Learning from progress in managing Africa’s groundwater

A large number of SADC citizens depend on groundwater as a primary source of their water supply. Image credit: jeff-ackley-YwDo_HwORXs-unsplash

By Darryll Kilian and Natasha Anamuthoo (SRK)

18 May 2021 – Efforts to protect groundwater across the Southern African Development Community (SADC) need urgent support and strengthening, but valuable lessons are already being learnt that can inform positive action on the African continent.

A recent study prepared by SRK Consulting for SADC’s Groundwater Management Institute (SADC-GMI) has highlighted key challenges facing Africa’s water resources, as well as the successes achieved to date by SADC-GMI. Currently hosted at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, SADC-GMI is a regional centre of excellence for the promotion of sustainable groundwater management.

Over 70% of the 250 million people in the SADC region – which includes Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – depend on groundwater as a primary source of their water supply. At the same time, this groundwater is facing degradation from various land-use activities and over-abstraction in some areas. The role of organisations like SADC-GMI and their stakeholders is vital in addressing these trends.

Groundwater under increasing pressure

While SADC’s groundwater resources have been fairly reliable historically, they are now under increasing pressure from rapidly expanding populations – especially in cities – and economic growth in sectors like industry, mining and commercial farming.

In addition, it is expected that the prevalence of drought in the region will intensify with climate change. Already, greater groundwater drought vulnerability is being reported across the 30 known transboundary aquifers in the region.

However, despite the critical role of groundwater in food and water security, it has not featured prominently in water resources discourses. Indeed, groundwater is often managed separately from surface water – even though these two resources are linked as part of the overall hydrological cycle. Rather, much of the focus in water resource management in SADC is placed upon surface water resources. This is often because of the limited understanding of groundwater as an essential resource to underpin socio-economic development.

Disparate data sources

The fact is that the overall assessment of groundwater management in most SADC states is insufficient to support the sustainable management and development of groundwater resources. Although there was a good understanding of aquifer systems at the regional level, information systems to manage groundwater data are disparate. Also, institutions for managing groundwater are still not well-equipped with financial and human resources.

Within this context, however, the SADC-GMI is managing to achieve substantial progress. With funding from agencies like the Global Environmental Facility and the World Bank, the SADC-GMI has conducted vital studies, projects, and programmes. These have included the Groundwater and Drought Management Project (GDMP) from 2005 to 2012, and the Sustainable Groundwater Management in SADC Member States project from 2014 to 2021 – which served as an umbrella forum to implement a number of short-term projects.

Among these projects have been the development of the SADC hydrogeology map and the SADC Groundwater Information Portal (SADC-GIP). A dozen pilot groundwater infrastructure projects have been initiated, including the monitoring of boreholes in Dar es Salaam to assess saline water ingress into aquifers on which the city relies.

The SADC-GMI has established National Focal Groups in the SADC region, and has developed training manuals – for operating and maintaining groundwater infrastructure, as well as for preparing proposals to access groundwater infrastructure funding.

More understanding

The SADC-GMI initiatives contribute importantly to our evolving understanding of groundwater pressures and challenges in the SADC region. In terms of the lessons learnt for SADC to take forward in its work, the management of national and transboundary aquifers continues to demand a multi-faceted enabling policy that remove the current constraints in legal and institutional capacity.

There is also a dire need for integrated time-series data collection and management, to generate the necessary information for decision support systems. In response, the SADC-GMI has established a central point for storing and linkages to groundwater data for the region. These initiatives need to be further expanded and improved upon to ensure that reliable data is captured and stored in the appropriate format and platforms.

Another important lesson has been the potential positive socio-economic impact of groundwater infrastructure projects in SADC member states – several of which had demonstrated scalability. Many of these projects have assumed a new level of urgency since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the inequality in access to potable water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities – as well as water for livelihoods.

Future scope

Looking forward, there are a number of other areas where SADC-GMI activities will continue to support infrastructure pilot projects. In addition to the dissemination of information, toolkits and good practice standards, the projects will benefit from collaboration between SADC-GMI and other water-focused institutions to accelerate learning and implementation. There is also scope to form more public-private-civic partnerships to leverage off the water-focused interventions that large scale agriculture and industry is already implementing – as part of their corporate social responsibility mandate.

Scaling up the projects could also be further promoted by disseminating conclusive technical guidelines like drilling standards and borehole profiling, as well as structured technical oversight through mentoring to build capacity in SADC member states.

The expertise, operation and impact of the SADC-GMI is an example of what can be achieved by effective collaboration between stakeholders in the SADC region, as it delivers in promoting sustainable groundwater management across the sub-continent.

Excellence in groundwater

The SADC-GMI (https://sadc-gmi.org/)  is a subsidiary structure of the SADC Secretariat, and draws its mandate from the fourth phase Regional Strategic Action Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management. Run by a board representing key stakeholders, this not-for-profit organisation is a centre of excellence for sustainable and equitable groundwater management. SRK Consulting recently conducted a study for the SADC-GMI on the lessons learned from its activity to date, to inform the development of a new SADC Groundwater Management Programme for 2021 -2031.

Key take-outs

  • Countries in the SADC region are relying increasingly on their groundwater, but the growth in extraction rates is not sustainable
  • As an organisation, SADC can be more effective in helping member states manage groundwater if there is better understanding of this resource and more effective sharing of data
  • SADC’s efforts to improve groundwater management have gained considerable momentum from having its own centre of excellence – the SADC-GMI
  • Many of the SADC-GMI’s pilot initiatives have shown positive results, and can be scaled up for greater social and economic impact.

Darryll Kilian is the principal environmental consultant at  SRK Consulting (SA) and Natasha Anamuthoo is senior environmental consultant at SRK Consulting (SA)

Darryll Kilian (right), is the principal environmental consultant at SRK Consulting (SA) and Natasha Anamuthoo (left) is senior environmental consultant at SRK Consulting (SA). Image credit: SRK Consulting

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