Tapping the potential of Southern Africa’s aquifers

Tapping the potential of Southern Africa’s aquifers

Southern Africa has been slow to utilise its ample groundwater resources. Despite offering a more reliable alternative to increasingly erratic rainfall and over-exploited rivers and lakes, for example, groundwater accounts for only one per cent of the water used in the region’s irrigation systems.

This represents a lost opportunity. A sustainable groundwater strategy that closely monitors extraction rates could offer a lifeline for communities already struggling with the effects of climate change, providing a much-needed stimulus for local economies, strengthening food security and enhancing climate resilience.

With inputs such as drought-tolerant seeds and crop varieties, and the application of practices such as inter-cropping and conservation agriculture, the additional water would drive higher productivity, boost crop yields and accelerate the shift to climate-smart agriculture.

Enhancing access

Unfortunately, Southern Africa’s groundwater is not easily accessed, particularly for the region’s smallholder farmers, who may lack the finance to invest in the necessary technologies and have only limited exposure to relevant knowledge and information.

There is also the challenge posed by over-exploitation. Planners are keen to avoid the experience of North Africa where overexploitation – caused by price incentives and the provision of cheap energy to power water pumps – has depleted aquifers or caused widespread seawater intrusion.

Implementing a sustainable strategy  

CRIDF selects, manages and implements groundwater infrastructure projects that help its partners to avoid these past mistakes. Currently, for instance, it is considering production boreholes in the Limpopo Basin, which will provide monitoring data to inform regional modelling systems.

One of the Basin’s three major aquifers – the Tuli-Karoo – has been identified as a potential water source for a new water supply scheme for communities and travellers at the Beitbridge–Musina border area between South Africa and Zimbabwe, which will help to significantly reduce the risk of disease transmission.

However, sustainably utilising groundwater in Southern Africa at scale requires additional funding: to properly map the region’s aquifers, scale-up the promotion and dissemination of suitable infrastructure such as producing and monitoring boreholes, and strategically target value for money investments.

As a result, CRIDF is working with its partner, the Groundwater Management Institute (GMI), which operates under the strategic guidance of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to enhance the organisation’s compliance with major donors and help it secure additional financing to deliver a region-wide groundwater utilisation programme.

Hosted by the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, SADC GMI promotes sustainable groundwater management throughout Southern Africa, targeting the region’s 30 transboundary aquifers where no clear regulations currently exist to govern groundwater utilisation.

Although the organisation already receives funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and Cooperation in International Waters in Africa (CIWA) (through the World Bank) to implement the ‘Sustainable Groundwater Management in SADC Member States’ project, it needs to mobilise additional funds to expand its activities and reach.

Enhancing compliance

CRIDF assessed a range of potential climate funders and determined the most appropriate for SADC GMI, reflecting on their funding and geographical priorities. The assessment determined the organisation’s current level of eligibility, identified the actions needed to strengthen its compliance, and provided a ‘gap analysis’ that compared SADC GMI organisational documents with those of international development funders. Specific attention was paid to the Adaptation Fund and SADC GMI is now implementing the recommendations to attract additional climate financing.

By promoting the sustainable utilisation of Southern Africa’s groundwater resources, SADC GMI is effectively helping the region shift towards a more comprehensive water strategy that encompasses both surface and groundwater. Crucially, it will address increasing pressures on the region’s rapidly depleting lakes and rivers, and by enhancing access to another source of water, protect communities from the negative impacts of climate change.