Huge Reserves of Groundwater Found In Africa
British Geological Survey and University College London earlier this week brought the good news to the people of Africa and to the whole world as they say that the huge reserves of underground water would change the face of the continent for ever, impacting positively on the effects of climate change all over the world.
The study, sponsored by the British government, is considered useful as it can have a profound effect on the world’s poorest people, and could render them less vulnerable to drought and to the impact of climate change, the UK State Secretary for International Development told BBC News.
Scientists consider that due to the climate changes which had as a result the turning of the Sahara region into a desert zone over the centuries, the water has filled the aquifers for the last time over 5,000 years ago. They collected this information from studying 283 aquifers and are able to say that many countries, so far labeled among the countries with “water scarcity” had substantial water reserves.
They said that the largest groundwater volumes are found in the large sedimentary aquifers in the north of Africa, in countries like Libya, Algeria, Egypt, and Sudan. In a paper published in the Environmental Research Letters, they have published on the theme, they estimate the groundwater reserve across the continent to be 100 times the amount on the surface, that is 0.66 million cubic kilometers.
The scientists cautioned that not all these reserves can be accessed, and said that where they can be accessed small-scale extraction with hand pumps would be preferable to large-scale drilling projects, because the latter could quickly deplete the reservoirs and have other unpredicted consequences.
Though groundwater may not solve the water shortage Africa is experiencing, it could however make a significant contribution to meet the increase in demand for water caused by the increase in the population of the continent. Still, with careful exploring and construction, there is sufficient groundwater under Africa to support low yielding water supplies, thus covering the drinking water supplies and the community irrigation necessity.
In an article published by Reuters, the number of the African people with no access to water is estimated to 300 million, while the arable land is estimated at 5 percent of the continent.
According to a senior adviser for Global Water Partnership, it is not expectable that holes to be dug in the ground and agriculture to flourish immediately after it, but in some of the countries the technological and economical development could help find solutions to reduce crop loss. A detailed evaluation will be needed to see if the situation can apply everywhere in the zones where the groundwater zones have been found.
The main obstacles in the way of implementing projects to bring this water to the surface seem to be the logistics and cost problems. Reuters records that such a project of groundwater irrigation project existed in northern Nigeria, but that it collapsed because of the lack of funds and distribution difficulties.
The deposits around the Sahara deserts are said to be the largest but also the deepest in the ground, at about 100 to 250 meters below ground. The waters that are deeper than 50 meters cannot be drilled by mere hand pumps, the study says. At more than 100 meters deep, the borehole drilling would cost more, because it implies more sophisticated equipment.
The cost, according to specialists, can vary from $13,000 per hand pump to around $130,000, from the estimations made in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where some drilling has been executed.
Reuters reports that the researchers have drafted the map of the groundwater reserves in order to show that the water shortage in Africa is not due to scarcity of the water itself but to the lack of technology and funds.
They estimate that 60 percent of Africans live in rural communities , and 80 percent of them rely on groundwater system. Many of these hand pumps are said to have broken because of the lack of maintenance.
The map is said to have been drafted based on existing geological charts provided from governments, and hundreds of aquifer studies. Aid agencies were cautious in welcoming the discovery of water supplies under the ground of Africa, saying that it is very difficult to ascertain how much of it would be put to use due to the cost and technological difficulties, and that its exploitation could have unforeseen impacts.
There are studies which say that there are other sources of water in Africa that are not being put to good use, one of which is the water that falls from the rain, which is rarely collected and could cover the needs of about nine million people.
According to a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, cited by Reuters, Ethiopia could cover from the rain water the needs of 250 million people, and yet 46 percent of the population in the country feel shortage of water and suffer hunger.
Water supplies have been cause for the Northern African and Middle East nations to bicker over, one of the most famous such dispute being the one surrounding the independence of South Sudan, when Egypt and Sudan were placed in the position of sharing the same reserves with another state.
One of the most famous projects intended to turn sand to water was realized by former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, who explored four major underground aquifers in southern Libya pumping water through a 2,820-km network of pipes carrying water from south to the northern population centers.
The project is a 26-year project, costing $19.58 billion, and was near completion in 2010 before the civil war broke in Libya. It had been deemed “The Great Man-Made River,” and was considered the largest irrigation project in history.
The project has more than 1,300 wells, more than 500 m deep, and supply 6,500,000 cubic meters of fresh water per day to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte and others. Qaddafi spoke in his days about it as the “eighth wonder of the world.”
Some of the water stored in the aquifers in the Libyan desert is said to have been collected since the last ice age, and if the 2007 retrieval rates are not increased, the water was estimated to last for a thousand years.
Qaddafi had in mind to irrigate some 160,000 hectares of farmland with the water drilled from under ground, and is was considered the least expensive solution for a water-scarce country.
The Libyan project demonstrates that the discovery of the English scientists is not unprecedented, but it is important because now it charts the entire surface of Africa, not only state-made prognoses.
In 2010, Christian Science Monitor published a material about the Great Man-Made River in which it was presenting data about the groundwater supply that was stretching all the way to the neighboring countries of Libya.
The massive aquifer is said to stretch under Libya, Egypt, Chad, and Sudan, including four freshwater basins inside Libya, containing 10,000 to 12,000 cubic kilometers of water buries at 600 meters below the surface. Libya is pumping some 2.5 million cubic meters every day, and is storing them in five giant above-ground reservoirs.11