makers and engineers means that it is often considered mysterious or unknowable.
The impact of climate change on groundwater resources has been largely ignored by the climate change community until last year when it was captured in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.
This is surprising in light of the critical role groundwater plays in sustaining rivers, lakes and other aquatic ecosystems during low or absent rainfall.
IE: What do you think should be done to bring the groundwater subject to the helm of climate negotiations?
RT: There is need for raising awareness of the critical role of groundwater to improving the resilience of water and food systems in Africa in relation to climate change.
It is in that regard that scientists from different parts of the world are issuing a Call to Action this week, through a statement published in the Nature journal, which argue that we are not doing enough to protect and manage global groundwater resources, which will have long-term effects on the planet’s drinking water, food production, and adaptation to a rapidly changing climate.
This statement focuses on the global role of groundwater in relation to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Framework for Action on Groundwater Governance, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.
It builds on previous important declarations and statements, including the Valencia declaration on Intensive Groundwater Use (2002), the Kampala statement on Groundwater and Climate in Africa (2008), ISMAR9 call to Action on Sustainable Groundwater Management Policy Directives (2016).
This call has so far been endorsed by over 700 scientists and practitioners in over 80 countries and is timed to coincide with the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference in Madrid (COP 25) and the beginning of the Decade of Action on the UN Agenda 2030.
IE: What kind of policies should African governments put in place in order to ensure sustainable use of groundwater?
RT: African governments could do two things. One, they could increase investment in understanding their groundwater resources through the training of staff and the monitoring and evaluation of their groundwater resources.
Two, they could integrate groundwater into its evaluation and governance of water resources more holistically that is currently dominated by concern for surface waters.
In light of the central importance of groundwater to adaptation to climate change, African governments could use support under the Green Climate Fund to finance the implications of these policy recommendations.
UPGro Ambassador, Dr Callist Tindimugaya, attended last month’s COP meeting in Madrid – the United Nations global negotiation meeting to try an agree ways forward to tackle climate change.
He was attending as part of the Government of Uganda delegation to bring forward opportunities and challenges – in particular the key role of groundwater as a resource that can help buffer against some of the effects of shifting rainfall patterns across Eastern Africa.
Rapid urban population growth has led to a boom in private well construction to access groundwater supplies. Evidence from four Indian cities highlights the need for coherent public policy to harmonise private and public investment in urban water supply. By Mohammad Faiz Alam and Stephen Foster.
Drilling for water is only useful if there is good water to be had now and into the future. Since 2013, researchers in the UK-funded programme Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor, have been working all over Africa to understand better the continent’s aquifers and how their hidden wealth can be used to benefit everyone. Now after years of patient work, exciting results and resources are emerging.
One is that the Africa Groundwater Atlas, curated by the British Geological Survey now has downloadable GIS maps for 38 countries. They are quite large scale, so not detailed enough for individual borehole siting, but a good starting point for identifying where major aquifers are. This supports the wealth of other useful information, in English and French, on the soils, climate and groundwater use in all 52 of Africa’s countries.
Industry is growing along Kenya’s coast, and some of these companies – such as mining and agricultural companies – are water intensive. To meet their demand, most industries are turning to groundwater.
Groundwater is a natural resource that exists beneath the earth’s surface in soil pore spaces and in the fractures of rock formations. It can be stored in, or move through, aquifers: a body of permeable rock – like gravel or sand.
Groundwater has many intrinsic advantages: it can be developed quickly (and at a relatively low cost), it’s easy to find, it’s drought resilient and can meet water needs on demand. This has made it a crucial component in rural water supply, and for industry.
The problem is, even though Kenya has policies, laws, and institutions that are specifically dedicated to managing groundwater, in practice, groundwater is treated as a common pool resource, belonging to whoever owns the land overlying the aquifer. The majority of water users ignore the potential long-term consequences of unregulated use.
This is what’s happening in Kwale county, on the southern coast of Kenya. Over half a billion US dollars in capital investment has been made in two water-reliant industries in Kwale: heavy sands mining and commercial sugarcane. In addition to this Kwale also hosts significant tourism.
Because aquifers in Kenya are not always properly managed, my colleagues and I wanted to know how increased abstraction of groundwater by industries could affect local communities that use groundwater as their main water supply.
We found that, at the moment, the new industries are not affecting the water supply for local communities. What is affecting the community wells are long drought periods, such as the last drought which lasted from 2016 to early 2017. The consequences of dry wells are that people have to walk further to get water, and water becomes more expensive to buy.
For industry, understanding investor risk and liability for groundwater sustainability would seem prudent, if not a legal obligation, before major abstraction starts.
