Groundwater – a hidden resource that has always evaded UN climate talks

By Isaiah Esipisu

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.

Groundwater, which comprises 99 percent of the Earth’s liquid water, amounts to more than 100 times that of annual river discharge in Africa.

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.

Photo: Richard Taylor, UCL

Trickle-down effect: why groundwater recharge processes matter for climate resilience

by Sean Furey (Skat/UPGro Knowledge Broker) in GeoDrilling International

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.

Continue reading Trickle-down effect: why groundwater recharge processes matter for climate resilience

Importance of groundwater stressed at climate conference

by Isaiah Esipisu via PAMACC

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.

Photo: Isaiah Esipisu

 

“Groundwater levels in nine African countries raise hopes for a more resilient future” Geographical Magazine

UPGro Grofutures /Cardiff University work is featured in this month’s print and online version of Geographical Magazine, the popular science magazine of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), in London.

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.

Read on here

New state-of-the-art research collection on groundwater sustainability across Sub-Saharan Africa

An important new collection of papers has just been published online in the Hydrogeology Journal:

Substantial increases in groundwater withdrawals are expected across Sub-Saharan Africa to help nations increase access to safe water and to amplify agricultural production in pursuit of UN SDG 2 and SDG 6.  Long-term groundwater-level records or chronicles play an important role in developing an improved understanding of the hydrogeological and climatic conditions that control access and sustain well yields, informing where, when and how groundwater withdrawals can sustainably contribute to building resilience and alleviating poverty.

There are four papers in the collection (and an overview essay) that provide a sample of the new research outputs emanating from The Chronicles Consortium and UPGro GroFutures:

  • Evidence from chronicles in seasonally humid Benin and Uganda show annual cycles of replenishment from direct, diffuse recharge generated preferentially by heavy rainfalls. Kotchoni et al. show how chronicles from different geological environments in Benin can be modelled very effectively on a daily timestep with an improved watertable fluctuation model.
  • In semi-arid southwestern Niger, chronicles show that recharge to weathered crystalline rock aquifer systems occurs directly from rainfall but is restricted by a thick clayey aquitard developed from schist. However, greater recharge is shown to occur indirectly via riverbeds of ephemeral streams which provide preferential pathways through the saprolite.
  • Evidence from the Makutapora Wellfield of semi-arid central Tanzania that groundwater, abstracted at rates exceeding 30,000 m3/day, is sustained by episodic recharge associated with El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Further, abstracted groundwater is partially modern, derived from rainfall within the last 10–60 years.
  • Studies from Benin and Niger highlight the low storage of weathered crystalline rock aquifers and the importance of modern recharge in sustaining groundwater use. The low storage and low but highly variable hydraulic conductivity of weathered and fractured crystalline rock aquifers found over more than 40% of Sub-Saharan Africa may, however, have a potential advantage. Such aquifer systems restrict opportunities for intensive and competitive abstraction and are thus potentially self-regulating. Low-intensity groundwater abstraction distributed across the landscape also complements existing land-tenure systems in many areas of Sub-Saharan Africa dominated by smallholder agriculturalists.
  • The chronicles provide invaluable datasets to help direct assessments of past impacts of climate variability—e.g. ENSO, Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO)— and abstraction on groundwater storage. Such records, when continuously updated, can also provide key input to water resources management by tracking emerging risks to water security from groundwater storage decline or groundwater flooding (e.g. Murray et al. 2018).
  • Regional-scale (>50,000 km2) networks of long-term piezometric records can also be used to test the reliability of largescale, satellite observations from the Gravity Anomaly and Climate Experiment (GRACE). Indeed, the emergence of GRACE measurements of changes in total terrestrial water storage adds a potential tool, albeit at a much larger scale (>200,000 km2), to estimate changes in groundwater storage where records do not exist. However, there are substantial uncertainties from such estimates.

For full details read:

Please note that all five papers are open until 30 April, after which only 3 of the papers will be Open Access.

