Managing groundwater as a buffer against climate change
Underfoot, unseen, useful, and often regarded as a limitless resource, groundwater provides a critical service in many parts of Africa, especially during times of drought.
It is also the subject of this year’s theme for World Water Day on 22 March 2022 in which the appeal is to make this invisible but precious resource visible so that we can better manage it, especially as a buffer against climate change.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change (IPCC) report (released on 28 February 2022) outlined once again how, in a rapidly heating world, we are likely to experience more frequent droughts and floods with concomitant disruptions to water supply. Under these circumstances, groundwater supplies become critical for water security.
South Africa has a total of 22 surface and 37 groundwater source areas stretched across the country. These water source areas are literally the water factories where the country’s useable water originates.
The Table Mountain Water Source Partnership, which was launched with nine founding members in November 2021, aims not only to improve our understanding of groundwater but also to fast track the monitoring and sustainable management of it as a resource. Why? Because Cape Town emerged from the ‘Day Zero’ drought with the realisation that groundwater was a vital resource within the city.
WWF South Africa is a founding member of the partnership and currently acts as the partnership secretariat. Since the launch, the partnership has focused on:
- Raising groundwater awareness in the City of Cape Town area through schools and faith groups.
- Expanding a groundwater monitoring network to a total of six residential and business areas.
- Developing a publicly accessible database and ‘‘groundwater dashboard’’ for Capetonians and other interested parties to see the monitoring data over time.
- Critically analysing the local and national groundwater policy and related governance challenges to understand the context in which a successful community-public-private partnership can function.
- Creating a learning exchange between the City of Cape Town and a key Danish company that develops relevant software for the City’s bulk water decision support system. (Ultimately, this will help to integrate city groundwater data into the overall information system.)
Two of these – the groundwater dashboard for Cape Town and the national groundwater policy and governance analysis – are now ready to be showcased during World Water Week (20 to 26 March).
Cape Town Groundwater Dashboard
During the ‘Day Zero’ drought, many Capetonians looked to groundwater to supplement their water supply, yet accurate information about groundwater usage, availability and supply has been scant to date. The development of the Cape Town Groundwater Dashboard offers everyone an accessible and unique tool that freely shares available groundwater information for the Cape Town area. The dashboard has two versions.
- A quick view for anyone curious to see what groundwater quality, levels, and borehole numbers there are around them.
- A deep dive for professionals or students looking for finer details. The aim is to keep building on the groundwater datasets, so that our collective groundwater information has a central point that can be accessed by all.
Groundwater policy and governance analysis
If groundwater is to be monitored and sustainably managed, it is essential that the roles and responsibilities of every decision maker are clear and executable, from ministerial level to municipal level and to the individual borehole owner. Institutions do not yet share a common groundwater vision and civil society voices, like borehole owners, still need to be brought into this mix. How to do that remains an unsolved riddle, but it is clear that a shift is needed.
In a recently produced technical report on groundwater policy and governance across South Africa, the analysis advises that it will require the collaboration of multiple stakeholders and the careful navigation of complex institutional, technical and stakeholder environments at a local scale to bridge this gap. It shows that we still need to improve our understanding of the role and management of groundwater and its relationship to surface water. Also needed is behaviour change with more monitoring and better groundwater data management.
These combined actions could lead to a better understanding of groundwater and its use and management in and around a city that urgently needs holistic and sustainable water resource management approaches for the benefit of all its residents.
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