Groundwater shortage or crisis narratives are restricting development in Sub-Saharan Africa
Photo: Maheder Haileselassie / IWMI
[This post is open to discussion until the 4th of June, included]
We argue that the global groundwater scarcity narrative is threatening the potential of groundwater use to drive socioeconomic development in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
There is a growing consensus that global groundwater is scarce, threatened, polluted or in crisis. This is reflected in the popular media (for example a 2019 article in The Economist headlined that global groundwater is "dangerously depleted"), as well as several scientific and multilateral publications warning of a global groundwater crisis. A 2019 international call to action, signed by hundreds of scientists and practitioners, warned of "groundwater in peril" and urged a focus on sustainability and management. In many regions, these sentiments are accurate and highly apt. However, they are not universal, and they are threatening progress in SSA.
The crisis narrative follows decades of groundwater-based development in Europe, Asia, North America and elsewhere, where groundwater often underpinned impressive gains in irrigation, food security, urban and industrial supply, and other sectors essential to socio-economic growth and resilience. For example, South Asia's "green revolution" would have been impossible without groundwater, as too would development of integrated water supplies in numerous cities in industrialised economies. However, well-publicised cases of groundwater over-abstraction and mismanagement, particularly in parts of the USA, India, and China, has turned the world's attention away from groundwater development and towards a form of "hydrogeological austerity". Decreasing levels of investment in groundwater have been documented in some multilateral development bank investment portfolios.
However, despite this scarcity global discourse, some regions have yet to undergo a groundwater revolution. SSA urgently needs improved agricultural yields, more reliable urban water supplies, and enhanced climate resilience. It is estimated that the entire sub-continent currently uses less than 2% of its renewable groundwater and irrigates less than 2 MHa (or about 1% of its cultivable land) with groundwater. This is less than the area irrigated by groundwater in the US state of Texas, for example. India has only about a third of Sub-Saharan Africa's cultivable land, but has 20 times more acreage under groundwater irrigation, providing a foundation for food security that underpins millions of livelihoods.
It is evident that wise use of groundwater use, based on resource knowledge, energy availability, transport infrastructure and access to capital, can support large gains in socio-economic development. There is a huge and unmet need to understand the interplay of these factors in support of development in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is true that groundwater "booms" have led to over-abstraction and other problems in some cases, but evidence also suggests that where benefits are economically transformative, they include the development of national capacity to respond to these problems. Moreover, Sub-Saharan Africa can benefit by drawing on lessons and technologies from other regions to help steer sustainable groundwater development.
Nevertheless, opportunities to invest in groundwater development in Sub-Saharan Africa today are being overlooked. SSA groundwater management discussions are often embedded in other narratives, such as "transboundary groundwater", which links groundwater to regional integration and possible scarcity-driven conflict. Groundwater is also often presented as a village-level affair, in which small quantities are abstracted with a focus on cost recovery and bootstrap self-reliance. Although concerns with respect to environmental sustainability are frequently cited, regional estimates show that groundwater use could increase many times on average whilst still allocating sufficient renewable groundwater to sustain environmental functioning. Environmental sustainability may, in any case, remain elusive without improved economic opportunity, including basic rights to food and water security. In the absence of supportive and guiding frameworks, individuals and communities often bear the burden of accessing groundwater resources (particularly where there are no alternative sources), which may lead to suboptimal development outcomes.
The World Bank estimates that by 2030 around 90% of the world's extremely poor (those surviving on less than $1.90 per day) will live in Africa. Regional population will double by 2050. Climate-related shocks and associated humanitarian challenges may also increase. These are some of the real challenges confronting the region. Groundwater is by far the largest water resource in Sub-Saharan Africa, with enormous untapped potential to catalyse development, underpin food security, and bolster resilience if the necessary investments are made. Talk of a global groundwater crisis includes, by default, Sub-Saharan Africa, yet is a narrative not applicable to the region based on current scientific observations.
