Groundwater: the world’s neglected defence against climate change

Aerial view of women and children filling buckets and waiting for their turn at a borehole, Chisi Island, Zomba, Malawi, October 2020.
Image: WaterAid/ Dennis Lupenga

On World Water Day, a new report from WaterAid and the British Geological Survey reveals how most countries in Africa have enough groundwater reserves to face at least five years of drought.

There is enough groundwater under the continent of Africa for most countries to survive at least five years of drought – and for some, more than 50 years – according to new research by WaterAid and the British Geological Survey.

The report – "Groundwater: the world’s neglected defence against climate change" – shows that groundwater, which exists almost everywhere underground, could save hundreds of thousands of lives and be the world’s insurance policy against climate change.

According to the report:

  • Most countries in Africa have sufficient groundwater for people to not only survive, but thrive.
  • Ethiopia and Madagascar – where only around half the population have clean water close to home – and large parts of Mali, Niger and Nigeria have enough groundwater to meet demand for the next 50 years.
  • Every sub-Saharan country in Africa could supply each person with 130 litres of drinking water per day from groundwater. This means groundwater could provide a buffer against climate change for many years to come, even in the unlikely event that it doesn’t rain.

The report also explains that while groundwater in sub-Saharan Africa is largely underused, in other parts of the world – mainly in south Asia – overuse is rife. This, along with a lack of regulation and insufficient expertise and investment often leads to mismanagement, contamination and pollution – with potentially devastating consequences.

In other regions, groundwater is naturally contaminated with arsenic and fluoride which can lead to illness or even death. And in both South Asia and Africa, groundwater is vulnerable to pollution from fertilisers and pesticides from intensive farming, toxic chemicals from poorly regulated industry or sewerage from poorly managed sanitation.

The report emphasises the need to increase water and sanitation financing for marginalised communities through a fixed percentage of annual government budgets and from international donors and the private sector. It also stresses that investment in responsible groundwater development – and the knowledge, expertise, finance and institutional support this requires – is key to securing life-saving, sustainable and safe water and sanitation for communities living on the frontline of the climate crisis.

Top image: Women and children collecting water at a borehole on Chisi Island, Malawi, October 2020.