2016 Water Day: African Aquifers Can Protect Against Climate Change

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WaterSan Perspective
March 22, 2016

Floods and droughts, feasts and famines: the challenge of living with an African climate has always been its variability, from the lush rainforests of the Congo to the extreme dry of the Sahara and Namib deserts.

In north western Europe, drizzle and rain is generally spread quite evenly across the year, as anyone who has gone camping in British summer will tell you. But when annual rainfall happens within just a few months or weeks of the year then it is a massive challenge for farmers, towns and industry to access enough water through long dry seasons and to protect themselves and their land from flooding and mudslides when the rains come.

Climate-related natural disasters including floods, storms and heat waves have steadily increased across the globe over the past 40 years. Photo by Muchunguzi Emmy
Climate-related natural disasters including floods, storms and heat waves have steadily increased across the globe over the past 40 years. Photo by Muchunguzi Emmy

New research suggests that Africa’s aquifers could be the key to managing water better. Professor Richard Taylor at UCL explains: “What we found is that groundwater in tropical regions – and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular – is primarily replenished from intense rainfall events – heavy downpours. This means that aquifers are an essential way of storing the heavy rain from the rainy season for use during the dry season, and for keeping rivers flowing.”

Many African climates are variable now, but are becoming even more unpredictable with climate change. So how can heavy rain be directed underground more effectively?

Award-winning UPGro research found a way, in Tigray Regional State in Ethiopia. MetaMeta of the Netherlands, together with its partners Mekelle University and Tigray Government looked at ways and means of collecting water with the roads – from culverts, drains, borrow pits, road surface, river crossings, as these have massive impact on how rain run-off moves across a landscape.

The idea then scaled up quickly – in 2014 the Tigray Government implemented road water harvesting activities in all its districts. The results have been spectacular in increased water tables, better soil moisture, reduced erosion from roads, less local flooding and moreover much better crop yields. Their guidebook “How to Make Water Wise Roads” helps others who want to apply these methods in their own areas.

Professor Taylor: “Having a buffer is essential to protect people and livelihoods from extreme hydrological events; groundwater can play an important role, but aquifers need to be well understood, well managed, and this needs good data and competent hydrogeologists in each of these countries. This is what GroFutures , and the other UPGro research projects, are working on.”

The GroFutures project will be hosting a workshop 31st March 2016 in Iringa, Tanzania to examine the potential of groundwater to expand irrigation and increase access to safe water in Tanzania.

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