Hence, in contrast to warnings of groundwater in peril and calls for stricter management – all of which may inadvertently limit the potential of Sub-Saharan African groundwater to play its role in socioeconomic development – we argue for a new narrative that examines how groundwater might support the development process in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how to encourage investments in the complementary factors necessary to promote sustainable use of regional renewable resources. A starting point for this could be to expand the global discourse, recognize the impact of the current broader narrative on restricting the development potential of groundwater in Sub-Saharan Africa, and initiate an Africa-focused narrative focused on achieving that potential.
Jude Cobbing and Bradley Hiller
Dr Jude Cobbing is a consulting groundwater hydrologist with 20+ years' experience. He holds an MSc in hydrogeology from London University and a PhD in groundwater governance from Nelson Mandela University in South Africa. Jude has worked in South Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.
Dr Bradley Hiller is a sustainable development and climate change specialist. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute, UK and Senior Consultant at the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Bradley is an Editorial Board Member of the Journal Sustainability and a member of the International Scientific Committee for the 8th World Sustainability Forum.
Thanks to our colleagues for initiating the discussion on this interesting issue. We all subscribe to the idea that a better exploitation of groundwater resources could improve the well-being of the population and the agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa. But after this first level of broad and generous principles, we must downscale to more local and complex realities.
JC and BH are concerned that an alarmist rhetoric about global overexploitation of groundwater may be counterproductive for the specific development in sub-Saharan Africa. They are right, but symmetrically, an overly optimistic discourse on groundwater abundance in sub-Saharan Africa in general can lead to unreasonable exploitation at more local scales.
In fact, all decision-makers and managers have not a sufficient scientific culture to understand the limits of some estimates of groundwater resource availability. For example, the estimates made on a continental scale and widely circulating today are unfortunately based on ultra-simplified approaches that ignore the physical realities in the field.
Similarly, comparison with other regions of the world is obviously necessary and always interesting, but must be handled with care.
The Green Revolution in India led to the overexploitation of many aquifers. The current attempt at a partial remediation through transfers from large rivers is certainly not applicable in many African countries. It is therefore better to avoid disasters before they occur. Costly remediation solutions are possible in India but would not be in sub-Saharan Africa: despite the extreme poverty of millions of Indians, the Indian federal government has the financial capacity to invest also in atomic weapons and space aeronautics, which is far from the capacities of most states of sub-Saharan Africa.
In other semi-arid or arid regions, such as northern Chile or the southern coast of Peru, the development of agriculture based on the exploitation of groundwater without regard for sustainability is to the benefit of large agro-industrial groups and threatens the long term interest of small local farmers. Such a model cannot be wished for sub-Saharan Africa.
The marginalisation of small farmers can already be observed in some sub-Saharan African countries that have allowed the appropriation of very large areas by foreign investors. In these areas groundwater use is effectively intensifying, but is the local population the main beneficiary?
More broadly, the hydrogeologist must also take into account the economic, social and cultural conditions of the development of groundwater exploitation. And here again, conditions are very diverse in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and hardly comparable with other regions of the world.
Therefore, we must hope for a better use of groundwater resources in sub-Saharan Africa, but never at the expense of long-term sustainability, both human and environmental. Groundwater is a component of complex socio-hydrosystems that must be understood in all their subtleties, at the relevant scale.
