• Jamaine Krige; Tebogo Gantsa

Groundwater: Come rain or shine


Beira was a bustling port city before Cyclone Idai flooding destroyed 90% of and left large parts submerged in water. Pic: frayintermedia

Torrential rains and a tropical cyclone have devastated parts of Southern Africa, with more than one thousand people feared dead in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. In the week leading up to Cyclone Idai’s landfall, at least 56 people died as heavy rains caused widespread flooding across Malawi - a country plagued by one of the worst droughts on record, with more than 6,5 million people affected by the past several years’ dry spell.

Additional medical and rescue personnel have been deployed to Beira in Mozambique - where rescue organisations estimate that 90% of the port city has been destroyed. As the flood waters subside and the losses are tallied, the full extent of the damages are slowly becoming apparent.

A joint team from Medi Response, Hatzolah and the SSF - Rescuers Without Borders from South Africa has joined forces with humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers. The organisation has been been working in the disaster-stricken region for more than a week to aid in both the emergency and primary healthcare for those affected by Cyclone Idai. South African resources and personnel from both the private and state sectors are at the forefront of relief work, while emergency teams from the Indian Navy and from China have also joined the rescue efforts. The death toll across the three affected countries continues to rise.

Humanitarian organisations estimate that 90% of the once busting port city Beira has been destroyed by Cyclone Idai. Pic: Medi Response Joint Rescue Team

Drought and floods: Two sides of the same coin

Now, more than ever, Southern Africa must take proactive steps to mitigate the impact of droughts and floods - both which are expected to increase in frequency and severity as the effects of climate change continue to influence weather patterns. Experts, however, suggest that the effective management of the region’s groundwater resources could lessen the impact of natural disasters, while ensuring water security for countries traditionally seen as water scarce.

To understand why Africa is not actually as dry as previously thought, and how groundwater can be used as a buffer for climate change, it is first important to understand the different types of water resources available in the region.

Surface water gathers in the form of rivers, streams, lakes, dams and wetlands. When water falls as rain, a large amount of water finds its way into these surface water systems. Some of this water, however, seeps into the earth where it is held in crevices and pores or stored between layers of rock known as aquifers. These aquifers act as a sponge, holding water in underground pockets or underground lakes, protected from environmental factors like evaporation and many forms of pollution.

While mapping groundwater sources, researchers from the British Geological Survey and University College London found that the total volume of water in aquifers is more than 100 times the amount of water found on the continent’s surface, and at least twenty times more than the amount of freshwater stored in Africa’s lakes.

Groundwater as a buffer against climate change

But how does groundwater act as a buffer against climate change during both times of rain and times of drought? Water management experts suggest that effective groundwater management offers opportunity, not only for water extraction, but also for water storage.

Jonathan Lautze is a senior researcher at International Water Management Institute-Southern Africa. He says devastation from recent floods could have been minimised through proper planning and management of both underground and surface water supplies. This is especially true of southern Malawi and parts of northern Mozambique - two areas heavily affected by torrential rains and widespread flooding in past weeks.

“Through appropriate land management we can increase the amount of water going into the ground, rather than flowing down the surface.” This flow, he explains, if excessive is what causes floods. “That means, if vegetation is good, water can infiltrate and percolate into the ground so that less water goes downstream and causes these floods," Lautze explains. This also helps protect against soil erosion.

James Sauramba is executive director of the Southern Africa Development Community Groundwater Management Institute (SADC-GMI), an organisation that promotes sustainable groundwater use in Southern Africa. Sauramba concurs with Lautze and says groundwater assists both during very wet periods and when it is extremely dry.

“We have what you call natural infrastructure which enables the groundwater to infiltrate from floods into aquifers. That water can be used during dry periods,” Sauramba said.

Malawi’s chief groundwater officer in the Department of Water Development, Zione Uka , says “In the cases of damage to water supply infrastructure or relocation due to flooding, boreholes are often drilled as an immediate solution to the crisis."

Widespread crop destruction and infrastructure damage in Mozambique means that food scarcity and access to essential services like medical care may result in further deaths, Pic: Medi Response Joint Rescue Team

In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, with more than one million residents of the region displaced and large-scale infrastructure damage, groundwater may prove to be the difference between life and death for those affected.

New information about the state and impact of groundwater management comes from a 10-month pilot research project led by SADC-GMI. The Shire ConWat-project looks at joint transboundary management of surface and groundwater, specifically in Malawi and Mozambique.

Lautze works as an institutional and governance expert on this project and says after nine months the project has already made a valuable contribution to the understanding of conjunctive management of water resources in both countries. This, he says, is a critical advancement to finding solutions to climate change-induced weather phenomena which cause and exacerbate natural disasters like droughts and flooding.

Through effective regional groundwater management, the impact of natural disasters can be minimised, food security can be boosted and hydro-power generating capacity can be unlocked to support industrialisation in the region.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has flagged water security as one of the fastest growing social, political and economic challenges internationally. According to the UN 115 people in Africa die each hour due to lack of access to safe water and lack of sanitation. While one of the UN’s Sustainability Goals is to ensure access to clean water and sanitation for all by 2030, the WEF estimates that there will be a 40% shortfall between water supply and demand by that same year unless drastic action is taken.

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