Groundwater shortage or crisis narratives are restricting development in Sub-Saharan Africa
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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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.
The hypothesis of a sticky unhelpful crisis narrative is interesting. In a related paper [Groundwater and the discourse of shortage in Sub-Saharan Africa], the authors state that "the implicit policy implication [of crisis narratives] is that responsible decision-makers should restrict groundwater use, manage the growing disbenefits, and seek alternatives" and then take to scrutinizing "the claim that groundwater should not be utilized, for fear of “running out”. But what is the evidence of the alleged link/impact of crisis narratives on the limited groundwater development in SSA?
In yet another paper [Waking a sleeping giant Realizing the potential of groundwater in Sub-Saharan Africa], the authors deftly explore the many other reasons why groundwater is in their view underdeveloped: and indeed they point to many structural issues (technology, spare parts, energy availability, transport/storage infrastructure, markets, land tenure, rule of law, hydrological knowledge, etc), termed 'secondary factors', that definitely matter. So are these not the core problem, as the above comment by W. Turner so graphically illustrates, rather than the narratives? In other words what the authors call a 'favourable political economy' is arguably just not there. As Shaminder Puri and Ismail Oudra remind us, most of the groundwater revolution has been achieved by individual and private investments. So, since nowhere in the world have people failed to use groundwater under their feet whenever it was economically sound to do so, it is unreasonable to think that people in SSA would disregard this resource if the context was ripe for using it.
Are these systemic constraints not a much more convincing reason for the underdevelopment of groundwater than these narratives? I cannot judge whether donors/development banks and state agencies are indeed reluctant to invest in groundwater in SSA (and if this is the case whether this is due in part to narrative crises), but by merely positing that crisis narratives hamper groundwater development in SSA are the authors not creating a strawman, as a means of promoting the opposite narrative?
So let's distinguish between,
1) private investments that have fueled most of the groundwater boom worldwide and which are unlikely to be constrained by crisis narratives and would seem to be hampered by the overall economic and regulatory environment.
2) what governments/development banks could invest in: echoing Hans Komakech I am very skeptical that cities or governments would fail to tap any available resource because of crisis narratives: this definitely runs counter to what can be observed everywhere (ubiquitous examples of uneconomic and unsustainable capital-intensive supply augmentation projects that generate benefits to many firms).
Displacing the crisis narrative might 'inadvertently' remove the cautionary tale that comes with it. Calling for investments just because there is underinvestment is likely to be ill-fated, which of course does not mean that nothing (and no investment) should be done.
We badly need to hear from African colleagues what they think about the point made in this post and the subsequent comments.
The issue of groundwater resources in sub-Saharan Africa needs to be addressed in the geological context. Access to water in countries whose geology is dominated by basement or ancient sedimentary formations is much more acute than in countries with coastal sedimentary basins.
In basement zones, the problem of groundwater in sub-Saharan Africa is mainly a question for scientists, actors in the water sector and the scientific community: How to bring water to the populations that express a need for it; and How to ensure sustainable exploitation and management of groundwater?
Indeed, almost half of the African population relies on groundwater, which in several rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa is the only sustainable source of water for human consumption. This is mainly the case in Burkina Faso where most surface water is temporary. A number of large cities and "medium-sized towns" in Africa are also supplied with groundwater. In terms of food security, only 1.5 to 3% of Africa's rural population uses groundwater for irrigation while the rapid expansion of its use in agriculture has transformed rural economies in Asia in recent decades.
Groundwater resources in basement areas represent a major resource for rural populations south of the Sahara as surface water is not perennial due to high evaporation value or poor quality. As the only source of quality drinking water, it also conditions their perennial food security. Access to this drinking groundwater is conditioned by the construction of good quality works (boreholes in general), capable of lasting over time. These boreholes must be located in aquifers with significant storage and/or recharge. However, these conditions are often poorly ensured because of the complexity of the base zones. This complexity limits the ability of hydrogeologists to understand, describe and predict the hydrodynamic behaviour of these hydrosystems.
Thousands of boreholes and wells have been drilled in basement areas in West Africa as part of village hydraulics programmes supported by many donors including the European Union (water facility funds for example). In Burkina Faso, in addition to the high rate of negative boreholes (sometimes even exceeding 50%), out of approximately 14,500 boreholes, 35% have a production rate of less than or equal to 0.7 m3/h, considered as the minimum threshold.