I am a consulting hydrologist for almost 50 years and I havie worked all over Africa, South America, and Asia for more than 30 years for USAID and IFAD. In 1976 on assignment in Mali I railed against the Big Steel approach to drilling wells as an inappropriate technology. I came up with the appropriate technology concept of digging well with manual labor and thought that it would be my last assignment because it challenged to old school armchair engineering bureaucrats. On the contrary, appropriate technology because the USAID buzzword. I subsequently terminated capital intensive projects in Zaire, Somalia, Mauritania etc . Appropriate technology took into account the meager groundwater supplies of the Sahel and the low yields of wells. I agree completely with Mr. Cobbing that cultural and traditional practices of the rural communities must be considered. In Zaire, my good friend Loukas Loucaides, the owner of shipps on the Congo River advised that capital intensive project require lot of supplies and as those supplies were shipped up the River they would be incrementally stolen and advised against the Big Steel approach. In Somalia, Big Steel required a continuous supply of diesel fuel. In trucking the diesel for Mogadishu to Baidoa, the tanker truck would arrive half empty. When questioned, the driver would say: "I only stopped for lunch. Someone must have stolen it," He was actually found to have made multiple stops where he sold it to passing trucks. In Mauritania some years ago the German KWA in a water supply effort drilled and constructed some 500 windmills as a water supply for villages and cattle. It was a parachute project. Today what is left of them stand as mute skeletons across the Sahel. No one taught the people maintenance of the gearboxes and the fans torqued and the tubular goods were dismantled and used for corrals. Do not let hydrologists eager for high compensation Big Steel projects look to an abundance of groundwater for large projects. Their projects must fit the resources and the culture from the outset.
Dear Christian and William,
Thank you for these comments. This short blog piece provides a broad overview of the issue. Brad and I give this topic more detailed attention in a longer report and two journal papers. You can access these here:
We have made the comparison with other regions to highlight the role of groundwater in supporting economic change - supporting more productive and predictable agricultural production, enabling progress in other sectors in local, national and regional economies. We do not deny that process of transition has come at the cost of over-exploitation in places. However poverty and underdevelopment in Sub Saharan Africa is an urgent challenge that must be addressed, and is not without extensive environmental costs.
The choice is not between an acceptable situation at present, and a future where we may possibly over-exploit groundwater - many parts of Sub Saharan Africa are already in a vicious circle of low growth, high vulnerability, and poor food security that has unacceptable outcomes for people and the environment. The risk of localized groundwater over-exploitation can be managed, whereas the maintenance of a 'discourse of shortage', and the behaviors and concerns it encourages, may pose a much greater peril.
From what I read so far, it would appear as if we are dealing here with a certain measure of uncertainty, particularly around groundwater yield and recharge capacity as well as societal unintended consequences. I agree with Jude and Bradley that the narrative and discourse around groundwater scarcity and transboundary aquifer management resulting in conflict could be counter-productive in socio-economic development. This points to the inherent uncertainty around groundwater resource utilisation and benefits. A conservative sustainable development ideology and theory uses, in my opinion, the narrative to ironically prevent, groundwater utilisation in many Sub-Saharan African countries. The narrative and discourse exemplify this uncertainty and fall back on generalisations as a coping measure to deal with uncertainty. When groundwater is a topic of discussion, for example during the water scarcity the Western Cape and Cape Town faced not so long ago, it is not uncommon for people, scientists and water managers included, to say that exploiting the Atlantis aquifer is unsustainable. The same goes for transboundary aquifers, where people revert back to the conflict potentiality of groundwater abstraction to prevent the 'sustainable' utilisation of the water resource. My question, in both cases, is; how do we know that groundwater utilisation is unsustainable and that transboundary aquifer use will result in conflict?
For me, the answer lies in generalisations coupled with the scarcity narrative and discourse. We automatically assume, based on past experiences in other regions, that groundwater use will always and under all circumstances lead to negativities in Sub-Saharan Africa too. Regarding this, the narrative and discourse cause and constitute the underdevelopment of groundwater leading to low or no socio-economic development returns.
On the other hand, Christian points to an overly optimistic narrative that led to overexploitation of the resource in other regions, indicating 'a certainty assumption' that humans will not deplete groundwater, while, in fact, we did not know that this will happen (uncertainty).
