When the governments of eastern Africa created the Intergovernmental Authority on Development more than 25 years ago, they hoped it would forge the cooperation needed to roll back the region’s advancing deserts, improve food security and find ways to cope with the regular and severe droughts afflicting the region.
But the authority has achieved few of its original goals since its birth in 1986. It has not eliminated the damaging effects of desertification and drought, and has transformed itself largely into a political and trade bloc.
This story of very modest achievements could have a silver lining, however. In 2012 the British Geological Survey (BGS) and University College London (UCL) released a detailed map and report on the distribution of water aquifers across the African continent.
The report raises several questions. For instance, it says that while the amount of groundwater found in these aquifers is significantly greater than the amount found on the surface, its distribution makes it uneconomic to extract large volumes in a short time.
So how could this water be extracted and used in an effective way?
The aquifer map shows that some parts of eastern Africa have very good potential access to water, though the region as a whole has less potential than northern Africa, which has more underground water than anywhere else on the continent.
The report says that even in very dry and arid areas of the region, aquifers could produce adequate water for between 20 and 70 years.
Two questions arise: How can countries use this resource effectively? And what happens when the aquifers eventually run dry?
First, while the water in these aquifers may not be adequate to support heavy and large-scale irrigation, they may be able to supply communities with drinking water and small-scale community irrigation.
This has the potential to change the lifestyle of communities in arid areas, to some extent. It’s worth keeping in mind that most communities in arid areas are made up of nomadic pastoralists and they are the ones who experience famine and drought most often.
Irrigation, even at a community level, would help improve food security and reduce the malnutrition suffered disproportionately by people in these regions.
A COORDINATION ROLE?
This is where east Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development could prove useful - in coordinating the adoption of technologies to improve life in such regions.
Northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, for example, receive plenty of sunshine and favourable winds and could use both solar and wind energy generation to reduce irrigation costs and supply electricity to local communities, which are often nowhere near national electricity grids.
A regional body like the IGAD may find it easier to take the initiative on such a project, taking advantage of its recognised status to help create interest and raise funds for a collective programme in a way that some individual governments could not.
Another benefit of this kind of project is that it would need neighbouring governments to consult and cooperate, reducing the risk of cross-border conflicts that can flare up at times of scarcity.
Using renewable energy to power the extraction and use of aquifer water would also save children in these areas from being drawn away from education and into farm work like collecting water, which happens in most arid and farming areas.
Modern irrigation methods should be adopted to avoid wasting the water.
One country that would benefit greatly from such a programme is Somalia, which has suffered severe drought, and whose malnutrition rates are higher than those of its neighbours – partly a legacy of civil strife and a long absence of government.
While promoting community irrigation, the regional authority could also fight desertification by ensuring that communities involved in the programme plant trees that adapt well to desert conditions, and water them.
Of course, a programme like this might produce new challenges. If it proved successful, it might encourage more people to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and settle down at or near community irrigation centres. This would put pressure on the water resources and on the local food supply.
The next question is how to deal with depleted aquifers. The regional body should issue a challenge to East African universities, colleges and research institutions to work out how to replenish the aquifers or find alternative uses for them.
In parts of East Africa with heavy rainfall, excess rainwater could be harvested from river overflows and directed to these aquifers using renewable energy.
Taking on the challenge of using depleted aquifers would also help build capacity and knowledge in local academia.
When the IGAD was formed, knowledge about the aquifers and their possible uses was scanty, and this must have limited the organization’s effectiveness.
The appearance of the aquifer map may be the signal for member countries to revive the authority’s original agenda and help their communities fight drought, hold back the advancing desert and combat – or adapt to - climate change.
Ray Obiero is a physics graduate of Kenya’s Egerton University. He has previously worked for Green Earth Energy Solutions in Kenya and is a writer at Kenya’s Management Magazine on technology and new knowledge issues.