Turkana, Kenya — There is enough groundwater on the African continent to provide everyone with enough drinking water to face at least five years of drought, and in some cases up to 50 years. This is according to a new analysis done by the British Geological Survey and WaterAid, presented at the World Water Forum in Dakar.
The British Geological Survey and WaterAid after a ten-year survey found that throughout Africa there are enough subsurface water reserves to serve the entire population. Even in parched locations, according to BGS chief researcher Alan MacDonald, there can be adequate groundwater, he explains through Zoom.
“When you realize the groundwater resources are maybe 20 times the amount of water we have in the rivers and lakes of Africa,” said MacDonald. “Then it’s a really amazing fact but because it’s hidden it’s so often out of sight and out of mind.”
This applies to Turkana, Kenya, one of Africa’s driest regions, where camel caravans trek between the scarce water sources. It is one of the worst affected places on the continent, according to the Famine Early Warning System. Turkana’s water minister, Vincent Palor, confirms the situation is dire.
“The water sources are drying up because the water table has gone down. The body condition of the livestock is poor,” said Palor. “When we also look at the vegetation cover, the vegetation cover is not pleasant because it’s drying up.”
But even in Turkana, there appears to be water just beneath the feet of the camel herders. According to a 2013 report Turkana has enough groundwater to service Kenya for 70 years. However, a government survey has shown the water is too salty.
Virginia Newton-Lewis, a senior policy analyst at WaterAid, explained that investments are needed to get usable water.
“We need mapping, we need monitoring,” said Newton-Lewis. “This takes investments, this takes investments in also equipment. It takes investments in human resources to do that. And then we need investments in the way we get the water that we find to the people that need it the most.”
BGS researcher Alan MacDonald added that the report is timely since groundwater is crucial amid droughts caused by climate change.
“As droughts are becoming more common, then people are looking for a much more reliable source of water, which is why I think there is an increased interest in groundwater resources because they are much more reliable than rainwater or river water or even reservoirs,” said MacDonald.
Turkana’s Minister Vincent Palor is pleased with the renewed focus on groundwater exploration, as he is concerned that continuing water shortages may exacerbate the situation.
“If the water stress continues this means there will be a scramble for water, and this may force these pastoralists to move to neighboring countries, and then at times contributing to conflict,” said Palor.
There is however respite for Turkana and Africa since another recent survey by BGS suggests that 80% of the subterranean water is likely to be acceptable for drinking.