Christian and William both raised important aspects that scientists and water managers should consider before utilising groundwater, many of which revolve around ethics and politics. In the early 1980s, Robert Cox said that (natural and social scientific) theories (e.g. sustainable development and those informing economic development) are always for someone and some purpose. This indicates an inextricable link between the sciences and politics. On both sides of the groundwater utilisation debate we see science in the service of politics and vice versa. Politicians and policy makers as well as sustainability scientists utilise science to either argue for or against groundwater utilisation. What falls by the way side, so to speak, are the normative intended and unintended consequences, as William so eloquently noted. My argument, based on what William said, is that we cannot rely on the empirical sciences only when planning groundwater utilisation, we also need to consider the normative (social) sciences to bring us closer to certainty and what the likely unintended consequences of groundwater utilisation might be.
The writers assert that only 2% of SSA's renewable GW is currently utilised. The remaining 98% is not disappearing, and the referenced World Bank report (same authors) lists:
"Among the potential negative environmental impacts of increased groundwater use are reduced spring flow, lowering water levels in wetlands, reduced baseflow in streams and rivers, increasing groundwater salinity. Intensive groundwater use in certain coastal or other low-lying areas can cause subsidence, altering natural drainage and increasing flood risk."
So that's all right then...
And the minimum proposed level of irrigation development in SSA (same report, Figure 16) proposes 45Mha, which would curtail environmental flows by "only" 30%.
This information suggests caution, and the writers correctly propose caveats to proposed GW development: in the blog "It is evident that wise use of groundwater use, based on resource knowledge, energy availability, transport infrastructure and access to capital, can support large gains in socio-economic development", and in the World Bank report "The report confirms that groundwater, if managed sustainably, can be an important development resource across the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) region..."
We can agree that wise and sustainable use of GW would be a good idea. As soon as these two concepts have been operationalised and the controls required to ensure that such guidance will be followed, GW development should be allowed.
The evidence of what happens in the absence of such controls, from the western US to the east of China, via the unfolding catastrophe of GW development in India, suggests that establishing control is the first priority.
Sub Saharan Africa is a big place.... a range of socio- cultural patterns and many socio - economies, as well as climatic types. However, one thing is constant - the basic principles of hydrogeology - meaning: a small, shallow alluvial aquifer will provide small well yields, an aquifer in weathered zone of a hard rock formation will also provide limited yields, and thick high permeability formation with good annual recharge will provide large quantities of water ... I am being brief, as every hydrogeologist knows all the related elements to this quick summary of aquifer typologies. Why then, do agencies disregard these principles and make investments that hardly match these basic conditions..? One big reason is the lack of staff in institutions, lack of hardware and lack of support technicians in department, after department in so many countries (I generalise, ofcourse). Staff positions are vacant and have not been filled, fuel to go to the field and make some measurements is limited, equipment to make measurements is not available, supervision of drilling contracts is left to vagaries of luck.
In among all of this, when push comes to shove - the aquifer project drops in the list of priorities, and the dam on a river (irrespective of its reliable flow), has funds channeled there.... as so many hydrogeologcal staff are under empowered, the discussion remains one sided... so many donor supported TA's are of an academic nature, not giving the decision maker the right information to make the investment in aquifer development. Too many financing agency staff want the fund disbursement to go the easiest solution (usually a river / dam option) - that the groundwater option is dropped off... never mind the option of conjunctive use - that is too far away from the minds of the donor experts and the engineering staff in ministries...
And so, the development of aquifer resources remains out of mind. In India and China, it was the private sector that took the construction of wells to where it is now - not the governments. As soon as a land owner was able to generate enough finance, he would pay for a well (often poorly constructed - but providing the require irrigation water). And this neighbour did the same and his neighbour... so we have that silent chaos - but wealth was created and food was produced - the income allowed the farmer to drill deeper and pump from whatever depth.
In Sub Saharan context, the authors are right - information of a practical type (likely well yields and suitable construction design) is not accessible to decisions makers... suitably empowered hydrogeologists that can provide this information are hard to come by - and so the cliches about water crisis, overdrawn aquifers, falling water tables (I never understood how this can be a calamity...!!), etc, etc are rolled out.