The large number of dry or low flow rate drillings confirms this complexity which is controlled by several factors. Nevertheless, most of the studies carried out on regional groundwater resources use large-scale indicators that are not appropriate for taking into account heterogeneity in the basement context. At the local scale, most studies focus on productivity (i.e. the potential volume of water that can be temporarily pumped) but do not consider storage (amount of water stored in the rock reservoir) although storage is a fundamental property that controls the system's capacitive behaviour and the long-term productivity of the borehole.
Thank you for these comments. I agree with Richard about the need for better governance systems for domestic groundwater supplies, including polycentric arrangements. I also agree with Mahamadou on the importance of hydrogeological factors.
However, we are attempting to examine a wider conversation or discourse that we argue relegates African groundwater resources to village supply or other small-scale use, with an emphasis on caution, transboundary conflict and the potential for over-exploitation.
As Francois says, it is difficult to prove that the "discourse of scarcity" is part of the reason that African groundwater resources remain underutilised. On the other hand, it would be surprising if a powerful contemporary narrative in science and development did not have a substantial impact. This brings to mind Keynes’ famous quote:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
Larger scale and more expensive groundwater developments, like the managed aquifer recharge (MAR) scheme that helps assure water security in Windhoek, Namibia, require multilateral financial and technical collaboration. Multilateral development institutions in turn subscribe to environmental and ethical standards (such as the Equator Principles), which draw on the scientific consensus. The multilaterals also spearhead private-sector investment. If the scientific consensus emphasises groundwater scarcity, then it is not surprising that investments are scarcer.
Whilst “individual and private investments” are important components of groundwater use, the large increases in groundwater development in e.g. Asia or North America were facilitated by public sector investment in electricity grids, transport networks, crop varietal research, subsidy structures, etc – not to mention wider public goods such as legal frameworks, education systems, and the rule of law. In many parts of the industrialised world (e.g. the EU, many US states), private farmers’ returns on investment are directly supported by the taxpayer, to add to the favourable structural factors.
African groundwater development would therefore seem to be at a double disadvantage: not only are structural factors unfavourable (e.g. no cheap and reliable power, no way to transport goods to market, no cold storage, no currency stability, no developed local crop varietals, etc); there is also a powerful discourse that militates against broader and more general consideration of groundwater’s role in regional economic development in policy and development circles.
All of this has real outcomes and impacts: the global discourse of groundwater shortage is one reason Cape Town did not invest in a MAR scheme before Day Zero - the problem was not lack of aquifers or expertise. Elsewhere on the continent, similar opportunities are bypassed (e.g. irrigation using the dolomites in Zambia or DRC, the water supply to Lusaka or Bulawayo, etc). Arguably, limited resources earmarked for African groundwater are diverted instead to transboundary groundwater issues or to governance initiatives.
Finally, whilst I agree that comments from other Africans are needed, I believe that it is up to those who have written about and argue for a discourse of global groundwater shortage, often from continents where hydraulic infrastructure is already in place, who would be most welcome to comment here.
The main argument of this challenging forum, which is that pessimistic paradigms of groundwater depletion may decrease investment and possible socioeconomic development is very interesting in order to argue just the opposite: aquifers are depleting because of over-exploitation of groundwater resources for serving unsustainable socioeconomic development.
Groundwater is important for the population water supply but agriculture is the main consumer of huge quantities of groundwater. For example, more than 80% of total water withdrawals in South-Mediterranean countries are used for irrigation, and agricultural production is driving by the aim of maximizing economic profits. This is the case in many regions in Africa, India, California and many Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy and Greece. In the Thessalia region in central-eastern Greece, drained by the river Pinios and having extensive groundwater resources, multi-year over-drafting of groundwater for irrigation has depleted regional aquifers and over-pumping of surface water in summer makes disappear the Pinios River over several days.
Economic profits, political ambitions, and local human needs are much stronger drivers than expert opinions and narratives that under-estimate the groundwater potential of an area. Many previous comments underline the importance of scaling for groundwater development projects. Statistical data are misleading when local variability is hidden by regional aggregation and when mean regional values don’t show the severity of local conditions. For example, the only 2% of renewable groundwater resources used by SSA countries can be more than 80% at the local scale of one municipality. Again the difference between renewable and sustainable groundwater potential is still very difficult to quantify because of many natural and epistemic uncertainties.
