The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) recognises that water and sanitation are at the core of sustainable development. Yet the UN SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 concludes that we are far from reaching this goal – and this was before COVID-19. In Africa, where climate change is particularly pronounced, groundwater resources may offer a solution to build resilience and progress towards the achievement of SDG 6.
UN-Water has announced that the theme for World Water Day in 2022 is ‘Groundwater – Making the Invisible Visible’. And, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) convened, together with many international partners, sessions at the virtual World Water Week to underline the need to sustainably realise the potential of groundwater to provide resilience to future shocks.
Effective water supply and management shield farmers and urban dwellers from creeping threats, such as climate change, but also fast-onset global disrupters like COVID-19. By enhancing resilience during droughts, floods and other unanticipated events, water management underpins health and supports food security and livelihoods. Conversely, limited water infrastructure and unreliable water availability and access act as risk multipliers, in particular where limited water development coincides with high rates of poverty.
Effective water supply and management shield farmers and urban dwellers from creeping threats, such as climate change and COVID-19
Across Africa, held within soil and rock beneath the surface, groundwater provides fresh drinking water for around 70 per cent of people. With its wide distribution and perennial availability, it is the chosen water supply for most rural communities, and, increasingly, for urban areas. As such, it forms the backbone of water security, human health and climate resilience across the continent.
However around four in 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa still lack safe drinking water, while seven in 10 do not have access to adequate sanitation: far below the global average. Meanwhile, just 1% of cultivated land (2 million hectares) is irrigated with groundwater in Africa, compared to 14% in Asia.
A paucity of groundwater development in Africa is holding back a real opportunity to address major development challenges. African countries have not been the recipient of major government investments in irrigation. By comparison, India, Pakistan and China have implemented substantial national investments that have stimulated food security and economic development.
In sub-Saharan Africa many enabling factors for developing groundwater are not in place including access to energy for pumping water; national policies favouring groundwater development and management; hydrogeological expertise in, and practical experience of developing and maintaining groundwater infrastructure; access to cost-effective technology, such as drilling equipment and pumps; pro-poor finance mechanisms; and functioning value chains for food produced by groundwater.
Solar power is increasingly viewed as a shortcut for driving groundwater development. But a catalyst is needed to support further development through appropriate funding or business models for smallholders, while assuring effective groundwater management that safeguards the resource for future generations. Groundwater development is also emerging as an option for non-agricultural uses, as in larger cities such as Cape Town and Dar es Salaam.
Strengthening commitment and coalitions on the continent across different scales and levels, spanning policy and research, and encompassing the WASH and groundwater resource management sectors, can only enhance prospects for meeting SDG 6. And since groundwater is closely linked to several other UN goals – around food security (SDG 2), sustainable cities (SDG 11), climate adaptation (SDG 13) and environmental protection (SDG 15) – its inclusion in continent-wide strategies has the potential to help keep Africa’s broader development on a sustainable footing. This was a sentiment that resonated well with audiences at the World Water Week.