From so many years of experience, I can say, that the numbers of qualified staff (engineers, hydrologists, technicians, well drillers) need to be increased by several orders of magnitude, they need to be empowered (fuel for vehicles to do field work, equipment to measure and sample. labs to analyse), so that they can provide the required practical information needed - and not more academic study (which usually concludes with the fatal words..."more research is needed...." being the death knell for any investment and the related return).
Richard Meissner is right to identify knowledge of groundwater resources across great areas of Sub Saharan Africa as inadequate, as are Chris Perry and Shaminder Puri in that institutional structures and human capacity for groundwater development and management are also limited.
However we argue that we cannot wait for groundwater knowledge or human capacity to reach an optimal level for management of groundwater before groundwater development begins. Groundwater knowledge and groundwater development proceed in lockstep and reinforce each other, often as they interact with other sectors for which they are key inputs and frequently in unanticipated ways.
As sector interests in an economy become dependent on sustainable groundwater management (e.g. new agricultural investments, or groundwater-based city supplies), then institutional structures to assess and manage groundwater are supported and often develop. This is evident even in (for example) over-exploited parts of the USA or India, where innovative solutions tailored to local conditions and legal frameworks are emerging.
We argue that groundwater has a role to play in transformative economic growth and resilience in Sub Saharan Africa, just as it did (and does) in Europe, Asia, North America and elsewhere. A key task is to understand the complex web of political-economy factors that constrain better groundwater use in Sub Saharan Africa, including drivers of underdevelopment and the failure of institutional interests to emerge and coalesce.
The "discourse of shortage" in Sub Saharan Africa, whilst having little basis in hydrological science, acts against consideration of groundwater's catalytic economic potential in the subcontinent for the reasons of uncertainty that Richard emphasizes including the uncertainty about whether such governance systems will emerge.
Cobbing and Hiller pose a question that takes me back over three decades to the founding of International Rivers Network in Berkeley, California and my qualms then about its slogan "No Dams!" The parallels are uncanny. As an environmentalist, I then fully sympathized with those opposing the mad spree of dam-building by Western development agencies and the hidden (but massive) social and environmental costs that were only just beginning to be exposed and appreciated. However, as an alternative development advocate from the Global South, I could see that, if Southern activists took up that slogan, they would be politically marginalized within minutes: "Oh, you anti-developmentalist! You want us to be living in a poverty-stricken environmental zoo, right, for Western tourists to come and stare at and assuage their guilty rich urban consciences?" To date, very little political ammunition has been found to counter this attack.
As a result, I advocated in its place the slogan "No Bad Dams!" (Recounted in my book Rivers, Technology and Society, Zed Books, London, 2003.) As an "underdeveloped" country, we need to supply electricity and safe drinking water (as a human right) to the vast majority of our population, these inputs as infrastructural resources to our industry and agriculture to improve incomes, livelihood and living conditions. Hence, we will need some dams, good ones of course; and we will also need "development", again "apt-development" and not "mal-development". Arguing FOR Good Dams and opposing Bad Dams allows us the political space to advance the much ignored social and environmental agendas (which "No Dams!" does not). Of course, what constitutes "good" and "bad" developments lies at the very basis of current politics (and expertise/academia that support various political factions) everywhere. It is the same with groundwater development in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.
Every technology comes with its social carriers, and must be balanced by proper elements of its social control. Sadly, the groundwater sector is lacking on this front, it being treated as an infinite resource free to be exploited as a private good. In reality, its renewability is true only under strict natural and built conditions and hence must be treated, not as a private good but as public and common pool goods. They come with a very different set of responsibilities that politicians and hydrocrats of the Global South (and maybe even of the North) have failed to meet.
