The international water community is shifting its attention in the year 2022 to groundwater, the valuable underground sources of water that experts say rarely draw enough policy and management attention, despite their critical importance for drought resilience and food security.
Groundwater provides about half of drinking water worldwide according to the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (IGRAC), with an estimated 40% of all groundwater used for agriculture.
IGRAC said that groundwater is an important part of climate change adaptation and is “often a solution for people without access to safe water”.
South Africa last updated its policy on groundwater management in 2002 but in 2018, the importance of this resource was thrust into the spotlight when attention moved to the Western Cape’s underground aquifers as a solution to a devastating drought that prompted water restrictions and a countdown to “day zero”.
At the time, the city procured drillers to access groundwater as a measure to provide relief for households facing the prospect of dry taps. The Eastern Cape and Northern Cape are still feeling the impact of a multi-year drought with recent heavy rains providing much relief.
Much of the aid support that has been provided through organisations such as Gift of the Givers for drought disasters has been through identifying underground water sources to drill for immediate relief to water stressed rural and urban areas.
In 2019 a study found that southern Africa’s groundwater resources were not as affected by climate variations as previously thought, because they “recharged” over time. However, the risk of increased droughts as a result of climate change in the years to come may increase reliance on underground water sources.
In order to increase awareness about groundwater, the international water community has decided to dedicate 2022’s World Water Day, which falls on March 22, to this underrated resource.
“A World Water Day on groundwater would put a spotlight on this invisible resource, enhance knowledge exchange and collaboration and thereby increase the awareness of the importance of taking care of our groundwater,” IGRAC said.
The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in South Africa said it will also continue a project that will see rural farmers benefit from solar-powered irrigation to access groundwater.
Between 2016 and 2020, the IWMI said that the Limpopo River Basin was the driest it had been in 35 years.
“Groundwater is the foundation of water security and climate resilience across Africa. It’s plentiful, and yet four in 10 people across the continent lack access to good, clean drinking water. Just 1% of farmland is irrigated using groundwater, and drought is a serious problem for many countries,” the agency said.
This prompted an initiative to give farmers and government the technical and theoretical tools to access underground aquifers as a resilience mechanism to the arid landscape impacting food production.
“Groundwater is of strategic importance in the Limpopo River Basin. It is key to water security, climate resilience and prosperity – but only if continuously managed and protected and used wisely in conjunction with surface water supplies and other secondary resources, like properly treated wastewater,” said Karen Villholth, a principal researcher and project lead for IWMI in South Africa.
The team found that the transboundary Ramotswa Aquifer, shared between Botswana and South Africa, is “user-friendly”, and provided enough groundwater from boreholes. But Mavis Chauke, a resident in the Limpopo River Basin told researchers that they were concerned about water security and their livelihoods at the heart of the 2016 provincial state disaster as a result of the drought.
“We sometimes go for days without bathing as we try to preserve the little water we have for drinking and cooking. It is not healthy. If it does not rain in the coming weeks, I do not think we are going to survive this time around. This drought has gone for too long now,” she said.
So how did they do it?
The IWMI team said it created a “three-dimensional conceptual model of the transboundary Ramotswa Aquifer, using an advanced non-intrusive technology”, which uncovered crucial information that was unknown prior to the Ramotswa Aquifer project.
The result is a comprehensive understanding of the area’s cross-border groundwater management needs along with knowledge of the location and extent of the aquifers and potential locations for drilling wells.
“IWMI’s work has closed a significant gap in understanding the dynamics in transboundary aquifers in the region and in the Limpopo River Basin in particular. The studies undertaken in the Ramotswa and Tuli Karoo Aquifers shared by South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe assisted the member states to understand the system behaviour,” said Sérgio Bento Sitoe, the executive secretary at the Limpopo Watercourse Commission.
The organisation said that cooperation between countries in the Limpopo River Basin and in the SADC region around shared aquifers has greatly advanced since the project kicked off in 2016.
Despite pockets of success stories, a UN-Water Groundwater Overview in 2018 said that the responses to groundwater pressures were not adequate and that this was due to a limited understanding of its importance.
The report titled Making the Invisible Visible found that the invisible character of groundwater does not easily lend itself to informed policy and therefore needs renewed attention.
In addition, it notes that underground aquifers cross state borders and will need collaborative efforts between neighbouring countries to limit pollution from mining and promote shared responsibility.
For its part, the World Health Organisation has published guidelines on health associated risks from industrial groundwater pollution, which various assessments have shown are posing a threat to the most climate resilient water resources underground.