Africa Droughts: It’s Time To Start Pumping Untapped Groundwater

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Written by Staff

From The Guardian

Despite recent heavy rains, Ethiopia is still reeling from the worst drought to hit the country for half a century, particularly in the livestock-dependent regions of Oromia and Somali. Yet studies (pdf) suggest the country could have billions of cubic metres of untapped groundwater.

The story is the same across many parts of Africa, where farmers rely on erratic rains and depleted surface water while potentially vast groundwater reserves go ignored. Africa’s subterranean water amounts to an estimated 660,000 cubic kilometres (pdf), according to research from the British Geological Society – more than 100 times the continent’s annual renewable freshwater resources.

A new initiative co-led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is aiming to mobilise support for greater use of Africa’s under-used aquifers. Developed in the wake of targets set at the UN Sustainable Development Summit and the Paris climate talks last year, the goals of the Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP) include leveraging $1bn (£770m) of investments in sub-Saharan Africa for sustainable groundwater irrigation and improving groundwater access in the region for 4m rural households.

The idea is timely given widespread drought across southern and eastern Africa, yet it is not without controversy. Decades of overexploitation in north Africa(pdf), where groundwater is more abundant, have left many sedimentary aquifers dangerously depleted and in some cases degraded by saltwater intrusion. In Morocco, for example, the water table of the Saïss deep aquifer – one of north Africa’s largest aquifers – has fallen by an annual average of 3m over the past 20 years.

A young boy stands next to a newly installed water pump in the Rift Valley, Ethiopia. Photograph: Karen Villholth/IMWI

If the right policies and incentives are in place, however, groundwater can be exploited sustainably, argues Jeremy Bird, director general of IWMI.

Not only is groundwater more locally available and more reliable than rain in many parts of Africa, says Bird, it also serves as a better buffer to climate shocks: “It provides an opportunity for farmers to move one step up the ladder from very uncertain rain-fed irrigation, which is subject to the vagaries of climate, to supplementary irrigation, which offers them the ability to provide water when the crop really needs it.”

Read more at The Guardian