The attempt to move away from the global groundwater scarcity narrative to shed the light on the potential of groundwater use to drive socioeconomic development in sub-Saharan Africa is indeed important. However, SSA is a large area that encompasses many physical and socio-economic landscapes’ particularities and bringing it under one general bloc presents in my view many limitations.
Moreover, apart from the importance of assessing groundwater resources and strengthening their governance, which I believe we all agree on, we should also bring to the front the role that is played by the farmers in driving the development of agriculture. Issues of water allocation and prioritization are indeed challenging topics but others challenges comprise a complex set of reasons that include uncertainties around the risks involved, challenges to access adequate finance and problems related to the supply and maintenance of appropriate equipment, etc. There is clearly an opportunity in driving the development using the potential groundwater resources in the region but only if incorporated into effective market-driven value chains.
A very interesting discussion topic on Sub-Saharan African groundwater development and use indeed, also rightly so. Jude and Bradley’s raises valid points regarding the discourse on groundwater scarcity in SSA. Compared to surface water, SSA presently is only using a negligible fraction of its renewable groundwater resources. However, the problem is that we do not know by how much and who is using it. There is no real documentation of groundwater use in the entire SSA being presented. I read Jude’s recent paper “Groundwater and the discourse of shortage in Sub-Saharan Africa”, and noted that all the six cases he presented are from South Africa, although the author makes generalization for SSA. I will come back to South Africa in a bit.
The data for irrigation that Jude based his argument on is from FAO AQUASAT 2009. The problem is that most countries only count publicly developed irrigation or an improved informal irrigation schemes (meaning those they managed to line with concrete). This is also what is reflected in AQUASAT data on irrigation. Our recent research on farmer-led irrigation development (FLID) has shown that many African farmers are actively investing in irrigation to grow high value crops for the growing regional markets and nearby urban centres. Most of these developments besides being small-scale ( countries in SSA? I think there is a hidden narrative of large capitalist or FDI groundwater exploitation as being good for socio-economic development in SSA. Sounds like land grabbing of the recent past, only that this is going to come in the form of groundwater grabbing.
Coming back to South Africa, and the articles. I have not read the world bank report yet, but I think it is not correctly to generalize SSA on the basis of groundwater development in South Africa. While, Jude at times present South Africa as if it is not part of SSA, I also understand this likely because most groundwater governance and use studies have been done in South Africa. There are very limited studies on groundwater development and governance in the rest of SSA countries. So, it is not surprising if the increasing SSA urban groundwater exploitation is not documented and reported by the authors. I know that many cities turning to groundwater. For instance, Arusha, Tanzania recently drilled 60 deep boreholes some of which are 300m deep. Dar es salaam is exploiting it Kimbizi aquifer, and Dodoma is exploiting Makutopora. Now these are just cities in Tanzania, I am sure it is the same for many cities of the other 50+ countries. Large-scale urban groundwater exploitation is taking place now, in the 80s and early 2000 it was indeed rural water hand pumps promoted by NGOs. However, even this is changing with the availability of low-cost solar pumps. Most countries are realizing that it is cheaper to invest in rural network schemes than community water points serving a few hundred people.
My second point to this discussion is on who gets to shape the discursive terms. Now this is not a new discussion or issue in that most of the discourses on SSA water use and management originate outside of the continent with very limited participation of African scholars in shaping it. Although a key question is why the Africans are silent, I am going to focus on the motivation behind the African water narratives. To a large extent the African water discourses are shaped by the World Bank and large development agencies. Now being a lending institution, the reports of the World Bank’s consultants are often prepared from a salesman perspective, more like you see there is water scarcity, this is what you need and you can borrow money from us. It is not uncommon to see that water investments are skewed towards regulation, rights, permits and conservation with water infrastructure investment taking the backdrop. Even where there is no water scarcity, permitting is prioritized over promotion of use. Whenever water infrastructure is promoted it is more about improving efficiencies of water use or releasing water from smallholder agriculture etc.