Text adapted from Topical Collection: Determining groundwater sustainability from long-term piezometry in Sub-Saharan Africa

3 new UPGro papers + Groundwater to be the UN-Water theme for 2022

We are delighted to report that UN-Water, the coordinating body for water issues across the United Nations, in a meeting this week agreed to make the theme of the 2022 World Water Development Report and World Water Day: “Groundwater: making the invisible visible” http://enb.iisd.org/water/un/30/html/enbplus82num34e.html

Meanwhile three new UPGro papers have recently been published:

“Groundwater hydrodynamics of an Eastern Africa coastal aquifer, including La Niña 2016–17 drought”

Núria Ferrera; Albert Folch; Mike Lane; Daniel Olago; JuliusOdida; Emilio Custodio  (Gro for GooD)

Key Points

  • An East African costal aquifer was characterized before and during La Niña 2016/17.
  • The recharge was reduced 69% compared to average annual rainfall.
  • Lower recharge during first and nil recharge during the second wet season
  • No important groundwater quality changes observed inland
  • Increase of seawater intrusion even during the wet season

This paper is accessible from here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969719302177?dgcid=coauthor until 13 March

“A case for urban liveability from below: exploring the politics of water and land access for greater liveability in Kampala, Uganda”

Maryam Nastar, Jennifer Isoke, Robinah Kulabako & Giorgia Silvestri (T-GroUP) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13549839.2019.1572728

Key Points

  • Despite efforts of local governments and NGOs to put public service delivery systems in place, there is a gap between goals and actual impacts on citizens’ quality of life
  • Decentralisation has faced challenges from the emergence of national partisan political struggles in local areas.
  • Pre-paid standpipes were installed with magnetic charge cards handed out for free. Initially a UGX25 card top-up bought 4 jerry cans (20l), overtime this reduced to 3 jerry cans. If a card was lost or stolen then a replacement cost users UGX15,000-25,000, which was unaffordable to many slum dwellers who then bought water from the standpipe caretakers for UGX 100-250/jerry can. Intermittent water supply from pre-paid meters is another factor making residents seek alternative water sources – generally unsafe springs, or from vendors and resellers at UGX 200-1,000 per jerry can.
  • Water is just one problem for residents – access roads, waste disposal, expensive school fees and high youth unemployment also mentioned in interviews.
  • Local elections have not happened as mandated because the government fears they will lead to social unrest. This has contribute to resident distrust of local government. 
  • Land ownership is a major barrier to water access and sustainability: there are no clear land records and there are many layers of complexity involving landlords, tenants, the city and traditional authorities.  Changing the land title from private to communal for WASH facilities is essential.
  • Political parties do sometimes co-opt community leaders and demobilise communities, but they can also create political spaces for debate on governance, rules and policies.
  • Strong social capital/networks and trust can help mobilise community power and resources, but can exclude some residents from decision-making processes.
  • NGOs, universities and social movements can play a crucial role in magnifying the ability of communities to act together and achieve liveability goals.

Transition Management for Improving the Sustainability of WASH Services in Informal Settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa—An Exploration. 

Silvestri, G.; Wittmayer, J.M.; Schipper, K.; Kulabako, R.; Oduro-Kwarteng, S.; Nyenje, P.; Komakech, H.; Van Raak, R. (T-GroUP) https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/11/4052

Key points:

  • “Transition Management” is a participatory planning technique developed for addressing sustainability issues in Europe. The UPGro T-GroUP project is one of the few examples of trying to apply the method in another context: Kampala (Uganda), Arusha (Tanzania), Dodowa (Ghana).
  • The authors identify five contextual factors that account for unsustainable WASH services:
    • Access to water and sanitation in informal settlements comprises a mosaic of formal and informal practices, water sources, sanitation facilities, behaviours and actors.
    • Fragmented and low governance capacity. Low levels of trust between actors.
    • Landownership: unequal and skewed. In Kampala, water and sanitation projects failed due to land conflict; landowners ‘donated’ land for the facilities but after some years later they would take back possession of the land and deny access to the facilities without paying.
    • Public participation in general and WASH services in particular:  more vulnerable community members are excluded
    • Unequal access to WASH services, for example water price varying on social status, with women being disproportionately disadvantaged. Low access to education plays a crucial role.
  • Transition Management was developed based on liberal representative democracies, but this experience in Sub-Saharan Africa suggests that here it needs to be about enlarging and strengthening democratic space  – as a method it is not neutral or universal but shaped by cultural norms and expectations.

:: New UPGro paper :: Characteristics of high-intensity groundwater abstractions from weathered crystalline bedrock aquifers in East Africa

Maurice, L., Taylor, R.G., Tindimugaya, C. et al. Characteristics of high-intensity groundwater abstractions from weathered crystalline bedrock aquifers in East Africa Hydrogeol J (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10040-018-1836-9

From the GroFutures Consortium project and Groundwater Recharge Catalyst project

Background

Crystalline Bedrock aquifers underlie about 40% of Sub-Saharan Africa and can generally sustain low-intensity abstraction. However, pumping rates and dependency is increasing in many areas, particularly for cities like Addis Ababa, Dakar, Nairobi and Dodoma. Projected growth in population and water demand for agriculture, plus the effects of climate change, mean that it is essential to develop a better understanding of the sustainable yields from these types of aquifers.   

