John Thomas, Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio, and Robert Marten, Rockefeller Foundation. The opinions expressed are their own.
Groundwater rarely earns a place among news headlines.
But a recent study by Alan MacDonald of the British Geological Survey captured global imagination by the sheer magnitude of its conclusions: it estimates Africa’s groundwater storage capacity at 660,000 km3, or 100 times the continent’s annual renewable freshwater resources, and 20 times the freshwater stored in African lakes.
Yet despite this vast opportunity, the debate so far has focused on what type of development is “appropriate” for Africa instead of focusing on how we can use this new information to improve the lives of poor or vulnerable populations.
The paper argues these groundwater resources should not be used for large-scale urban or agricultural development, focusing on small-scale household and community irrigation systems using intermediate borewells and handpumps instead.
An article on SciDev.Net went so far as to say “Groundwater development is not the answer for Africa.”
For anyone who has ever traveled to the American Midwest, it is clear that pivot irrigators rather than handpumps and borewells are the technology of choice that helped turn the Great Plains into a global breadbasket.
And this is not without ecological consequences: water levels in the Ogallala aquifer (yielding 30 percent of the United States’ groundwater used for irrigation) have dropped by 100 feet since irrigation began in the 1940s. In some areas wells are projected to run dry by 2030.
Yet for better or for worse this is the model that sustains our intensive agricultural system and more importantly, keeps most of us from experiencing the gnawing agony that is chronic hunger.
It is this human dimension that has been conspicuously absent from the current dialogue. There is an implicit assumption in the media coverage that African countries can afford to postpone the development of these groundwater resources until sustainability concerns are addressed.
Yet African agricultural yields are the lowest in the world, due primarily to the fact that African agriculture is predominantly rain-fed. At the hands of uncertain precipitation, crops – and the farmers, communities, and nations that depend on them – are subject to the vagaries of short-term and seasonal weather fluctuations. And with climate change these variations are only expected to intensify.
The consequences of Africa’s low agricultural yields are two-fold. First, no nation has ever lifted itself out of poverty without first developing its agricultural sector. The gains in productivity underlie a structural transformation that enables labor to shift out of the farming sector and form the basis of an urbanizing, diversified economy.
To illustrate, across Africa agriculture is still responsible for roughly 30 to 50 percent of each country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In the U.S., it’s 1.3 percent. Second, food insecurity is rampant across the continent– with more than 240 million people currently estimated to be food insecure – and malnutrition is a leading cause of death of children under five.
Utilising Africa’s groundwater is therefore critical for both economic development and as a means to end hunger.
Therefore the recommendation that we approach this groundwater “find” conservatively fails to appreciate that we in the developed world continue to sustain our economic growth, our lifestyles, and our full stomachs free of parasites based on our highly unsustainable use of our own groundwater resources. Why then should African countries not do the same?
While we are not advocating for irresponsible development, we encourage a debate that puts humans and their needs at the center of discussion. We believe strongly that science grounded in the needs of poor communities can drastically improve well-being and quality of life.
What might a human-centered approach to groundwater development look like? An emerging evidence base from groups like the International Water Management Institute, Winrock International, and the Pacific Institute suggests that at the community level, Multiple Use Water Services could be a promising approach.
Building on the understanding that poor communities use all available sources of water to meet their diverse needs, multiple use services focus on delivering water at the intersection of three fundamental needs: domestic (drinking, bathing, cooking, washing), productive (agriculture and small-scale enterprises), and environmental (water resource sustainability).
The ultimate outcome is systems that simultaneously increase agricultural productivity, improve human well-being, and use water resources sustainably.
On a broader scale, these groundwater findings could be integrated with work of institutions like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) that recently assessed groundwater resources across thirteen countries.
Such efforts that translate research into practical efforts in the human interest could drastically improve our ability to boost the productivity of African breadbaskets and achieve greater food security, and we believe this can be done sustainably with technological, financial, and governance innovation in agricultural water use efficiency.
So where do we go with greater hydrogeological understanding? Is it to endlessly debate what type of development Africa “should” have?
Or is it to focus our energy on actually solving these pressing challenges by turning new information into actionable intelligence for decision makers at all levels?
As we have seen throughout history, when combining good science with a clear social goal, radical improvements in quality of life can be achieved for billions.
This blog is part of AlertNet’s special report “Battle for Water”