Researchers from the British Geological Survey (BGS) and University College-London have discovered vast underground water reserves in Africa for the first time. The northern region of the continent has the majority groundwater stored. The discovery contradicts the common belief that Africa is a dry continent.
The new findings states that in Africa’s huge desert landscapes there is approximately 0.66 million km3 of groundwater; a hundred times in excess of what can be found on the surface and twenty times more than in Africa’s lakes!
The scientists mapped out the groundwater reservoirs, also known as aquifers, by cross-referencing a geological base map of the African continent with formerly published maps of the African continent’s aquifers and also carried out studies of 283 African aquifers. The findings are believed to be the first “quantitative groundwater maps for Africa“.
The reasoning behind the findings could be attributed to water being trapped underneath the surface in these aquifers more than 5,000 years ago as the climate became drier subsequently metamorphosing the Sahara into a desert.
This discovery offers hope to our continent since over 300 million people do not have access to safe drinking water as long as the water resources are not exhausted by persistent droughts.
In the interview with the BBC, Helen Bonsor; co-author of the BGS report, said: “Much lower storage aquifers are present across much of sub-Saharan Africa. However, our work shows that with careful exploring and construction, there is sufficient groundwater under Africa to support low-yielding water supplies for drinking and community irrigation“.
On the other hand, the aforementioned underground acquifers have not been refilled for an estimated 5,000 years owing to the lack of rain. This means that the stored groundwater is of limited supply. As a result, there is a debate over how to best extract the water for drinking purposes. If caution is not exercised, wide development of water extraction could end up exhausting the aquifers. Normally, use of bore holes will be the way to extract the water.
A London-based senior adviser for aid group Global Water Partnership, Dr. Stephen Foster, told Reuters that: “It is not as simple as drilling big bore-holes and seeing rice fields spring up everywhere. In some places it could be economically and technically feasible to use groundwater to reduce crop loss, but I would question whether that is true everywhere. It will need detailed evaluation“. Furthermore, there is knowledge gap on how much of the water pumped out might be enough for large-scale irrigation.
Another debate is the inhomogeneous groundwater distribution which can possibly cause vicious clashes between African nations as the demand for water escalates.
All in all, the discovery of the groundwater brings hope to the dry continent and a lot could change as a result of it. Let’s hope the change will be for the better.