It is important to note that for decades irrigation investment was considered not attractive in Africa, the World Bank and others were not lending for irrigation in SSA. Of course, things are changing, there are growing interest in farmer-led irrigation, although this is conflated to mean drip and solar pumps (technology). The AU just released it continental wide Irrigation Development and Agriculture Water Management Framework. I agree that supporting groundwater development in SSA is not about hydrogeology, it is about the market development, provides farmers with opportunities for value addition, taxes reductions, subsidies etc. but this must be targeted to small-scale farmers and to failed promise knowledge diffusion through FDI.
My last point is on the Africans. It is very true that there are few staff in SSA, especially hydrologist, hydrogeologist, technicians, drillers, geologist water engineers, among others. It is even more likely that no university in SSA countries offering a degree in hydrogeology. However, I think quite a few African water professionals have been trained by the like of IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft and many others high ranking universities across the globe. My problem is that they seem to have internalized the IWRM mantra regarding water scarcity, conflicts, permits, and problem of governance as the sole narrative. They are reproducing it in many countries without question. So, the focus on avoiding disaster before they occur as stated by Christian is not uncommon in several countries of SSA. There is more interest in issuing permits and reproducing colonial water laws. Here I agree with Jude that we can not wait for knowledge to accumulate, it is possible to start support small groundwater users and only slowly move to large – scale users with better understanding of the groundwater system. SSA governments needs to embrace the fact that agricultural development is possible when they support the 0.5ha farmers, it is not going to be like the Texas. Finding the African model is important.
Oh, and another thing, let us not generalize a few people stealing pipes in the 1970 – 80s in a handful of countries as representative of SSA as whole. I live in another African country (not my own) and I can see the diversities and complexities. So, generalization of culture as if SSA is one country is misleading.
In sum, groundwater use is increasing in SSA but not yet well documented. There is opportunity to support the initiatives of smallholders’ farmers who are currently making significant contribution to the economic development and food security in the continent. Future development should look at impacts on access of the different users, we can not afford to promote foreign direct investment for groundwater use at the expense of millions of African poor farmers, neither can we wait until we know enough to invest. Yes, all narratives are power laden, there is no neutral discourses.
I agree with Dipak: perhaps our aim should be "no bad groundwater development". Unfortunately in Sub Saharan Africa there are many constraints to groundwater development, in material factors and in policy, and the net outcome is sometimes "no groundwater development". We are paying a price for this in the subcontinent in terms of resilience, water for growth and development, food security, and so on. We argue that groundwater in Africa should be treated the same as groundwater elsewhere.
To clarify a point that Hans has raised: I used examples of groundwater supply from southern Africa (Namibia and South Africa) in a paper for Hydrogeology Journal to show that the constraints on groundwater development in Sub Saharan Africa are not primarily hydrogeological in nature - but are linked instead with a mix of political economy factors including power supply, banking services, etc. As political economy conditions related to groundwater improve, solutions to the hydrogeological challenges become more feasible. It is sometimes assumed that African groundwater is somehow fundamentally different to groundwater on other continents, but this view, on average, has little scientific basis.
I agree with Jude about the uncertainty of groundwater governance systems emerging. Often we perceive governance systems from a top-down point of view. This top-down perspective is constituted by a hierarchical notion of 'who governs and who benefits'. In other words, aid agencies, governments and international organisations recommend certain governance system configurations as the 'best' way to manage water resources for the benefit of people. We see this in transboundary river systems when states establish river basin commissions. The theory of liberal institutionalism plays a central role in constituting such governance arrangements where the state, and its governing apparatus, decide the form and function of these organisations. Should we look at the matter of groundwater governance systems from a perspective of 'who acts and what are the consequences of their actions', we'll notice that governance also appears at the individual (farmer) and collective levels. An example would be a rural village far from large human settlements, like towns and cities. To connect such villages to the national or regional water grid is often difficult due to long distances. Villages, like these, then have to rely on local surface water resources such as rivers and streams. Where such water sources are not available or of poor quality, groundwater would be the best alternative.