The issues of groundwater governance and the sustainable use of this precious natural resource are much more acute under the climate change perspective. How to address groundwater resilience under climate change is the main theme of the on-line IWRA international conference next 29 and 30 of October 2020. For more information and possible contribution see
It is estimated that 70% of the SADC region’s rural population relies on groundwater for their livelihoods. It is believed that less than 2% of the renewable groundwater resources are utilised in the SADC region at the moment due to a variety of reasons including relatively weak groundwater governance triggered by the general lack of decision making information to facilitate the development and management of the region’s groundwater resources. Policy makers need information. In a recent study conducted by IGRAC on behalf of the SADC Groundwater Management Institute (SADC-GMI), it was concluded that groundwater data management across all the 16 SADC Member states is inefficient. The respective national gap analyses highlighted key data problems emanating from national groundwater monitoring activities that lack clear objectives and procedures as well as lack of trained staff, material and interpretation of the data, among other shortcomings. Some of these problems are directly related to low budgets for groundwater data management even though significant progress could be made with more efficient organization and allocation of the available budget. The unclear setting of monitoring objectives has been identified as a major reason for groundwater monitoring inefficiency in the SADC (and in other regions of the world, see GW-MATE, 2006). While low budget certainly hinders the collection and the management of groundwater data, the reverse can be true: low efficiency and lack of outcomes from groundwater monitoring does not encourage investments in it.
The gap analyses highlighted substantial discrepancies in monitoring data between the SADC Member States, a scenario which makes sharing of data very challenging. The lack of an overview of the state of groundwater resources at the transnational level is an issue for transboundary aquifers, which represent an important groundwater resource in the SADC. It is also an issue for decision-making within SADC as a region, as groundwater is a strategic resource supporting the production of food, sanitation and hygiene, industries and ecosystems. In a context of global change, it is crucial to have such an overview for decision-makers to adopt the right strategies.
So much has already been said, and I will not comment on all of the above, but rather add that in practice, groundwater is being developed in many African towns and cities, mainly in the form of self-supply boreholes that the users (and businesses) construct themselves. Lagos, Nigeria is the most striking case.
This phenomenon has largely been possible as drilling costs have dropped, and, in the case of Nigeria and some other places, with the growth of the manual drilling industry.
Meanwhile, in rural areas of Africa, we are well aware that groundwater provides the domestic water needs of an average of 75% of the population, and as much as 90% in some countries. Siebert estimates that groundwater sourced irrigated land was about 4% on the continent in 2010. This is low, but as Hans points out, it is to do with markets for produce as much as anything. And for sure, not all aquifers are suitable for large-scale irrigated agriculture (which is not the only option). However, even basement aquifers can support household kitchen gardens, which can substantially contribute towards family nutrition.
In the original blog, I am of the opinion that there is not sufficient emphasis on the need to raise the knowledge of those who develop the resource - i.e. the drillers, the groundwater consultants, the project managers, the users, and even the political leadership. In my work with the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) over the last 15 years it is apparent that many organisations that develop groundwater lack even a basic understanding of groundwater, or what it takes to guarantee a high quality borehole.
The following link provides the most recent synopsis of the drilling and groundwater sector that I am aware of: Groundwater and Drilling - Insights from 50 Countries.
This lack of understanding has huge implications, as illustrated in one of our short animated films: Four Steps to Better Drilling Contracts.
So by all means, let us escape the simple 'scarcity' narrative, but let it be replaced with something that includes long-term, concerted efforts to raise professional standards and build the capacity of those that are to monitor, manage and develop the resource.
RE: ON-LINE DEBATE ON “GROUNDWATER SHORTAGE OR CRISIS NARRATIVES ARE RESTRICTING DEVELOPMENT IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA”
- Contribution from the Groundwater Desk of the AMCOW (African Minister’s Council on Water)
Dear Jude Cobbing and Bradley Hiller,
Thanks so much for initiating the online debate regarding the interesting issue of Africa Groundwater, in which you argue that the global groundwater scarcity narrative is threatening the potential of groundwater use to drive socio-economic development in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
The Groundwater Desk of the AMCOW (African Minister’s Council on Water), a sub-committee of the African Union specialized technical Committee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Water and Environment, had with keen interest over the past week followed the debate with contributions from about 19 experts, as at this morning. Consequently, the Groundwater Desk of the AMCOW is presenting, in the following paragraphs, our opinion regarding the topic of the debate.
Preamble: AMCOW’s mission is to promote cooperation, security, social and economic development, and poverty alleviation among member states through effective management of the continent’s water resources and the provision of water supply and sanitation services. AMCOW is mandated to provide political leadership in the implementation of the Africa Water Vision 2025 and water components of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 ‘The Africa We Want’.
