The growing rate of groundwater extraction in southern Africa is unsustainable, and the region needs to learn quickly from the valuable research and practical interventions currently underway.
Among the important agencies active in this field is the Southern African Development Community Groundwater Management Institute (SADC-GMI), based in South Africa. According to Darryll Kilian, principal ESG consultant at SRK Consulting, the SADC-GMI has outlined lessons in protecting groundwater that can inform positive action across SADC and the rest of Africa.
As a subsidiary structure of the SADC Secretariat, SADC-GMI is a not-for-profit organisation mandated by the SADC’s fifth phase Regional Strategic Action Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management. SRK Consulting recently conducted a study for the SADC-GMI on the lessons learned from its activities to date, to inform the development of a new SADC Groundwater Management Programme for the decade from 2021 to 2031.
“In the past five years, SADC-GMI, through a sub-grant scheme funded by the Cooperation in International Waters in Africa (CIWA) and Global Environmental Facility (GEF) through the World Bank, implemented 13 groundwater projects which benefited an estimated 85 000 people, said James Sauramba, executive director at SADC-GMI.
He noted that this was mainly in the vulnerable communities in the nine SADC countries, including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. These projects immensely contributed to enhancing water security for the community livelihoods including community gardens, livestock and other domestic uses, he noted.
“The region relies heavily on groundwater as a primary source of water supply, with around 70% of the population being dependent on it,” said Kilian. “This resource is facing degradation from various land-use activities and over-abstraction in some areas; the role of organisations like SADC-GMI and their stakeholders is vital in addressing these trends.”
He added that climate change is likely to intensify the prevalence of drought, and that drought vulnerability in groundwater resources is being increasingly reported across the region’s 30 known transboundary aquifers.
“Despite the critical role of groundwater in food and water security, it has not featured prominently enough in the discourse around water resources,” he said. “Groundwater is often managed separately from surface water, with most of the water management focus falling on surface water resources.”
“Groundwater is more resilient to the impacts of climate change because it is not exposed to scenarios of evaporation as well as pollution from human settlement activities,” noted Sauramba. However, he highlighted, it is critical to understand the groundwater characteristics in terms of its recharge and potential pollution as these significantly determine the sustainability of the resource in supporting human settlement activities.
“Unlike surface water, once groundwater is polluted, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to reverse the situation. Moreover, some groundwater aquifers are recharged over many years and the abstraction therefrom should therefore be carefully monitored to avoid ‘mining’ the resource,” he added.
Nonetheless, groundwater remains an essential element of southern Africa’s future socio-economic development. The challenge is that, in most SADC states, there is insufficient data and capacity to support the sustainable management and development of groundwater resources, according to Natasha Anamuthoo, senior ESG consultant at SRK Consulting.
“There is a good understanding of aquifer systems at the regional level, but information systems to manage groundwater data are disparate,” said Anamuthoo. “Also, institutions for managing groundwater are still not well-equipped with financial and human resources.”
Sauramba noted, though, that the SADC-GMI was achieving substantial progress, conducting vital studies, projects and programmes. These were funded by agencies like the Global Environmental Facility and the Cooperation in International Waters in Africa (CIWA) through the World Bank. Among their successes have been the Groundwater and Drought Management Project (GDMP), conducted from 2005 to 2012. Its project on the Sustainable Groundwater Management in SADC Member States – which ran from 2014 to 2021 – served as an umbrella forum to implement various short-term projects.
A hydrogeology map of SADC has been developed, as well as the SADC Groundwater Information Portal (SADC-GIP). In the field, the SADC-GMI has also had an impact, initiating a dozen of pilot groundwater infrastructure projects. National focal groups have been established around SADC, and training manuals developed which guide the operation and maintenance of groundwater infrastructure, as well as assist stakeholders to prepare groundwater infrastructure proposals which require funding.
“Initiatives like these from the SADC-GMI contribute to our understanding of groundwater pressures and challenges in the SADC region,” said Anamuthoo. “SADC can take these lessons forward in its work, to improve the management of national and transboundary aquifers.”
She highlighted that a constructive response demands a multi-faceted enabling policy that removes the current constraints in legal and institutional capacity. At the same time, she pointed to a pressing need for integrated time-series data collection and management, to generate the necessary information for decision support systems.
“Importantly, the SADC-GMI has established a central point for storing and linking to groundwater data for the region,” she said. “These initiatives need to be further expanded and improved upon to ensure that reliable data is captured and stored in the appropriate format and platforms.”
A further lesson has been the positive impact of groundwater infrastructure projects in SADC countries, many of which can be scaled up. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgency of these projects, especially those helping to improve access to potable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities.
Kilian noted that SADC-GMI activities will in future continue to support infrastructure pilot projects with information, toolkits and good practice standards. The projects will benefit from collaboration between SADC-GMI and other water-focused institutions to accelerate learning.
“There is also potential for more public-private-civic partnerships, which can leverage off existing water-focused interventions by large scale agriculture and industry,” he said.
The SADC-GMI secured a further grant from the CIWA to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management in SADC Member States Project phase 2 for the next four years starting from the last quarter of 2021. This project will leverage on the successes from the previous projects.