Key Points:

  • The study focuses on five groundwater abstraction boreholes, 3 in Uganda, 2 in Tanzania.
  • Long term groundwater records are only available for one of the boreholes and it shows that recharge happens more when the rainfall is more intense, which is often associated with periodic El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events.
  • Chemical analysis of the water was used to determine the residence times of the groundwater (how long the water has been in the aquifer since it fell as rain). Overall, that most pumped water comes from modern recharge (within the last 10-60 years), so while abstractions are not mining pre-modern groundwater, there may be a component of older water that is coming out.
  • Groundwater abstraction appears to be supported by recharge from across multiple years, rather than just the most recent wet season.
  • The investigation of the five sites shows that long term, high intensity groundwater abstraction is possible from East African weathered crystalline basement aquifers, but the sustainability is constrained, in part, by the high inter-annual variability in recharge. Therefore operation of such pumping stations needs to include sustained monitoring of groundwater levels, pumping rates and rainfall as a minimum.

 

:: New UPGro paper :: Insights from a Multi-method recharge comparison study (Ethiopia)

A new paper from AMGRAF UPGro Catalyst (which has continued with support from the REACH programme).

Walker, D. , Parkin, G. , Schmitter, P. , Gowing, J. , Tilahun, S. A., Haile, A. T. and Yimam, A. Y. (2018), Insights From a Multi‐Method Recharge Estimation Comparison Study. Groundwater. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gwat.12801

Key Points:

  • A recharge assessment was conducted at a study site in Northwest Ethiopia (Dangila woreda)
  • 9 groundwater recharge estimate techniques were used with a total of 17 variations were applied to a shallow aquifer
  • These gave a wide range of values from 45mm/year to 814 mm/year
  • The most reliable estimates for reliable recharge are in the range of 280 – 430 mm/year, however the outliers to provide some useful information that helps understand the aquifer

 

The Baseflow Detective looking to uncover the secrets of Tanzania’s rivers

Interview with Hezron Philipo, GroFutures by Sean Furey, Skat Foundation

Hezron Philipo has a BSc in Geology (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania), MSc in Water Resources and Environmental Management (University of Twente at  ITC, The Netherlands) and is currently doing his PhD research at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania as part of the UPGro GroFutures project.

I caught up with him at 41st WEDC Conference in Nakuru, Kenya, where he explained the research that he is doing and what new insights him and his colleagues are uncovering.

Continue reading The Baseflow Detective looking to uncover the secrets of Tanzania’s rivers

New paper helps unravel the mysteries of groundwater recharge in Benin

A new paper entitled: Relationships between rainfall and groundwater recharge in seasonally humid Benin: a comparative analysis of long-term hydrographs in sedimentary and crystalline aquifers has been published by the GroFutures team in collaboration with the GRIBA project (Groundwater Resources In Basement rocks of Africa), Belgian NGO – PROTOS, and Via Water in the Netherlands.

Key Points:

  • Groundwater Recharge – the set of processes that govern how rainwater seeps through soils and rocks to replenish aquifers – is not well understood across much of Africa. It is important to understand because it is central to determine the sustainable use of groundwater resources;
  • The authors analyse three rare sets of long-term (19-25 years) groundwater-level observations from three different, but common, geological settings in Benin;
  • The year-to-year changes in groundwater storage correlate well with rainfall patterns, but there were big differences the relate to the type of geology:
    • In the shallow, sand aquifer as much as 40% of the rainfall becomes groundwater
    • In the deeper sandstone and weathered crystalline rocks, a much lower proportion of rainfall becomes groundwater recharge (13% and 4% respectively)
  • Recharge was found to occur on a seasonal basis; however on a daily basis the groundwater fluctuations are best explained with a threshold of 5-15 mm per day – meaning that only more intense rainfall events lead to recharge.
  • These results are consistent with the growing body of evidence that, in Sub-Saharan Africa, intensification of rainfall associated with climate change may increase groundwater recharge.
  • Because the groundwater recharge is so strongly influenced by geology, it is essential for water resource planning that good geological maps are available and used, and that investment is made into long-term groundwater monitoring of strategic aquifers.