African countries

Groundwater Could Help Kickstart Green Recovery in African Countries: Where to Start

African leaders have joined a global push for a “green recovery” from the setback of COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Like the African Union Green Recovery Action Plan he says, this essentially means investing in the sustainable use of resources. A joint statement endorsed by 54 African leaders underlines the need for the continent to develop “on the basis of a thorough understanding of climate risks”.

To research suggests that such green recovery strategies – particularly in agriculture and food security – could rely on a relatively underdeveloped resource: groundwater.

Groundwater is water below the surface of the ground, usually accessible via wells and boreholes. It’s not visible like a big river. This can be beneficial as groundwater is less exposed to evaporation and surface pollution.

Groundwater has supported impressive spurts of development in some parts of the world. The rise of irrigation and industry in California, the green revolution in India and the increase in domestic grain production in China are examples.

The correlation between groundwater abstraction and total grain production in China from 1950 to 2011.
Jie Liu and Chunmiao Zheng

But in sub-Saharan Africa, groundwater does not receive as much attention. Regional water resources management focuses instead on the development of surface waters. the Nile Basin Initiative and the Zambezi River Authority are two examples. There are no high-level groundwater authorities.

Knowledge about groundwater is scarce in some countries. Development tends to be informal and limited to shallow use. This contributes to the belief that groundwater resources in sub-Saharan Africa are not large enough or well located to contribute significantly to socio-economic development.

But our summary of regional results suggests otherwise.

By combining data on the physical availability of groundwater with information on political-economic factors, our study revealed that groundwater is by far the largest regional water resource by volume. The annual renewable groundwater in the region is equivalent to 15 years of average total flow of the Nile. We have also found that renewable groundwater is often available where it is needed most and at depths less than 100 meters.

It is striking that less than 5% of the region’s renewable groundwater is used. Its potential for sustainable use is enormous.

Maps showing groundwater depths and groundwater recharge across sub-Saharan Africa.
a) Groundwater depth in sub-Saharan Africa. b) Groundwater recharge in sub-Saharan Africa.
a) Alan Mackenzie Macdonald et al. 2012. b) Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (Germany) and UNESCO 2008.

Various studies also support our technical conclusions. A recent study found opportunities to sustainably abstract groundwater across much of the continent. In short, there is an opportunity for renewed regional interest in sustainable groundwater development.

Potential Groundwater Impacts

Our results suggest that groundwater could support critical sectors throughout the region.

Improved regional water and food security could support poverty reductioneconomic structural change and one transition to higher value-added activities. Ultimately, these could contribute to greater regional prosperity.

Preliminary results of a economic simulation in Ugandafor example, found that doubling investment in sustainable groundwater development could increase agricultural GDP by 7%, create 600,000 jobs and reduce poverty for half a million people nationwide by 2030 .

Political economy factors

There is evidence that macroeconomic policy support in China, New contract infrastructure in the United States and electricity pricing policy in India all helped kick-start the larger-scale development of groundwater.

Understanding the political economy factors in sub-Saharan Africa is key to unlocking the potential benefits of groundwater development and managing the trade-offs. These factors include land rights and tenure, energy availability and price, access to credit, and the cost and availability of drilling equipment and pumps, among others.

There are already examples of how innovation and leadership in the region can unlock this potential. A managed aquifer recharge system in Windhoek, Namibia – the driest capital in the region – is a technical and financial success for the water supply of cities. The program also preserves the fragile Okavango River.

The cost of technologies such as renewable energy and desalination is falling. They offer other possibilities, combined with approaches such as farmer-led irrigation development and improved end-use efficiency measures.

Green recovery kick-off

Groundwater has the potential to support vast economic, humanitarian and social development in sub-Saharan Africa. It has done so in other parts of the world. But resource development must be managed sustainably.

There’s no denying the potential for pitfalls. For example, overuse of groundwater in parts of California has resulted in water stress and land subsidence. Consolidate these international lessons with recent regional experiences could inform sustainable groundwater governance in sub-Saharan Africa from the outset.

As a starting point, a framework for action could include raising the profile of the sustainable development potential of groundwater in the region. The focus should be on healthy ecosystems and empowering vulnerable communities.

The year 2022 presents promising opportunities. In February, before the African Union, the UN Secretary General Underline the importance of the green stimulus to initiate economic recovery. The African Union theme for 2022 is transforming food and agricultural systems. Groundwater, which is the theme of World Water Day 2022can help answer these calls to action.

Jude Cobbing, Advisor: Water Governance and Infrastructure at Save the Children US, also contributed to this article and the research on which it is based.