Our Burning Planet


Groundwater management skills are flowing out of SA and metros are doing nothing to stop the loss

Groundwater management skills are flowing out of SA and metros are doing nothing to stop the loss
(Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

More than half of South Africa’s population relies on groundwater for its water supply, but a failure to secure the skills needed for the management of this critical resource at a local government level is threatening our ability to respond to the impacts of climate change and other drivers of water demand.

It is estimated that groundwater constitutes 13% of South Africa’s water supply. This seems like a relatively small amount compared with the supply from surface water resources. However, this “mere” 13% provides water to 56% of the population, either as a sole source or combined with surface water. That is just over 34 million people within 23,746 settlements (78.5% of all settlements in the country). 

Groundwater is a strategic water resource used to meet the water security needs of more than half the South African population. But on average, groundwater is underutilised in South Africa, with considerable opportunity for expansion.

Such expansion could help communities and the state to build resilience to the impacts of climate change and other drivers of water demand such as urbanisation, population growth, industrialisation and agricultural expansion.

In South Africa, groundwater is mainly found in complex geological formations and is typically a local resource. Despite the vital role that hydrogeologists play in the exploration and sustainable management of groundwater resources and the strategic nature of this resource, almost no local metros employ hydrogeologists to take care of this need. 

These geoscientists specialise in studying groundwater, including its properties, distribution and movement through rocks and sediments beneath the Earth’s surface. In addition, they design and manage wellfields and develop and implement operating rules to ensure that these systems are run and maintained as efficiently as possible. 

South Africa has a competent core of hydrogeologists across the public and private sectors – except where it matters the most. 

Unfortunately, as far as we can establish, only one metro employs three hydrogeologists and one in a single district municipality – two out of the 254 municipalities have in their employ skilled groundwater personnel. 

It is thus no surprise that groundwater is labelled “unreliable” and “dirty” by decision-makers who do not ensure that these strategic water supply schemes are adequately resourced. 

Across the world, groundwater is the invisible resource on which many people rely for water and food security. It is the preferred resource where no bulk pipeline reaches. 

Competent management of groundwater schemes is essential to ensure that the water they provide is safe and reliable; that the environment is protected, and that the resource is used sustainably. 

This is especially true in South Africa where the landscape is characterised by complex fractured aquifers which require systematic exploration and development at the wellfield or borehole scale. Our understanding, development and management of these systems is well supported by excellent research. This is an intense activity, but done right, it can ensure that the resource provides sustainable water supplies.

Complex system

It is worth trying to visualise this complex system. 

Water stored in surface reservoirs is easy to picture and understand. As an example, a dam that is at 100% storage capacity is easy to imagine (a full bucket). Now try to visualise a body of rock with complex porosity systems (fractures and/or pore spaces). If we saturate these with water, the complexity of determining (or visualising) how full it is, is much more difficult. 

To unravel this complexity, hydrogeologists use various indirect and direct methods to determine the volume of water within these systems, including the flow through these bodies of rock. It is not something an untrained person can do. 

Aquifers may be underground layers of permeable rock, as just described, or layers of permeable soil or sediment that contain and transmit water. Once they are explored and developed, they need further direct and indirect measurements to maintain reliable and clean supplies. 

Incompetent management of groundwater schemes can lead to inefficiencies, increased costs and reduced performance. Competent management, on the other hand, can help to optimise operational and maintenance costs, ensure efficient use of resources and maximise the lifespan of groundwater schemes.

If we hope to improve water and food security while becoming climate resilient, then we must insist on adequate capacity to manage and develop local groundwater systems. 

It requires suitable permanent skilled staff in municipalities where groundwater is used as a sole or conjunctive resource. There is a glimmer of hope in some municipalities where they are exploring alternative ways to improve the development and management of their groundwater resources.

In a few instances, there are excellent champions for groundwater – these are the institutional entrepreneurs.

Institutional entrepreneurs are characterised by their ability to identify and exploit opportunities for change, challenge existing practices and norms, and mobilise support for their initiatives. They achieve this through proper planning and budgeting for help. This help generally comes from the private sector.

National and provincial water and sanitation hydrogeologists assist where they can, but locally and globally, hydrogeological experience has moved away from the public sector into the private sector.

In the South African context, as interest in groundwater has waned, many of these sought-after experts have simply left the country.

Hydrogeologists trained to understand these complex aquifer settings are sought-after internationally but generally neglected locally.

In September, South Africa will host a global groundwater congress where the latest developments in the field will be discussed and showcased. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, no municipal official has registered for this event.

The role of hydrogeologists is essential for ensuring the sustainable management of groundwater resources, which are critical for human survival and economic development.

If we are indeed serious about making communities resilient while continuing to adapt to a hotter and drier climate, we need to correct the mismanagement of groundwater, especially in the municipal arena. 

The strategies, plans, tools and expertise exist to do this and should be harnessed. DM

Dr Shafick Adams is an executive manager at the Water Research Commission.

Absa OBP

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