By Karen G. Villholth, Principal Researcher, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and Doug Merrey, Independent Consultant, and Forum and Viewpoints Editor, Water Alternatives

A female farmer tends her irrigated field in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Groundwater represents an underused resource for irrigation across much of sub-Saharan Africa (Photo: Karen Villholth/IWMI)
A female farmer tends her irrigated field in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Groundwater represents an underused resource for irrigation across much of sub-Saharan Africa (Photo: Karen Villholth/IWMI)

Effective water supply and management shield farmers and urban dwellers from creeping threats, such as climate change, and fast-onset global disrupters like Covid-19. By enhancing resilience during droughts, floods and other unanticipated events, they can underpin health and support food security and livelihoods. In contrast, limited water infrastructure investments and unreliable water access act as risk multipliers. This is the case across many parts of Africa, where limited water development is combined with relatively high rates of poverty.

Groundwater, water held underground in locations dictated by geology and climate, is plentiful across many parts of the continent. However, despite this available resource, around four in 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa lack safe drinking water, while seven in 10 do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities; far below the global average. Meanwhile, just 1% of cultivated land (2 million hectares) is irrigated with groundwater in Africa, compared to 14% in Asia. The question is, why is infrastructure to help farmers and others to access groundwater not being rolled out more rapidly in Africa, when it is so badly needed to mitigate disruptions and strengthen resilience?

In others parts of the world, groundwater resources are becoming exhausted through over-pumping of aquifers, making further resource development costly or even impossible. So could it be that groundwater developments in Africa are being limited by the fear of developers encountering similar problems? An online dialogue, a Dissensus, was held to debate this issue.

The attendees encompassed individuals, such as World Bank consultants, researchers, practitioners, knowledge brokers and capacity developers, as well as representatives from international and continental supporting organizations, including the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW). They agreed that donors, governments and other developers can be reluctant to invest in groundwater, exactly because of the risks of resource depletion and inequity of access among stakeholders experienced in other parts of the world. However, they also highlighted other constraints, including insufficient hydrogeological information and biophysical restrictions.

The participants concluded that many enabling factors required for developing groundwater infrastructure are not in place. These include: access to energy for pumping water; national policies favouring groundwater development; hydrogeological expertise in, and practical experience of, developing and maintaining groundwater infrastructure; access to cost-effective technology, such as drilling equipment and pumps; pro-poor finance mechanisms; and functioning value chains for food produced by groundwater.

Importantly, the paucity of groundwater development in Africa may mimic a broader gap in water development in general. The total water-storage capacity in reservoirs on the continent is less than half of the global average, and development of surface-water irrigation also lags far behind other regions. African countries have not been the recipient of major government investments in irrigation; in comparison India, Pakistan and China implemented substantial national investments and subsidies that fuelled the green revolution and food security, and stimulated economic development.

Hence, groundwater has thus far been a sleeping giant in most of sub-Saharan Africa. However, there are signs the giant is awakening, with solar power increasingly viewed as a shortcut for driving groundwater development for smallholder agriculture and multiple water use in sub-Saharan Africa. A catalyst is needed to support further development of solar energy through appropriate funding or business models for smallholders, while assuring effective groundwater management that safeguards the resource for future generations. Groundwater development is also emerging as an option for non-agricultural uses, as larger cities such as Cape Town and Dar es Salaam run out of water.

AMCOW is an apex body for water across the African continent and a unit of the African Union. Mandated to support sustainable development and management of water resources, and based on its current strategic and programmatic emphasis on groundwater, it is taking an active role in advocating for sustainable groundwater development across Africa. With AMCOW’s support, the goal is that the potential for using groundwater in Africa may be realised sustainably. If it is, the continent will be in a much better position to fend off future threats, be they from increasingly unpredictable climate or other shocks.

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