During research on water security in the Sekhukhune District Municipality in South Africa's Limpopo Province, I once interviewed a director of a non-governmental organisation, the Ndlovu Care Group, operating a clinic in the Elandsdoorn village. He spoke at length about the poor quality of surface water on which the villagers rely for their basic household water needs. After school children were tasked to collect water from the river some distance from the community. Together with the community, the director approached a number of large companies to sponsor boreholes, pumps, water tanks and pipes. The boreholes were drilled, the water reticulation system installed and the village set up its own governing system. Water managers were appointed to measure the water from each borehole that service a standpipe for a number of houses. The community also decided that residents should pay for the water, although the entire system was sponsored. Since many are indigent, they decided that if a person is unable to pay the full amount, he or she can pay within his or her means. If the water bill is, for instance, R75 for a particular month, and the person can only afford R40, it is acceptable. The principle behind this is to foster a payment culture. The revenue collected is used to give the water managers a stipend and maintain the water infrastructure. Underlying this, is the norm that the infrastructure 'belongs' to the villagers providing them with much need water and every community member should contribute to the upkeep of the system. The consequence of this is that children can collect water from the standpipe, 200 metres from home, instead of walking kilometres to the river. This has had a positive impact on each household, since children can focus on their education.
The point is that a governance system emerged not spontaneously but through ideas, deliberation and hard work. What is also noticeable from the example is the fostering of a payment culture and a sense of ownership. All in all, governance systems do not have to be 'engineered' by an external actor like an aid agency or government in a top-down manner; community members can act independently to establish their own groundwater governance system and manage the intended and unintended consequences to the benefit of the community. What is more, we should not always have to view groundwater in terms of its food security benefits only. There are other benefits as well, such a more time to spend on education.
There is a certain level of uncertainty around groundwater governance systems emerging. However, if we change our perspective we'll notice numerous governance systems at individual household and community levels. What I am trying to say is that the uncertainty around such governance systems emerging is not a matter of how they should be arranged and by whom, but more a question of limited information of what is happening on the ground at individual and communal levels. After our water security research, other water governance researchers told me of similar examples. One such account spoke of an auditing system in place to prevent or minimise theft of collected water fees. Every six months the 'water committee' of the community would give financial reports to the community, indicating an element of 'corporate governance'. This also links to what Jude said when he argued that: 'However we argue that we cannot wait for groundwater knowledge or human capacity to reach an optimal level for management of groundwater before groundwater development begins.' The measuring of groundwater yields in Elandsdoorn and the 'auditing system' points to the development of groundwater knowledge and human capacity where groundwater development is already in place. So, I agree with Jude that we cannot wait for optimality to reach a certain level before developing groundwater.
We have had some very interesting responses from Richard Meisner and others on this very important topic. Some people have perhaps been mis-directed by the authors' South African emphasis (bias?), but the comment is very relevant across the continent. The basic argument is that the international dialogue and rhetoric on groundwater scarcity and depletion of aquifers -- a critically important issue, even existential threat, in many places -- has obscured the potential to exploit groundwater that is available in varying quantities in many places in Africa. All the comments on the dangers of unplanned exploitation notwithstanding, I believe this concern is real and is constraining investments.
There is currently a strong movement to support "farmer-led irrigation development" in sub-Saharan Africa. Very often, this involves using small pumps to exploit local groundwater aquifers. Of course this can lead to over-use and generate local conflicts but I suspect this is manageable locally in most instances. It may well be that many aquifers could not support large-scale commercial agriculture or even large water supply schemes. But they can be used for small-scale production and thereby improve local food security and incomes.
Finally, a concern: we are surprised at how few Africans have commented so far (Richard is an exception). We know that quite a few African water management people do follow the Forum. We would like to encourage you to weigh in with their views. Perhaps you have local experiences, or local studies on groundwater use that you could contribute to this dialogue.