Our Burning Planet


As the climate crisis bites and droughts intensify, it’s time to go underground

(Photo: Unsplash / Erda Estremera)

Groundwater — the water that lies beneath us buried in geological formations — is a vastly underused resource in South Africa and the rest of the continent. Data on groundwater systems are sparse and the state of knowledge is low — this is a serious limitation for the sustainable development of groundwater resources.

South Africa is approaching increasing water scarcity and according to the National Groundwater Strategy of the Department of Water and Sanitation, the development of groundwater resources will become crucial for sustaining water security. Surface water, the traditional source for bulk supply, is becoming limited and even unavailable in many catchments and infrastructure and the costs of construction and maintenance is prohibitive.

Groundwater’s role in South Africa has undergone a major shift during the water sector transformation post-1994, from an undervalued resource and a “private water legal status” to a source of domestic water and general livelihood to more than 60% of communities in thousands of villages and small towns countrywide as part of the national drive to meet basic water needs.

Groundwater is a strategic resource that supports drinking water, livestock watering and irrigation in South Africa. It is also vitally important in meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 6 on water, as many towns in South Africa are either partially or solely supplied by groundwater.

The UN Water/Africa vision for 2025 compels us to think about new ways of managing Africa’s water to improve its efficient, equitable and sustainable use, to the benefit of all. It is for this reason that an Africa Water Vision is most opportune at this time. The development of this vision stems primarily from recognition of the essential role of water in sustaining life, development, and life-supporting environmental resources.

However, within the broader context, groundwater only seems to come to the fore during periods of drought and is often seen as a “quick fix” to solve a crisis. This leads to a lack of integrated planning and management, increasing the likelihood of unsustainability and eventual abandonment of groundwater infrastructure. The generally perpetuated narrative is that South African groundwater resources are being over-abstracted and polluted, and although this is true for some parts of the country, especially where mining exists, it is actually greatly underused on average.

South Africa withdraws between 2km3 and 4km3/annum of groundwater, more than 70% of it for irrigation. However, we can argue that it is rather the absence of the services needed to support groundwater development (including energy, drilling and pumping equipment, hard and soft infrastructure, physical access, finances and institutional support) that is the real constraint.

The high socioeconomic and ecological importance of groundwater and the fact that it is an important strategic resource are recognised throughout sub-Saharan Africa. However, data on groundwater systems are sparse and the current state of knowledge is low: this is a serious limitation for the sustainable development of groundwater resources.

Therefore, efforts to improve the situation have been made over the past decade through the publication of syntheses and reviews at the national, regional and continental levels. It is clear that strategies to ensure the sustainable development and management of groundwater resources need to be put in place but more importantly, it has to be continuously assessed to determine whether or not it’s having the desired impact.

Groundwater is clearly a major factor in socioeconomic recovery and development in South Africa. In certain parts of the country, there are large untapped groundwater reserves. Yet, it has severe and complex natural and human-made problems that constrain the exploitation and proper development of its water resources potential.

These include establishment of groundwater monitoring systems, understanding of the groundwater-aquatic ecosystem relationships, management of transboundary aquifers, addressing climate-change impacts on groundwater, assessing the impact of increased pumping from various types of aquifers on the sustainability of groundwater abstraction, and building the necessary capacity in groundwater management at municipal level.

For many aquifers in South Africa, observational data is often scant or inaccessible and projections of future conditions are either not available or at a scale not suited for groundwater resource planning. In South Africa, the governance and regulation of groundwater are generally weak to non-existent due to many factors, including insufficient monitoring, reporting and enforcement of regulations.

The situation at the local level is even more worrisome, where there remains a distinct lack of organisation and regulation of local users of the shared resource. For the successful transformation of groundwater management from a highly centralised national level to a more participative, municipal level, the adequate management of information is crucial. This is particularly true for governance as well as management. As the number of groundwater stakeholders increases, the need to streamline data and information flows from and to different stakeholders at various levels will become more important.

There are many ongoing groundwater-related initiatives in South Africa that provide opportunities for improving groundwater management at various levels, namely regional, river basin, national and local levels. These provide information on the distribution, quantity and response of groundwater resources to human and climate impacts. However, central to all of this is effective monitoring of our groundwater resources, which has been on a rapid decline for a number of years. This has resulted in a knowledge deficit of our deeper-lying aquifers, although the situation is getting better with improvements in assessment techniques and capacity.

Some countries on the continent such as Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana, are carrying out national groundwater resource assessments aimed at quantifying groundwater resources availability and demand. This includes assessing the quality of groundwater resources, identifying hotspot areas vulnerable to droughts, assessing the economic value of groundwater resources and preparing a strategy for sustainable development of groundwater resources to meet the current and future water demands.

In Africa, and southern Africa in particular, similar research studies have resulted in creating a better understanding of groundwater resources in specific areas; aimed at improving the current situation. These include the Africa Groundwater Atlas, which is a new online resource that provides an introduction to the groundwater resources of 51 African countries and aims to address the problem of access to good quality existing information about groundwater in Africa, providing a gateway to further information.

The strategic water source areas can also be seen as vital for South Africa’s water, food and energy security, which accounts for 50% of the water coming from just 10% of the area. They also sustain water-supply systems for more than 50% of the population, supply cities and towns that generate more than 64% of national economic activity and supply about 70% of the water used for irrigation.

Groundwater is clearly a major factor in socioeconomic recovery and development in South Africa. In certain parts of the country, there are large untapped groundwater reserves. Yet, it has severe and complex natural and human-made problems that constrain the exploitation and proper development of its water resources potential.

It is now recognised that these problems are surmountable. However, business as usual in water-resources management is not the way to overcome them. It is an approach that is bound to have disastrous consequences. A new vision is needed to address these problems and to stimulate a shift in approach towards a more equitable and sustainable use and management of the country’s groundwater resources. Such a vision would boost poverty alleviation, socioeconomic development, regional cooperation and the environment. A framework for action towards the attainment of this vision will require buy-in from all sectors.

What remains is mobilising the political will, grassroots support and sustainable financial resources to make the vision a reality. DM

Yazeed van Wyk is a research manager at the Water Research Commission.

Absa OBP

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