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A Resource Under Threat? Groundwater, climate change and poverty reduction in Africa

Time (GMT +00) 18:00 19:30


Dr Richard Taylor - Department of Geography, University College London

Dr Alan MacDonald - Principal Hydrogeologist, British Geological Survey (BGS)


Professor Richard Carter - Head of Technical Support, WaterAid  

Roger Calow
- Programme Leader, Water Policy Programme, ODI

The chair, Roger Calow, highlighted that the event was organised in support of World Water Day. He welcomed the audience to the event and introduced the panel. The presenters were Alan Macdonald and Richard Taylor, while Richard Carter undertook the role of the discussant.

Presentation 1

Alan Macdonald gave the first presentation. After giving thanks for ODI for hosting the event, he commenced by discussing the role of groundwater in reducing poverty and improving health. Alan argued that groundwater should be the first option for improved rural water supply, particularly in the context of climate change. He advocated the value of groundwater given that it is a local resource, is relatively cheap to access, is naturally protected, and is generally of good quality.

Crucially, he noted the high degree of uncertainty in modelling the effects of climate change on the hydrological cycle, and its influences on groundwater. He also noted the role played by population growth in influencing water accessibility and supply. Looking towards the future, issues of reliability of groundwater sources, changes in demand- more pressure on ground water for irrigation-, and risk of groundwater contamination are critical areas that need to be addressed.

Alan summarised by arguing that access to groundwater was key for reducing poverty in the African context. He advocated for looking at current responses to water stress to predict the future. He noted that the increase of groundwater use was an important adaptation strategy. Finally he observed that in order to promote ‘no regrets policy’, increases in coverage and access to groundwater were needed.

Presentation 2

Richard Taylor delivered the second presentation. He attacked the conventional calculation of water scarcity and argued that much of the attention and discourse surrounding scarcity is ill-informed. He noted that stress and scarcity have no relation with safe water, and that water stress indexes do not consider quality. Richard highlighted the importance of water storage and noted that it is frequently excluded from discussions on water availability, it requires further research, and necessitates greater attention.

He argued that African water demand is largely exaggerated, and the continent is not as reliant on irrigation as areas such as the Americas, Europe and Southern Asia. The Water Stress Index (WSI) does not inform adaptation to water stress, does not include storage or efficiency. Accordingly, there is a need to redefine water stress and produce an improved metric that reflects how water is used.


Richard Carter responded to the two presentations. He echoed the important role of storage. Importantly, he argued that although groundwater abstraction may be expensive, it is up to ten times cheaper than surface/rainwater harvesting proportional to the amount of people it supplies.  Richard argued that climate change is only one factor amongst many that affects groundwater, highlighting that land-use change will have a larger impact. We therefore need to make sure that we don’t look at climate change on its own, but within the context of various other drivers of change.

He stressed the need for reliability, quality of design and construction. He noted that there we are very short on facts for demand and changes in groundwater, and appealed for more research.


What are the barriers to groundwater access?

For Africa, many of the barriers relate to a low capacity of institutions. In addition, much of the targeting of investment isn’t done appropriately. Reliability and sustainability of technology and infrastructure are also key barriers. In many instances it is a case of keeping systems working, rather than seeking new investment.

Are there ways to artificially boost groundwater?

Ground water boosting has a lot of use, though only where ground water is properly abstracted and well management- not very useful in a rural African context. In many cases sand dams are a good investment, creating aquifers, rather than boosting them. Richard Carter used the case of Gaza city to demonstrate how, without proper and effective management, groundwater recharge strategies can be damaging.

How does Africa compare to other regions?

Areas such as the Middle East are under more water scarce conditions and use much more water in comparison to Africa. A lot of these areas have greater delivery and infrastructure. In particular, Africa suffers from economic water scarcity.

Is there a need for disproportional investment in groundwater?

All panellists were in agreement that disproportional investment in groundwater is required. No other option exists. There is a need for society to accept that attention needs to be directed to those most in need.


To mark World Water Day on 22 March, ODI’s Water Policy Programme is held a public meeting to discuss the role groundwater plays in poverty reduction, and the threats to groundwater quality and availability posed by climate change, population growth and other drivers of change.

Groundwater plays a crucial, if often unrecognised, role in poverty reduction. Most of the world’s drinking water probably comes from groundwater and, over the last half century or so, there has been a massive increase in groundwater withdrawals to support irrigation and food security, particularly in Asia. A key advantage of groundwater is its reliability and quality, and dependence is likely to grow. But will climate change – and other pressures – threaten this hidden resource, and the livelihoods of the millions that depend on it? 

In this event, three of the UK’s leading scientists working on international groundwater and water supply discussed the issues, exploring links between climate change, groundwater availability and quality, and groundwater-dependent livelihoods. The focus was be on Sub-Saharan Africa, where perhaps 80% of the rural population rely on groundwater-based community or household supplies, and where further groundwater development underpins efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and increase irrigation and food production. The event also marked the beginning of a new 12 month research project, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), looking at the impact of climate change on groundwater resources in Africa. Find details of the project here.