Ethiopia is still reeling from the worst drought to hit the country for half a century. The story is the same across many parts of Africa.
Africa’s subterranean water amounts to an estimated 660,000 cubic kilometres, according to research from the British Geological Society – more than 100 times the continent’s annual renewable freshwater resources.
The International Water Management Institute’s director general, Jeremy Bird, says if the right policies and incentives are in place groundwater can be exploited sustainably. Not only is groundwater more locally available and more reliable than rain in many parts of Africa, says Bird, it also serves as a better buffer to climate shocks: “It provides an opportunity for farmers to move one step up the ladder from very uncertain rain-fed irrigation, which is subject to the vagaries of climate, to supplementary irrigation, which offers them the ability to provide water when the crop really needs it.”
Improving Africa’s irrigation infrastructure has long been a goal. The Sahel Irrigation Initiative Programme, with input from IWMI, is now considering the use of simple, farmer-managed pump bores alongside its focus on more expensive canals, reservoirs and other centrally-managed surface water infrastructure projects.
Vincent Casey, water, sanitation and hygiene senior adviser at WaterAid, however warns these simple pumps must be managed well: “Despite the advantages of convenience and affordability, the scale of pumping is very difficult to regulate which inevitably has economic consequences when groundwater is depleted.” Africa may have considerable untapped aquifers, but not all are able to be easily and affordably accessed, says Casey. “Rural electrification has been limited, discounting the possibility of politically motivated energy subsidies that could make high powered pumping affordable to small scale farmers”. Capacity for groundwater withdrawal is also hampered by a lack of reliable hydro-geological data (Ethiopia has mapped less than one quarter of its groundwater resources) and relevant expertise.
According to UPGro – a DFID-funded research programme examining groundwater in sub-Saharan Africa – nearly one third of such projects in sub-Saharan Africa fail within a few years of construction. The World Bank puts the estimated cost of groundwater project failures at more than $1.2bn in lost investment over the last 20 years.
Ugandan water planning expert Callist Tindimugaya, vice president of the International Association of Hydrologists. Because groundwater is an “invisible commons”, he argues, farmers struggle to know what comprises sustainable usage. Government provision of cheap power for water pumps and other price incentives to promote agricultural productivity can lead to overuse as well, he adds. “Local initiatives to co-manage the resource are increasingly being explored as an important element in sustainable groundwater use as farmers realise their common interest in safeguarding the resource,” says Tindimugaya.
In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where farmer groups in over 700 communities agreed to collectively monitor groundwater levels, to plan their crop planting jointly and to adopt water-saving techniques. The project, which ran from 2003 to 2009, successfully reduced overexploitation in the semi-arid state. Since the project ended, however, and without adequate governance systems in place, most of the farmer-led initiatives have ceased.
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