Underground Water in Africa: Hopes and Cautions

Water droplets on grass (Tapetum, flicker.com)

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece about recently identified large reserves of groundwater in Africa (Africa’s Hidden Water Wealth, 17 Jun 12). The author of the piece, Alan MacDonald (who coauthored a PLoS Medicine Policy Forum article, Water Supply and Health [Hunter et al. PLoS Med 7(11): e1000361]), paints a hopeful picture of this new development, but tempers it with some important cautionary notes.

He states, “For a continent where more than 300 million people lack access to safe drinking water, Africa is sitting on a lot of it.” Underground water reserve volumes in Africa exceed those available in lakes and rivers by possibly 20 times. Underground water supplies are more stable than those aboveground (which are prone to drought and flooding), offering promise of improvements in agriculture and therefore food security. Water from wells is usually cleaner and safer than when it is dipped from dirty ponds or contaminated streams.

However, he points out a number of problems that must be addressed if this resource is to fulfill its promise. For example, aquifers are not bound by political divisions; if vigorous steps are not taken early on to foster cooperation, sharing could become an arena for tensions and conflict. Money, too, is a major problem, not only for drilling new wells and creating pipelines but for monitoring existing wells and keeping them in good repair; he states that 30% of Africa’s wells are not functioning right now. Other concerns include ensuring equity in water availability to all in need and how best to irrigate crops without depleting aquifers beyond capacity.

What it boils down to, he says, is that “We should get on with the job of getting drilling costs down and construction standards up and supporting and developing groundwater professionals in Africa. Then we can concentrate on helping communities, small towns and whole nations to sustainably develop and protect the groundwater under their feet.”

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