Our research shows that groundwater resources can be significant and resilient to unpredictable but recurrent drought events, if understood and managed properly.
We focused our study on the Msambweni aquifer, located on the coast of Kwale county in Kenya. This aquifer system is composed of a shallow aquifer (about 25 metres thick) and a deep aquifer below this shallow aquifer (about 350 metres thick).
The shallow aquifer is recharged by rain through the ground surface and the deep aquifer is recharged by water that flows underground from the Shimba Hills.
The shallow aquifer is mainly exploited by the local rural communities and the hotels located near the coastline. The deep aquifer is exploited by the mining and sugar operations.
The communities rely heavily on shallow groundwater, which they get from wells or by using a handpump in a borehole, because they don’t have piped water, and water from the two main rivers in the area is not considered safe to drink. Also, in the 1980s, the Swedish International Development Agency installed hundreds of handpumps at boreholes in Kwale county.
Industries now also rely on groundwater. But they use new boreholes, equipped with electrical pumps, that reach the deep aquifer. These have higher abstraction rates than traditional dug wells or shallow boreholes equipped with handpumps.
When investigating whether these users are using the groundwater sustainably, it’s important to point out that sustainability is variable through time. Not all water users exploit the same aquifer layers.
At present, the main industries in the area exploit the deep aquifer because it’s more resilient to drought. So the industries aren’t affecting the shallow community wells.
However, this could change. If droughts become more frequent, or last longer, there will be less groundwater stored.
It’s important to highlight the data challenges we faced, and how we reached our findings.
We tried to define the groundwater abstraction of all the main users, but couldn’t. As in many other countries, abstraction data for wells and boreholes is difficult to get.
So we needed to come up with a new methodology to estimate how much abstraction was happening in areas with uncertain or no data.
Collaboration between stakeholders during this study was essential.
Most of the time, water-reliant users such as the industries collect specific hydrogeological information, like aquifer storage or how much they pump, because they’re trying to use the water efficiently.
We also identified hotels, noted the number of their rooms and interviewed hotel managers to estimate tourism abstraction along the coast using easy tools like Google Earth and TripAdvisor.
Alongside this, it was important to develop a monitoring network, covering the whole aquifer area. We used well measurements to get an idea of the aquifer system, its volume and dynamics, and assess the sustainability of abstraction.
While this data pointed to a scenario where industry was having a minimal impact, things could change.
Enterprises and government may find environmental sustainability of secondary importance to advancing economic production, creating local jobs and new sources of taxation. Government leadership is needed to manage the aquifer as a system for all, including environmental services, rather than for the powerful few.
Albert Folch, Mike Lane, Daniel Olago, Jacob Katuva, Patrick Thomson, Sonia Jou, Rob Hope and Emilio Custodio were key contributors to this study
This study was funded from the UK Government via NERC, ESRC and DFID as part of the Gro for GooD project (UPGro Consortium Grant: NE/M008894/1). Nuria Ferrer is affiliated with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (DECA), Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), Jordi Girona 1-3, 08034 Barcelona, Spain. Associated Unit: Hydrogeology Group (UPC-CSIC), Spain.
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (PAMACC News) – Delegates at the Africa Climate Risks Conference have been informed that groundwater is more resilient to extreme climatic conditions especially in arid and semi arid areas, contrary to earlier beliefs – that the resource was vulnerable to the changing climatic conditions.
“Through a project known as Groundwater Futures in Africa, we analysed the relationship between climate change and variability and groundwater in 14 sites in Africa,” Martin Todd, a Professor of Climate Change at the University of Sussex, Department of Geography.
“What we found is that in arid regions, there was episodic recharge, which occur mainly as a result of intense storms that happen every few years, and sometimes even in years of low total precipitation,” said
This, according to the scientist, it means that climate plays a dominant role in controlling the process by which groundwater is restocked.
Generally, it means that extreme periodic flooding is what recharges aquifers in such arid and semi arid areas, providing a lifeline and livelihoods for people who depend on groundwater in such areas.
The findings, which have since been published in the Nature scientific journal contradicts the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which states that ‘climate change over the twenty-first century is projected to reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions, intensifying competition for water among sectors.’
According to Prof Todd, groundwater is generally overlooked in terms of climate impact, and it is also an overlooked resource in Africa and underutilised compared to other continents.
“With the rapid population growth and quest for development, there is going to be huge demand on water resources, and therefore we expect that groundwater is a resource that will be heavily developed in the future because climate change and variability is going to place increasing threat to surface water,” he said.
The new findings from the study, which was supported by the United Kingdom research councils (Natural Environment Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), the Department for International Development (DFID) and The Royal Society also highlight the need for improvements in models of climate and hydrology.
