Moving beyond boundaries

New training manual supports groundwater management across African borders.

New training manual supports groundwater management across African borders

For 75% of Africans, groundwater is the main source – and sometimes the only source – of drinking water. It also has the potential to lift millions of smallholder farmers out of poverty by enabling them to develop irrigation systems that do not depend on unpredictable rainfall. As such, it is expected to play an increasingly important role in development.

[pullquote type=”pullquote3″ content=”It is time for transboundary groundwater issues to be taken seriously” quote_icon=”yes” align=”right” textcolor=”#198a1a”]It is time for transboundary groundwater issues to be taken seriously[/pullquote]
But groundwater doesn’t follow national borders: if one country over-pumps, it can negatively affect its neighbor, who also depends on that water source. While river basin organizations have progressed in managing surface water (e.g., rivers, lakes) shared across national borders, groundwater is all too often forgotten, especially in Central and West Africa. A new training manual is trying to change this.

The manual Integration of Groundwater Management into Transboundary Basin Organizations in Africa is unique because, for the first time, river basin organizations were directly involved in helping assess their own needs and in developing training materials. It focuses on integrating sustainable groundwater management into international policy, improving the technical skills of water managers engaged in national and transboundary water management and strengthening communication and stakeholder relations across sectors.

It is intended to inspire students and trainers and be shared amongst river basin organizations, local and national governments and businesses.

In a video interview, IWMI researcher Karen Villholth, one of the manual’s authors, says, “It is time for transboundary groundwater issues to be taken seriously . . . and have commensurate importance to surface water.”

Villholth also stresses that more needs to be done to show how surface water and groundwater are interconnected. For example, interventions along a river, such as a dam, might disrupt the water flow that supplies an aquifer downstream. Because flows in groundwater are generally slow, the impacts may not appear until decades into the future, by which time it is too late to turn back the clock.

Villholth and other IWMI researchers have been collecting satellite data and mapping groundwater in Africa for the last decade. While the continent has significant reserves, the accessibility, quantity and quality of groundwater varies significantly by region. For example, most of the population lives on or near shallow, hard-rock aquifers that risk not meeting the rising demand for water. Additionally, groundwater might be available, but if it contains high levels of salts or hazardous chemicals or microorganisms, using it could affect human health.

Villholth believes that more research and outreach on groundwater is needed to increase the understanding and awareness of groundwater and to genuinely get it integrated into broader water management efforts, from the local, all the way to the transboundary and international level. The manual will help enable river basin organizations to better manage groundwater and contribute to more equitable and sustainable development and use of the resource.

Read the full publication:

Further resources: Transboundary aquifer mapping and management in Africa

Altchenko, Y; Villholth, K. 2014. Mapping irrigation potential from renewable groundwater in Africa – a quantitative hydrological approach Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19, 1055–1067,


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