In furtherance of the AMCOW mission regarding policy direction and advocacy in the provision, use, and management of water resources for sustainable social and economic development in Africa, AMCOW recently established a Groundwater Desk and launched a flagship pan-African groundwater initiative termed APAGroP (AMCOW Pan-African Groundwater Programme) to improve groundwater management for better lives and livelihoods of the African people.
APAGroP’s principal aim is to leverage science and reassert to influence groundwater policy and practice in Africa with specific goals to:
a) promote sustainable management and utilization of groundwater resources for water security and resilience,
b) promote appropriate technologies and practice in groundwater development and management and
c) improve the policy (in terms of institutional and legal frameworks) and practice (in terms of support tools and capacity-strengthening) of Groundwater in Africa for better lives and livelihoods.
Our Position and modest Contribution: In respect of the argument that “the global groundwater scarcity narrative is threatening the potential of groundwater use to drive socio-economic development in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)”, AMCOW, as responsible Organization, while agreeing with the argument wish to emphasize our strong commitment to the sustainable management of Africa Groundwater Resources in all ramifications for the socio-economic benefits of the populace of the member states.
However a brief preview of the nineteen (19) comments so far on the debate revealed varied opinions on the issues, some of which are highlighted below:
• Comment on development as structural change emphasizing the presence of certain measures of uncertainty, particularly around groundwater yield and recharge capacity as well as societal unintended consequences.
• Comment on the need for the proper sequencing of events such that wise use of groundwater, based on resource knowledge, energy availability, transport infrastructure, and access to capital, can support large gains in socio-economic development should be of priority in ensuring sustainable GW development.
• Comment on the consideration for the geological context as groundwater resources in countries whose geology is dominated by basement or ancient sedimentary formations is much more acute than in countries with coastal sedimentary basins.
• Comment on where are the staff? highlighted the need to increase, by several orders of magnitude, the numbers of qualified staff (engineers, hydrologists, technicians, well drillers) and the need to empower them with field logistics and equipment in order to generate the required practical information needed.
• Comment on the need to for sufficient emphasis on the need to raise the knowledge and skills of those who develop the resource - i.e. the drillers, the groundwater consultants, the project managers, the users, and even the political leadership.
• Comment on the Sector interests emphasize the fact that knowledge of groundwater resources, institutional structures, and human capacity may be limited but of the opinion that sector interests should drive groundwater development and management capacities. In other words, we cannot wait for groundwater knowledge or human capacity to reach an optimal level for the management of groundwater before groundwater development begins. Groundwater knowledge and groundwater development proceed in lockstep and reinforce each other.
• Comment that moving away from the global groundwater scarcity narrative to enhance the potential of groundwater use as critical to driving socio-economic development in sub-Saharan Africa, while at the same time realizing the fact that SSA is a large area that encompasses many physical and socio-economic landscapes’ peculiarities. Hence, bringing it under one general bloc will present many limitations, rather than encouraging knowledge and experience sharing and learning.
• Comment on who shapes the groundwater discursive terms highlighted the fact 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. The opinion is also that to a large extent the African water discourses are shaped by the World Bank and large development agencies.
• On groundwater governance: The uncertainty of groundwater governance systems and the perceived top-down point of view is constituted by a hierarchical notion of 'who governs and who benefits'. In other words, aid governance systems from agencies, governments, and international organizations recommend certain governance system configurations as the 'best' way to manage water resources for the benefit of people.
On the final analysis, the argument that the international dialogue and rhetoric on groundwater scarcity and depletion of aquifers has obscured the potential to exploit groundwater in Africa is quite convincing. However, AMCOW is of the opinion that possible danger of uncontrolled exploitation should be addressed alongside appropriate policy framework and groundwater governance structures in order to ensure sustainable groundwater development.
Africa Groundwater Scenario and the case for increasing GW Development: By and large, the peculiarity of the Africa situation and the argument in favor of the need for increased investments in sustainable groundwater development can be highlighted as follow:
1) The volume of water stored underground in Africa – estimated to be 20 times more than the freshwater stored in lakes and reservoirs – can play greater roles in addressing the increasing water security challenge in Africa.
2) Groundwater is also a strategic resource for Africa's growth and development, with groundwater storage estimated to be over 100 times greater than annual renewable freshwater sources and thus can also provide a critical buffer against short-term rainfall variability in the face of the reality of Climate Change.
