Groundwater to increase food security? Groundwater to lessen the devastation of natural disasters? Groundwater in times of drought and flood? Groundwater to ensure electricity in Southern Africa? These were just some of the questions on the agenda as the 2nd Annual SADC-GMI Groundwater Conference kicked off in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 4 September 2019.
All these questions tie in to the conference theme exploring ‘Groundwater’s Contribution to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the SADC region’. Delegates from across Africa and the world are engaging to pave a way forward to secure sustainable water supplies to the region through the utilization of groundwater sources.
Groundwater, unlike surface water, is found in aquifers under the earth’s surface and is proving to be much more resilient in light of the devastating effects of climate change. As the buzz around groundwater grows, the importance of this sustainable resource has never been more evident.
Executive Director of SADC-GMI, James Sauramba, says that groundwater is important in achievement of SDG6, which deals with ensuring water and sanitation for all. “Groundwater is servicing about 75% of all the population on half of the continent in their basic drinking requirements and livelihoods,” he told delegates after welcoming them to the conference. ” In addition groundwater supports several ecosystems that have a cultural and economic value.”
Groundwater, however, can contribute to much more than just SDG6. According to Remigius Makumbe from Global Water Partnership – Southern Africa, there are 53 SDG indicators linked to groundwater, which makes this resource critically important to the achievement of the 2030 goals.
Deputy-Director General for Department of Water and sanitation Lindiwe Lusenga, reminded delegates that the theme for World Water Day 2019 was ‘’Leaving No One Behind’, and that this should not be forgotten moving forward. “With this work that you are doing on groundwater, you are not going to leave anyone behind,” she urged. “Take along women, youth and also take along people with disabilities. And don’t forget the young school kids. Make them start having interest in water-related matters.”
She reminded those in attendance that their work was to ensure service to those who remain unserved. “Let’s ensure that as we build these networks, we also do not leave behind our communities. And as we take along our communities, we need to educate them to harness the resource that they depend on, particularly in the rural areas.” This, she said, was part of the empowerment role that the scientific community could play.
The SADC region shares many transboundary aquifers, which means that water resources are shared between two or more countries. For this reason, regional cooperation is needed, and transboundary management plans are needed to protect the integrity, quality and sustainability of this shared resources. This is why conferences such as the SADC Groundwater Conference are of vital importance to encourage and facilitate data sharing between countries and organizations – for the good of all, to ensure that no one is left behind.
Regional SADC issues and how groundwater can assist:
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates between 75 to 250 million people will be affected by water scarcity due to climate change in sub-Saharan Africa. Around 41.2 million people in 13 SADC countries are affected by food insecurity. This means that over the past four years the food insecure population has spiked from about 30,4 million people to an astounding 41,1 million – a hike of around 10 million people since 2015.
While parts of Southern Africa have been hit hard by water scarcity in recent years, flooding from Cyclone Idai has left devastation in its wake. The recent droughts in the region have also negatively affected water supplies needed by the region’s agricultural sector. More than 30 000 drought-related cattle deaths were recorded in Namibia between October 2018 and April 2019. In South Africa, two-thirds of producers in the country are experiencing severe to critical stress levels on groundwater and surface water.
“Indiscriminate resource exploitation has led to serious water table decline. This was unfortunately accompanied by conditions of shallow groundwater, due mainly to uncontrolled urbanisation giving rise to an adverse impact on human livelihoods,” keynote speaker Remigius Makumbe explains. In Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province, data shows that the Vaal Dam for example has dropped precipitously from over 100% to less than 62% in 8 months. Coupled with Cape Town’s Day Zero threat, the issue of both surface and groundwater has never been more pronounced.
Experts, however, suggest that devastation from both floods and droughts can be lessened if surface water and groundwater are managed conjunctively.Makumbe says this is why groundwater is so critical for the future of the region and its development and sustainability. “There is broad consensus that groundwater is of major importance for domestic water supply to the growing urban and rural population for irrigation, for staple and cash crops, and for industrial applications as well.”
On the electricity front, with SADC’s hydropower generating capacity concentrated in the Zambezi and Nile River Basins, changing rainfall patterns are a cause for concern. In many countries in the region, hydropower caters to around 90% of the energy needs.
Groundwater is recognized as a resource to help replenish strained water resources in major cities, but experts say it also has a part to play as climate change sees energy demand rise while traditional resources dwindle. “Groundwater for productive use in energy for pumping has great potential. Solar energy for farmers can greatly enhance access to groundwater resources,” explains Sauramba. But not enough is being done, says Makumbe. “The importance of groundwater for sustainable development has been poorly recognized and poorly captured at the SDG target level. There’s lack of globally useful, up-to-date and SDG relevant groundwater data available.”
Conferences like these, however, aim to change that. The Groundwater Conference presents an opportunity to reflect and engage with experts in the water sector about groundwater’s contribution in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG 6 that sets out to ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.’
This is no mean feat, Sauramba explains, but the task is not insurmountable.
“In our endeavour to achieve this mammoth task we know partnerships are the best way. When we go alone, we might go fast, but when we go together then we can go far.”