Photo: Maheder Haileselassie / IWMI

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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.

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