3) There is no doubt as to the crucial role of groundwater in addressing SDG 6 and other related elements due to the fact that groundwater presents cheaper and ease of access at the points of needs in African setting.
4) Groundwater comprises the largest fraction of freshwater in the continent with appreciable untapped potential for development and more than 60%, of the African population is dependent on groundwater for their fundamental water needs and for productive uses.
5) In addition, the ease of access to groundwater to maintain minimum standards of hygiene in the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic is critical in meeting the increasing demands for expansion of existing water supply points especially in informal settlements and multitudes of rural communities.
6) Finally, as alluded in your submission, it is estimated that the entire sub-Sahara Africa currently uses less than 2% of its renewable groundwater and irrigates less than 2 MHa (or about 1% of its cultivable land) with groundwater. Therefore there is a greater need for the so-called “groundwater boom” to drive the development and sustainable livelihood in Africa.
AMCOW APAGroP contribution to Sustainable GW-Development: Despite the above highlighted comparative advantage and strategic significance of groundwater resources to development in Africa, AMCOW is cognizance of the fact that sustainable management of this valuable resource in Africa should be science and knowledge-driven; hence the focus of the AMCOW APAGroP program of enhancing capacity and champion collective actions amongst members states to tackle emerging issues such as:
• Rising stress on groundwater resources due to increasing demand and indirect effects of climate change;
• Poor database and the need for proper resource evaluation in order to inform sustainable management;
• Inappropriate and unsustainable abstraction of groundwater resources;
• Inefficient linkage between research and practitioners, and policymakers;
• Strengthening of the implementation of continental-wide groundwater agenda;
• Strengthening of finance and investments in groundwater infrastructures in order to sustain societal benefits therefrom.
A look at the above emerging issues revealed that nearly all of the concerns expressed by many of the comments on the debate (as summarized earlier) are clearly addressed within the framework of the APAGroP program. Therefore, the focus of AMCOW is to use the APAGroP platform to enhance the development of knowledge base for science-led decision-making and sustainable development and management of groundwater resources, thereby improving (among member states) groundwater resources management with respect to Groundwater policy and governance (in terms of policy and institutional and legal frameworks) and Groundwater practice (in terms of support tools and capacity-strengthening) in Africa for better lives and livelihoods. To achieve the above objectives, seven (7) Action Groups were established with specific thematic issues within the scope of APAGroP program:
1) White Paper on the Policy framework
2) Country Support Tools
3) Groundwater Governance
4) Resource Assessment
5) Knowledge Sharing Hub
6) Capacity Building
7) Finance and Investment Opportunity
In the light of the above discussion, AMCOW Groundwater Desk is using this medium to invite you and all other stakeholders (individuals and organizations) interested in sustainable management and utilization of Africa groundwater resources and especially in developing a science-based policy framework to partner with AMCOW in changing the narrative from a gloomy picture to a promising sustainable groundwater boom for the socio-economic benefit of Africa. On a final note, we will welcome your ideas and willingness to be part of any of our thematic Action Groups.
For further information, kindly contact the following individuals:
Paul Orengoh (Director of Programs) (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Moshood Tijani (groundwater Desk Officer) (email@example.com)
Doug, Jude and Bradley (J&B), I think that ‘telos’-type rhetoric can better inform the public over groundwater in Africa than ‘kairos’-type rhetoric, which is more about persuasion to ‘take new action now’, and includes crisis narratives. Kairos-type rhetoric is challenging to develop, because it has to generalise information as truth claims, and demands trust in the portrayal of ‘truths’.
J&B, you have tried Kairos-type rhetoric. You have made many social justifications to justify new effort, experience and information in groundwater development, to fit a claim that there is still abundant groundwater potential to be exploited for development despite ‘scarcity’. I agree it’s an interesting and important topic. However, you are asking for trust in your portrayal of this potential, that ‘you’ can do this without conflict, and that the experiences of the past in South Asia, China, Southern Europe can be avoided. That your conception of scarcity is right. These are big ‘ifs’.
A good example of telos rhetoric the is Tushaar Shah’s book ‘Taming the Anarchy’ (2009). You might better use this approach instead of crisis narratives. It informs about scope for public and local action to support long-term survival of equitable groundwater use in different groundwater ‘socio-ecologies’. It uses terms like the ‘groundwater economy’ to explore possible and likely social outcomes in different aquifer contexts and challenges the reader to think where the faults are in ‘stagnating’ groundwater development. He thinks that a major problem lies in the concepts of productivity that drive public organisations, including who gets the benefits. J&B, I think what we need are more studies of and tailored action in groundwater economies across SSA to help groundwater development, not only more mapping of resources. You quote Keynes about there’s usually a (defunct) economist influencing thought and action – well why not question the Keynesian-type model that is so often operating behind development intervention? Why not recognise that the hydrological cycle is also seen now as a socio-hydrological cycle? I think that helps much more to explore new options in different groundwater environments?
