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Size matters: Africa’s water resources

Written by Roger Calow


It’s not often a story on water makes the UK headlines, aside from hosepipe bans and the ‘drought’ in the south of England. But on Friday morning, the BBC Science Reporter, Matt McGrath, popped up on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme with news that Africa is sitting on vast groundwater reserves. The story spread, with articles and interviews subsequently appearing on Al Jazeera, Reuters, newspapers and across BBC networks.

What’s behind the story, and what will it mean for Africa’s population, particularly the poor? A team of scientists from the British Geological Survey and University College London, together with researchers from ODI’s Water Policy Programme, have been assessing the resilience of groundwater resources, and groundwater-dependent livelihoods, to climate change in Africa. The project, funded by the UK Department for International Development, has drawn some fascinating conclusions.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the scientists conclude that Africa’s groundwater resources are probably 100 times greater than those found in the continent’s surface rivers and lakes, and that the storage on offer provides a vital buffer against rainfall variability and climate change. Some of these stocks are found in vast ‘fossil’ (non-renewable) aquifers, located deep underground, and formed thousands of years ago when the climate was very different. The most widespread and important renewable resources for people, however, are found at shallower depths throughout much of Africa. Although these shallower systems may not have the massive storage of deep fossil aquifers under Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan, there’s usually enough to meet – and sustain – basic household needs.   

So Africa’s doesn’t have a water problem, right? Wrong. According to the latest figures from the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, roughly 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) do not have access to safe drinking water. And although the global Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for water has been met five years early, the numbers are skewed by rapid progress in India and China. Meanwhile, SSA remains seriously off-track, with only 19 of the 50 countries expected to meet the drinking water target by 2015. The problems these countries face in meeting demand for drinking water are rooted in poverty, inequality, governance and investment, not in the physical availability of water, as previous Water Policy Programme and BGS work makes clear. Rapid population growth is another factor: the population of SSA is rising faster than anywhere else on the planet, meaning that countries may be making significant progress in the absolute number of people served while still being persistently ‘off track’.  

Money is part of the problem, and the announcement on 20 April by UK Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, that the British government will double its spending on water, sanitation and hygiene in some of the poorest countries is welcome. It needs to: the UK Department for International Development (DFID) spends only around 2% of its budget on WASH, one of the smallest bilateral portfolios. This despite ample evidence that WASH is a major contributor to poverty reduction, particularly for women and girls.  

But more money for extending services, whether from donors, NGOs, national governments or communities themselves, will not solve the drinking water crisis in SSA. For this to happen, three things need to change.

  1. Funders and implementing agencies need to get serious about the maintenance and rehabilitation of existing services, not just the building of new ones. Perhaps one third of groundwater sources equipped with hand pumps simply don’t work, a shocking statistic. Yet those putting the money into new services have turned a blind eye to the sustainability crisis, preferring instead to build new systems and assume coverage increases.
  2. Investment in new services, or the rehabilitation of existing ones, needs to be better targeted. Services still gravitate to the better off, with hard to reach areas and groups in rural areas, in particular, neglected, as the latest WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Report makes clear.
  3. Back to the science and those who use it. Although the Africa-wide maps produced by the project team highlight the role groundwater can play in meeting basic needs and reducing poverty, they can’t be used for national and local planning. For this, we need higher resolution information on groundwater conditions and trends so that resources can be developed in a sustainable and cost-effective way.  The approach used by the scientists to produce continental maps now needs to be applied at scales relevant to local decision-making to plug the data deficit and underpin planning.
Finally, a word on the larger volumes of water needed to support irrigation, industry and hydropower, and to meet rapidly growing urban demands. The authors caution against a simple ‘drill and provide’ approach, noting that groundwater storage is patchy, and ad hoc development unwise. The kind of Green Revolution seen in South Asia, based on intensive groundwater development and subsidised energy, will not be repeated across rural Africa. But much more could be done to harness the continent’s considerable surface and groundwater assets for economic growth and poverty reduction  – a point made in the forthcoming European Report on Development – with parallel investment in both water resources development and management. Indeed responsible water resources development, avoiding the environmental and social costs of ‘capture and control’, and recognising the value of water storage, would go a long way to reducing Africa’s poverty and vulnerability to climate change.