David Brazier/IWMI

Groundwater to play a key role in transforming Africa's food systems, finds AMCOW event

Accelerating the development of sustainable groundwater use in Africa could be pivotal in the transformation of the continent's food security and prosperity. This was the key message from a side event of the UN Food Systems Summit Science Days, organized by the African Ministers' Council on Water (AMCOW) with support from WLE.

Held on July 6, the event brought together WLE's Deputy Program Director, Claudia Ringler, and representatives from AMCOW, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to discuss the benefits and challenges of increasing Africa's groundwater use.

Participants were clear that groundwater could play a decisive role in improving Africa's food security and nutrition, both of which are coming under increasing strain from climate change and population growth. “The volume of water stored underground in Africa is estimated to be twenty times greater than the freshwater stored in rivers and lakes,” explained Paul Orengoh and Moshood Tijani of AMCOW in their presentation. “Groundwater is a key resource for climate resilience, environmental protection and improving the socio-economic conditions of the populace.”

In agriculture, the single biggest impact of accelerated groundwater development would be an increase in productivity. This, in turn, would provide year-round incomes for a significant number of farmers, strengthening their resilience to climate change. Participants also highlighted how improved access to groundwater for drinking, cooking and sanitation would help fortify Africa's food systems.

The AMCOW event also explored the economic incentives for developing groundwater resources. James Thurlow and Angga Pradesha of IFPRI presented preliminary results of an economic simulation of groundwater use in Uganda, reporting that a doubling of investment in sustainable groundwater development could increase the country's agricultural GDP by 7%, create 600,000 jobs and lift half a million people out of poverty by 2030. If investment were increased five-fold, Uganda could increase its agricultural GDP by 10%, create 850,000 jobs, and lift 680,000 people out of poverty by 2030.

Tapping Africa's vast groundwater reserves comes with various challenges, however, and groundwater development in the continent has been slow to date. If the rate of development is to accelerate, African states and relevant actors need to be provided with more information on the availability of groundwater as well as ways to maximize the benefits from groundwater use.

The potential environmental consequences of groundwater development were also discussed at the event. Bertram Swartz of the Namibian Ministry of Agriculture and Callist Tindimugaya of the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment were clear that such development must be done sustainably if it is to provide long-term benefits for Africa's food systems. To achieve this, participants stressed the importance of providing countries with the necessary tools to measure and assess their groundwater resources, noting that “we can only manage what we can measure.” To this point, IWMI's Principal Researcher Karen Villholth added that sustainable groundwater initiatives must involve not only well developers, energy sources and pump providers, but agricultural extension services, financial services and complimentary policies, which together can reduce the risk of overexploitation.