You voiced that you only find examples of (peaceful) participatory aquifer management in Basement Complex rock areas. Shah’s work explains why - it’s one of the few groundwater environments where cooperative institutions might evolve without much conflict, if other economic and political factors are there too. The information given by Richard Meissner and Koita Mahamadou on the low yielding and Basement Complex rocks, fit pretty much with Shah’s typologies on aquifers and institutions. That it is lower yielding aquifers can give a socio-ecology of ‘cooperative gaming’ and users may see their wells survive longer-term for practical use and viable livelihoods. Wider circumstances have allowed them their own development of institutions, cropping agreements and participatory hydrological monitoring.
I think images and experience of South Africa are useful in a debate for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) if these acknowledge how others see South Africa groundwater, and portrays its successes and struggles in development groundwater less partially (you seem to imply that somehow the social Instruments of groundwater governance are preventing ‘good’ supply augmentation). The World Bank Report sees South Africa as a country already in a condition of ‘intensive groundwater use’, which as Emilio Custodio has generalised as…’a water cycle transformation, a social revolution and a management challenge’. Your article actually shows the struggles going on as South Africa enacts all the groundwater governance instruments of industrialised economies! Political economy is much more than provision of support services for technology operation like credit, energy, maintenance: as Omar Ismail Oudra points out. SSA is a construct that has been created as much by economic development, and political and economic activity as by agro-climatic zoning across the continent. Try and see how these interplay for current and future groundwater use, but from user perspectives?
Starting from a bold assertion of untapped groundwater storage potential (and only discussing potential) also raises hydrological and sociological reactions. Regional estimates of potential, even as more refined by modelling or exploratory boring, still do not translate into easy maps of well siting and pump yield, and user allocation as Koita Mahamadou is pointing out. Underestimation of yield does not remove the risks of developing wells that dry up or are prove failures. Better to give a fuller picture of groundwater environments and their useable yields, and proceed with cautionary principles? Better not to make sweeping claims on underutilised potential - but acknowledge there is often dispute and even conflict round resources, and try to see where local action can still take place? For example, could you scale up participatory approaches like the APWELL project in drought prone areas of India across SSA? Shaminder Puri gave the comment ‘where are the hydrologists?’ I know that a lot of hydrogeologists have already tried to change practice to understand locality better - can this go further in different countries of SSA? Can we get better teams to help participatory groundwater monitoring, operational rules and livelihood strategies?
Please don’t dismiss older experiences from African groundwater development, or from South Asia, China and Europe as impossible to happen now. They are still relevant to design, as well as showing the arguments you need to counter. These older studies show that a ‘groundwater revolution’ has not come about through effective State agency, there is no linear path of groundwater development without winners and losers, no countries or regions with intensive groundwater use (which can still be low-yielding aquifers) have yet produced governance institutions capable of equitable and sustainable water use for all, and leapfrogging into developed county groundwater governance brings struggles. Also, sometimes, people and State will try and regulate against further any development of groundwater. It’s better not characterised as part of a crisis narrative of scarcity, it’s one of change. Your rhetoric needs to show how new groundwater intervention approaches will create different dynamics to these.
So, maybe think about different rhetoric to continue a revolution in groundwater thinking, that can embrace political economy and ecology?
This dialogue brings to the fore the question of why groundwater (GW) is relatively underdeveloped in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This is interesting from the perspective of future water security, livelihoods, food security and poverty alleviation for the region, especially when comparing to other regions, like in South Asia, with countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Here, GW has been heavily developed, with significant livelihood gains, and later unfortunately, a demise, as GW is becoming increasingly depleted. To illustrate the difference, GW irrigation contributes only a relatively small share of cultivated land, about 1% (or 2 million hectares) in Africa as compared to 14% in Asia (Siebert et al., 2010).
Then it is appropriate to think that a discourse of precaution is underlying GW under-development in SSA. However, there are many facets to the story that need to be carefully scrutinized to understand the cause-effect relationship, while not jumping to conclusions, and also recognizing that a simple/single explanation is likely not possible.
