Unlocking the potential of groundwater for the poor

An overview of this successful research programme including illuminating videos

Recently, the Unlocking the Potential for the Poor (UPGro) programme was closed and that marked the end of seven years of groundwater research, with special focus on Africa. The programme brought together researchers, citizens, governments, the private sector and NGO’s, representing over 50 organisations from Africa and beyond, with the aim to improve the efficient use of great potential Africa’s aquifers have to offer. 

Groundwater in Africa

UPGro: Groundwater in Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa, which was the study area of this UPGro research, is traditionally an area with a vary variable climate. This climate that alternates periods of heavy rainfall with periods of droughts, has an impact on river flows, lake levels and groundwater. Moreover, climate change is expected to make this already variable climate even more variable in the upcoming decades, increasing the duration of droughts and the intensity of floods. 

An interesting outcome from the UPGro research, however, is that this intensification may favour the recharge of groundwater. This could mean that groundwater could play a more vital role in future water supply, particularly as resource for irrigating agricultural lands. By 2010, only 4 percent of all water used irrigation in Sub-Saharan Africa came from groundwater, but the intensified rainfall events in combination with a predicted high population growth is likely to change that percentage. Using more groundwater for irrigation could positively affect agricultural production, reduce crop failure and, thereby, increase household incomes. Although this huge potential of African groundwater resources, there are also challenges that should be overcome in order to fully unlock it. 

Nitrate, fluoride and arsenic pollution

The groundwater quality is one of those challenges. When doing research in rural Malawi, Uganda and Ethiopia, the UPGro research team found out that 72% of all working handpumps provided good quality water. However, 21% of those pumps were affected by bacteria while 9% was affected by chemicals, including nitrate pollution and naturally occurring fluoride and arsenic. This groundwater pollution also occurs often in African cities with shallow aquifers.

Abundant on regional scale, scarce on local scale

UPGro: Groundwater and handpumps

The other main challenge is the quantity of available groundwater. Having assessed and monitored groundwater levels of several major aquifers in Sub-Saharan Africa, the UPGro research showed that there was no substantial decline in the past 15 years. Although at first glance these results could make it seem that availability is no problem at all, zooming in on the local level would paint another picture. Large scale localised pumping, particularly in large urban areas, have caused local levels to drop dramatically. Population growth and urbanisation often accelerate this process. 

In an even more local context, another challenge is the number of handpumps, in dry periods often the only source of water available, that do not yet work properly. UPGro researcher examined the main causes of pump failure by taking apart pumps, testing boreholes and learning about the underlying political, social and economic issues. For example, some pumps consisted of poor-quality parts that rapidly corroded. In other cases, the pumps simply appeared to be installed in locations where it was not possible to withdraw enough groundwater.  

Good understanding of groundwater as key to sustainable resources

Good understanding of groundwater resources is necessary to identify opportunities for further groundwater development and measures to protect groundwater from risks of pollution and overuse. 

To strengthen knowledge on groundwater, as well as to build trust and connections between local authorities and local people, UPGro introduced an approach called transition management. It brought together local people, institutions, NGOs and private companies and empowered them to jointly develop sustainable solutions to water-related problems.

Groundwater Game: Tragedy of the commons

GroFutures Serious Groundwater Game in Niger
Groundwater game session in Niamey, Niger

To increase the understanding of groundwater and its interface with surface water, IGRAC developed a serious groundwater game. Participants in the game can learn about basic groundwater concepts such as drawdown and depletion, as well as gain insight into management of a common pool resource. This game was used and further improved during several stakeholder meetings within the GroFutures project, which is one of the projects that was carried out under the UPGro umbrella. Serious game sessions were held in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Niger