Jun 26, 2012
Limits to the availability of groundwater in Africa
The recent paper on Africa's groundwater by MacDonald et al (2012) has attracted much attention. This is good news, especially since groundwater has been widely ignored, misunderstood or abused, as a fundamental global resource. This important paper goes a long way to raising the profile of groundwater in Africa by providing first-order estimates of the available storage (taking account of saturated aquifer thickness and porosity) as well as mapping expected water yields (aquifer productivity) in that continent.
Reliable estimates of groundwater resources can now be set against the far more widely reported surface water availability. The constraints of the methodology used to compile these maps are duly acknowledged, and are well within the hydrogeological state-of-the-art. The paper is backed by carefully reviewed sources of data and a considerable effort has been made to incorporate the extensive grey literature. It is important that this benchmark study is received with the acclaim it deserves. However, the headline – that groundwater storage is some 100 times the annual renewable surface waters – could be misconstrued as implying that groundwater is an abundant new resource, which it is not. Whilst groundwater is key to sustainable development, renewability and accessibility issues need to be addressed. The paper may therefore be seized upon to justify unsustainable groundwater exploitation, or to provide an argument against funding to NGOs and others, for water provision for needy communities. Some constraints that must be taken into account are elaborated here.
The conclusions of the paper (MacDonald et al 2012) demonstrate that modest yields of groundwater are quite widely available at accessible depths and sufficient to sustain small communities and their development, but larger yields (>5 l s−1) suitable for urban development or major agricultural schemes are unlikely outside of the sedimentary terrain. The availability and accessibility of groundwater over much of Africa, therefore, is favourable to rural rather than urban development. One of the real opportunities presented in the paper is that groundwater should be more widely used for a revolution in rural development. To this end, the use of managed aquifer recharge (MAR), coupled with other forms of rainwater harvesting, can also locally conserve and augment groundwater resources and offer obvious advantages over building surface water storage.
The large sedimentary aquifers of Africa contain some 0.66 million km3 in storage (MacDonald et al 2012); but most of this water (0.44 M km3) is contained beneath eight Saharan countries (see table 1, MacDonald et al 2012). This includes the Nubian Sandstone aquifer system, underlying Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Chad. In Libya this immense high yielding aquifer may be over 2.5 km thick (Pallas 1980) but considerable depths to the water table make for costly development. Water in Libya is currently being extracted (mined) from remote inland areas for transmission to the coast, from wells typically 300–500 m deep with estimated well-field lifetimes unlikely to exceed 50 years (Pallas and Salem 2001). This and the other Saharan aquifers are accessible only to a very small fraction of the African population. Groundwater extraction and transmission is possible only with the energy provided from the proximity of fossil fuels; large water transfer schemes are energy intensive and for most areas of Africa not an economic option, having also social and ecological consequences (Matete and Hassan 2005). Moreover a steady decline in water tables (typically from 0.5 to 2 m yr) has been taking place widely in semi-arid areas globally, mostly due to abstraction exceeding recharge, with consequences for both human requirements and ecosystems.
Thus a major limiting factor is the need to identify whether the stored groundwater is a renewable or a non-renewable resource. In the case of deep basins such as the Saharan aquifers this water can be shown, from numerous studies, to be almost entirely non-renewable, "fossil" water, recharged under wetter early Holocene or late Pleistocene climates, prior to onset of a more arid climate around 4500 years BP (Edmunds et al 2004). Small amounts of modern recharge (for example in the Atlas Mountains or Tibesti) are insufficient to have an impact on the drawdown of distant well fields. It is critical, therefore, to base resource estimates for any development on knowledge of the locally renewable amounts from rainfall and to consider mining palaeo-reserves only as a last resort. Hydrogeological techniques are available to quantify modern recharge (Scanlon and Cook 2002, Scanlon et al 2006) and rates can vary widely according to rock type and landscape; reliance on modelled estimates alone could be misleading.
Water quality is also a limiting factor in quantifying usable fresh groundwater storage. In addition to the regional or local problems caused by fluoride, in areas of East and West Africa (MacDonald et al 2012), salinity, above all, will restrict the total usable storage for domestic use and food production, most notably in semi-arid or arid areas. Groundwater salinity arises from various sources, including lithologies containing evaporite minerals, residual sea water (especially in continental coastal margins) and evapotranspiration. As a general rule, salinity increases with depth (older waters tend to more saline), but an additional problem arises where salinity has built up due to aridification over several millennia. Playas and sebkhats are surface expressions of this salinity accumulation from surface water or groundwater discharge, but clearance of native vegetation also increases recharge and leads to salinity increase (George et al 1997). Near-surface salt accumulation may be drawn down into cones of depression in areas of development. One of the largest artesian aquifers, the Continental Intercalaire of Algeria and Tunisia, has groundwater discharge with a salinity of 1–3 g l−1, locally as high as 7 g l−1 in the Tunisian Chotts (Edmunds et al 2003, Zammouri et al 2007), limiting water for irrigated agriculture. The volumes of non-saline and groundwater in the total storage therefore need to be considered as part of the storage.
Edmunds W M, Dodo A, Djoret D, Gasse F, Gaye C B, Goni I B, Travi Y, Zouari K and Zuppi G M 2004 Groundwater as an archive of climatic and environmental change. The PEP-III traverse Past Climate Variability through Europe and Africa (Developments in Palaeoenvironmental Research Series) ed R W Battarbee, F Gasse and C E Stickley (Dordrecht: Kluwer) pp 279–306
Edmunds W M, Guendouz A H, Mamou A, Moulla A S, Shand P and Zouari K 2003 Groundwater evolution in the Continental Intercalaire aquifer of Southern Algeria and Tunisia: trace element and isotopic indicators Appl. Geochem. 18 805–22
George R, McFarlane D and Nulsen R 1997 Salinity threatens the viability of agriculture and ecosystems in Western Australia Hydrogeol. J. 5 6–21
MacDonald A M, Bonsor H C, O'Dochartaigh B E and Taylor R G 2012 Quantitative maps of groundwater resources in Africa Environ. Res. Lett. 7 024009
Matete M and Hassan R 2005 Anecological economics framework for assessing environmental flows: the case of inter-basin water transfers in Lesotho Glob. Planet. Change 47 193–200
Pallas P 1980 Water resources of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahariya The Geology of Libya vol 2, ed M J Salem and M T Busrewil (London: Academic) pp 539–94
Pallas P and Salem O 2001 Water resources utilisation and management of the Socialist People's Arab Jamahiriya Regional Aquifer Systems in Arid Zones—Managing Non-Renewable Resources (IHP-V Technical Documents in Hydrology) (Paris: UNESCO) pp 147–72
Scanlon B R and Cook P G 2002 Preface: theme issue on groundwater recharge Hydrogeol. J. 10 3–4 and following papers
Scanlon B R, Keese K E, Flint A L, Flint L E, Gaye C B, Edmunds W M and Simmers I 2006 Global synthesis of groundwater recharge in semi-arid and arid regions Hydrol. Process. 20 3335–70
Zammouri M, Siegfried T, El-Fahem T, Kriâa S and Kinzelbach W 2007 Salinization of groundwater in the Nefzawaoases region, Tunisia: results of a regional-scale hydrogeologic approach Hydrogeol. J. 15 1357–75
About the author
W Mike Edmunds is at the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, UK.