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Better Use of Groundwater Could Transform Africa, Research Says

March 21, 2022
The Guardian

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent

Groundwater resources in sub-Saharan Africa are enough to transform agriculture in the region and provide people with adequate safe water for their drinking and hygiene needs, if the resource can be better managed, researchers have said.

Groundwater — found underground in aquifers, rocks and soils — makes up about 99% of all liquid freshwater on earth, and is abundant in much of Africa, but a lack of investment has left it untapped or poorly managed, two major studies have found. The reserves could be used for irrigation and to supply clean and safe water, but there is also a danger that if used unsustainably they could be rapidly depleted or polluted.

Tim Wainwright, the chief executive of WaterAid UK, the charity behind one of the reports, said: “Our findings debunk the myth that Africa is running out of water. But the tragedy is that millions of people on the continent still do not have enough clean water to drink. There are vast reserves of water right under people’s feet, many of which are replenished every year by rainfall and other surface water, but they can’t access it because services are chronically underfunded.” […]

For African countries, a further danger is that other countries may leap in to take advantage first. The Oakland Institute has published a separate study showing that big agricultural commodity companies from overseas are seeing a major opportunity in Africa. Researchers studied 15 cases of large-scale agricultural projects in 11 African countries, where big companies were given rights to land and water extraction.

The report warned that in many cases, far from seeing benefits from the development, local people were often disadvantaged. “When irrigation infrastructure is established, it benefits private firms for large-scale agriculture, often for export crops, instead of local farmers and communities,” the report says. “People living in arid and semi-arid lands are severely impacted by large-scale irrigation projects that reduce available pastures, and prevent flood recession agriculture, while fences and canals cut through traditional routes of people and livestock.”