Some of the reasons for the perceived retardation in GW management that have been brought forward (also in
this debate) are:
1. Donors, governments, and other developers are reluctant to invest in GW because of the inherent risk of experiencing the same outcome (resource depletion and inequity in access) as in other parts of the world (the precautionary explanation);
2. Hydrogeological information is limited and insufficient to develop GW effectively;
3. GW is (traditionally) seen is a source for water supply for (mostly) rural domestic uses and drought protection, not for larger urban and agricultural development;
4. GW resources may be quite variable across the region, and other bio-physical factors may be constraining at the end of the day, e.g. aquifer yields and storages, and soil conditions;
5. Many other enabling and supporting factors are not in place, e.g. energy access, pro-GW national policies, hydrogeological expertise and practical experience in developing and maintaining GW infrastructure, access to or low costs of technology (like drilling equipment and pumps) and well-functioning value chains for food produced by GW
Because of (some of) the above, development funding, whatever is available, may not go into GW development, but possibly into other more well-known solutions, like urban water supply and sanitation (especially in these coronavirus times), rather than larger-scale GW development, e.g. for agriculture.
On top of this, it is also clear that GW may actually be/getting increasingly developed in SSA as we speak. As in many regions (and maybe even more so in SSA), data and information on GW development are lacking. GW development is silent. However, evidence suggests that GW is increasingly developed and used both in urban areas and for irrigation, maybe with large variety across the region, but even with signs of degradation and depletion in places, as evident in parts of South Africa.
However, the apparent and relative set back in GW development still needs scrutiny. In this regard, focus on the agricultural sector is critical, as this is where GW could be a game changer and e.g. support smallholders for better livelihoods, in what is today referred to as farmer-led irrigation. It is also in the agricultural sector that relatively high water requirements will be manifested in the future as food demands increase. Looking at this aspect, it appears that major differences between SSA and South Asia are linked to lack of initial and effective government investments in GW development in SSA, and subsidies, most profoundly energy to farmers, to support a growing GW economy, as was seen in the latter part of the 20th century in e.g. India. While the trajectory of SSA may be quite different from that of South Asia, this may be a key reason for slow development of GW. This is supported by the fact that it is not only GW that is not developed for irrigation in SSA. For SSA, the percentage of arable land that is irrigated as a whole (from surface and GW) is about 6 percent, while the corresponding percentages for South Asia is 41 percent. This tells us that we are looking at a broader structural issue, and not a simple GW-related issue of lack of infrastructure and associated development for irrigated agriculture. Also, and importantly, GW development took off in South Asia, where many areas are comparable to SSA in terms of climate and hydrogeology, but without prior hydrogeological knowledge. This indicates that GW knowledge is ‘nice to have’, but not ‘a need to have’ to make GW development take off. Economic and political economy factors may be overriding.
While, I agree that solutions to GW depletion and degradation are not easy to devise on a broader scale, once the demise happens, I do not think the precautionary rationale holds for SSA – at least not as the primary explanation. Issues of lack of investment in irrigation broadly, and GW specifically is a significant reason. What needs to come first, GW drilling and pumping for cropping, or supportive/enabling systemic factors, like roads and mechanized energy, is an academic question. In reality, these will develop in tandem, as suggested by Tushaar Shah in a recent WB report. Solar energy could be an important factor in driving farmer-led irrigation in SSA forward.
A concern to bring into the debate specifically for SSA, is the region’s vulnerability to climate change, large population growth rates and unparalleled urbanization, that all need sustainable water resources, and critically GW, to tie together a viable and resilient future. Foreign direct investment could preferentially be going into intensive agriculture for exports, and for mining (water grabbing) with little benefit to national economies and poor communities, which may at the end of the day compromise on the GW benefits so badly needed for SSA.
The contention that narratives of groundwater shortage or scarcity restricts development in Sub-Saharan Africa makes uncomfortable reading by its very framing. Jude tries to dismiss François‘s questioning of the impact of the narratives by arguing “…multilateral development institutions draw on the scientific consensus…if the scientific consensus emphasizes groundwater scarcity, then it is not surprising that investments are scarcer.” But it is true that science determines the direction of investment to that degree? The observation by Hans that these institutions are in the business of peddling loans, raises the question of how science features in what many believe to be development shenanigans. Many would argue that the tools of the trade are shadowy consultancy reports, whose claim to science is anyone‘s guess.