The report indicates that climate models that can better predict the variability and intensity of precipitation events at the local scale, as well as the large scale, would allow hydrological models to better represent replenishment processes.
Given a fact that extreme floods can be predicted up to nine months in advance, the researchers say that there is a possibility of designing schemes to enhance groundwater recharge by capturing a portion of flood discharges via a process known as Managed Aquifer Recharge.
According to the British Geological survey, successful and sustainable development of groundwater resources in Africa is critical for future safe water supplies, economic growth and food security in the continent.
The findings have come at a time several cities across the continent are beginning to exploit the groundwater, which has for long been considered a hidden resource.
So far, groundwater plays a central role in sustaining water supplies and livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa due to its widespread availability, generally high quality, and intrinsic ability to buffer episodes of drought and increasing climate variability.
Given the drying rivers and streams, and unpredictable rainfall patterns, groundwater is likely going to be a golden resource in Africa’s rural communities both for domestic consumption and irrigation.
Humans take the water we need, be it for drinking or irrigation, from one of two sources: surface water, contained in lakes, rivers and reservoirs; and groundwater, in which water flows through porous rocks beneath the ground. In the UK, how much we rely on the latter depends on where we live and the type of rock which makes up the land (not at all in Scotland; quite a bit in London, where groundwater is rising in parts). But in much of sub-Saharan Africa, groundwater is a vital resource. It is often the only source of clean drinking water in rural areas and its use is also increasing in cities. Working out how groundwater levels will react to climate change is therefore vital.
AMCOW, the intergovernmental apex body on water in Africa, was established in 2002 with its secretariat in Abuja, Nigeria, to provide political oversight and promote cooperation, security, social and economic development, and poverty eradication among member states.
The aim is to achieve this through the effective management of the continent’s water resources, and the provision of water supply and sanitation services.In recognition of the importance of groundwater to the continent’s sustainable development, a continent-wide strategic groundwater initiative was part of the resolution of AMCOW’s Sixth Ordinary Session in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, in May 2007.
While initial ambitions evolved around formalizing the initiative as an African Groundwater Commission, subsequent attempts and further analysis carried out at several meetings, including the Technical Advisory Meeting and Africa Groundwater Stakeholders Workshop in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2017, and the 7th Africa Water Week in Libreville, Gabon, in 2018, resulted in the initiative being invigorated as the strategic APAGroP.
APAGroP strongly aligns with the AMCOW strategy for the period 2018-2030, guiding its activities and the continent towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the Africa Water Vision 2025 and the AfricaSan Ngor Commitments for sanitation and hygiene.
Dr. Canisius Kanangire, Executive Secretary, AMCOW, expressed his appreciation and satisfaction with the present momentum, and support towards consolidating and further rolling out the Pan-African Groundwater Program (APAGroP).
The Experts’ and Stakeholders’ workshop provided background presentations of APAGroP as well as fruitful deliberation on the state of knowledge and management of groundwater in the African continent.
Presentations were made by AMCOW, international and African research institutions, Regional Economic Communities:
Economic Community of Central African States [ECCAS],
Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS],
Intergovernmental Authority on Development [IGAD],
international and intergovernmental organizations:
Center for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe [CEDARE],
Observatoire du Sahara et du Sahel [OSS]), as well as key international river basin organizations
African Network of Basin Organizations [ANBO]) and financing institutions.
The workshop was supported by AMCOW; a recent Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) networking grant to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the British Geological Survey (BGS); and the successful research program – Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor (UPGro),
It helped crystalize a way forward in further harnessing and harvesting best knowledge and practice around groundwater to support sustainable development in the continent. GRIPP was strongly represented at the workshop through the following partners:
Research can only make a difference it is seen and understood by the people who can use it to make a difference. This is why UPGro is delighted to be participating in the new African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) Pan-African Groundwater Program (APAGP).
Today in Nairobi, is day one of a two-day workshop to discuss and plan how the new program will work and brings together a critical mass of national and international decision-makers and experts, facilitated by Dr Andy Bullock from the UPGro Knowledge Broker Team and Dr Kirsty Upton and Dr Karen Villholth of UPGro, Groundwater for Resilience in Africa Network (GRAN) and GRIPP. There will be inputs from senior UPGro researchers, including Prof. Japhet Kashaigili, Prof. Seifu Kebede, Dr Yahaya Nazoumou, and UPGro Ambassadors from the Africa Groundwater Network, Dr Callist Tindimugaya and Prof. Moustapha Diene.
We are looking forward to find practical ways to support this Pan-African initiative to strengthen sustainable groundwater management and use.