Beyond casting doubt on the science credentials of the development, the question is: what is actually meant by development? Development for who? Given the well-documented penury and indebtedness that the programmes promoted by multilateral agencies have visited on many unsuspecting African countries, why should Sub-Saharan Africa be expected to bite this discredited yesteryear bait. Africa needs to believe in itself and reimagine development, so that it invests in its people rather in ‘development projects’. Traditional water development projects, financed by multilateral agencies often have a heavy urban bias. Large groundwater projects are designed to secure water for cities. In some cases, this has come on the back of privatisation of water supply systems, which has failed spectacularly. Often recouping the so-called investment costs becomes illusive, and subsidies for the privileged few are the result. Meanwhile, the water needs of the rural populace, who account for the majority of the population, who already depend on groundwater, are not supported by sustainable programmes. State agencies fail to service the infrastructure, which is symptomatic of a failure to promote private investment in groundwater, as is the case in Asia. Local communities are not empowered to actively participate in water projects, which is critical to supplying not just domestic water, but also water for nutrition gardens and livestock watering. There is a need to seriously think how groundwater can contribute to the attainment of water-related Sustainable Development Goals.
It is also important not to accept the call for more data and human resources at face value. A former official of the Southern African Water Division once remarked that each time the Division made representations to recruit more personnel, the Ministers would point to the equally compelling needs of other sectors. If the groundwater sector expects to receive a more sympathetic ear, it must do things differently. This means reflecting on the quality of the data that is collected, and how the data is used. Many departments collect data and do not analyse it. This raises the question of what value is the data collection. Strategic data collection, which feeds directly into development, may receive support rather collecting data for the sake of it. Where possible, local communities should be part of the process. This can form the basis of local people being actively involved in the management of the resource.
Such an approach may lead to better policy outcomes. While James Sauramba‘s contention that policy makes need information is correct, the question is what kind of information do policy makers require? Policy makers can and do design or adopt policies that are not backed by any information. The onus is on the scientific community to demonstrate to the policy makers the need for the information. Perhaps we need to reconfigure the groundwater discourse to include non-scientists. Discussions among scientists may be preaching to the converted. In conclusion, it important to emphasize that, while groundwater use may be unique, it not that unique to escape the overall developmental challenges.
There is no doubt that training of, and better career paths for, groundwater professionals in SSA is vital, along with more data, and better "translation" of that data into information relevant to decision makers. There is also a need to debate the nature and role that groundwater plays in development: development of what, and for whom?
Securing environmental functioning and ecological viability, and avoiding over-abstraction, are similarly essential, and we in SSA have much to learn from the experiences of other countries. Finally, understanding the structural factors that constrain or enable groundwater development, such as electricity grids or legal and financial frameworks, is critical.
However, Brad and I argue that the groundwater "discourse of scarcity", manifest both in scientific publications and in the popular media, may stunt or distort discussion of all of these things. The discourse of scarcity has sometimes been presented as the "precautionary principle" - although in reality the precautionary principle takes a wider view, seeking to maximise benefits for all, including future generations and the environment.
If we as scientists or policy-makers are going to enumerate and warn against the drawbacks of groundwater use world-wide, then are we not duty-bound to also quantify the transformative national and regional benefits that better, safer and more resilient water supplies from groundwater bring world-wide? If we are going to invoke the precautionary principle, then the severe and immediate risks that lack of water security, food security and climate resilience bring to SSA ought to be taken into account.
Interesting that nobody has mentioned the major international clamor/investment push more than a decade ago for shifting from surface water as the primary source for domestic supply in Bangladesh, to counteract the prevalence there of frequently fatal (particularly amongst children) water-borne diarrheal disease; to presumably much safer pumped groundwater. This recommendation was widely supported with new GW extraction and distribution infrastructure and public info/education campaign. But as it turned out, the extraordinarily high natural levels of arsenic in that country's aquifers —which might or might not have been known or determined in advance of the massive changeover— has resulted in a phenomenal and extremely debilitating prevalence now of arsenic poisoning throughout much of Bangladesh. On the irrigation front there, the US Agency for International Development and other heavy hitters in the WRM community had been pushing hard for quasi-total depletion of aquifers during the dry season, as apparently they would be adequately replenished during the subsequent monsoon. But there were no ecosystemic enviro studies made of that idea, which had the downside —if and when implemented— of so radically impacting stage, areal extent, and physico-chemical characteristics of surface waterways such as wetlands and semi-abandoned river meanders during the dry season, that their essential role as nurseries for the capture fisheries which formed so critical a part of the nutrition of most Bangladeshis was no longer operational.