Guest Editorial by Matthys Dippenaar Associate Professor: Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology Department of Geology, University of Pretoria
As geologists we face this constantly when we share the fascinating stories of the origin of the Universe, the history of the Earth, and the development of Life. We sometimes face different, more real-life and close-to-home matters, where conflict is not necessarily due to differences in narrative, science education or belief. Here, science becomes a surrogate for issues pertaining to moral, ethical, societal and monetary injustice: energy, land use, mineral resources and groundwater—all fundamentally geological resources.
What makes water supply different to minerals and energy, however, is that water is a basic human right. This implies that water is supplied at extremely watered-down tariffs to make it accessible and affordable to all. While this is both commendable and absolutely necessary, it does result in reduced respect and appreciation for the resource.
People tend to be more wasteful of something because it is free or cheap, making water management and governance a very difficult task indeed.
Most of us grew up with a friendly schematic version of the water cycle. A smiling water droplet accompanied you on a spectacular journey from a cloud to rain, and from a river to the ocean. With arms outstretched it yearned to be pulled up to the skies again to complete the circle of its existence.
Occasionally—rarely, but occasionally—we would see this droplet acknowledge the other 99% of the planet’s fresh water. You would be so lucky to be accompanied to the ice caps and glaciers where water is in solid phase, or underground where water stays in openings in soil an rock as groundwater. Though two thirds of our freshwater occurs as ice and one third as groundwater, humanity is still biased towards that 1% occurring in rivers and dams. Almost all fresh terrestrial water is practically excluded from the narrative.
When we look at the story that is told, it is one of reservoirs to store surface water. When that runs out, we talk of augmentation by desalination of ocean water. Whatever happened to the water that we walk on, that shows some delayed response to climatic extremes, and that has some lower vulnerability to contamination and evaporation losses when compared to most surface water alternatives?
This is why no one blinks an eye when boreholes are drilled at random and at one’s own prerogative. As long as the dam levels are monitored, the use of your groundwater is deemed your privilege—no, your right!—despite it being fundamentally wrong and in direct contradiction with our National Water Act (NWA; Act 36 of 1998).1 The Act states very clearly that water is a natural resource that belongs to everyone and that—despite its uneven distribution—its use should be equal. This is echoed by our Constitution (Act 108 of 1996), which states implicitly that everyone has the right to sufficient water, and an environment protected from pollution and ecological degradation, and subject to sustainable development.
Abuse of cheap water affects the story of groundwater. When the sound siting and installation of water infrastructure outweigh the ‘free water’ you are looking for, then why in the world would you spend more on doing it legally, sustainably and ethically? Why would you opt for geophysics and models and testing when someone knows someone who has a gift and can do it for less? This makes it very hard for well-trained groundwater scientists to compete with fairy tales of dowsing (or divining or witching; whatever hocus pocus term works). Science has been given a bad name.
It is a story so often told; one of the abilities of some individuals to site groundwater by some obscure means. But finding water is not the hard part. Practically all ground is wet at some depth. This is the premise of gravity, whereby water (or anything, for that matter) will go down as long as there are openings for it to go down into. No scientist has ever contested that. Finding water is not the skill.
Finding clean water, at acceptable yields, that will not adversely affect the environment or other users, both in space and time, and that will not falter in its yield—this is the skill. Doing this all subject to the SANS 0299 series (Code of Practice: Development, Maintenance and Management of Ground Water Resources), and subject to water use licensing requirements (NWA 36:1998)—this is the skill. This is where the science trumps the quackery, and where we need to be more forceful in protecting the water cycle from those without any respect of it (read, those who shamelessly mine or over abstract water, or those who knowingly pollute it).
This is where groundwater science comes in.
Hydrogeology or geohydrology (used synonymously for most purposes), the scientific study of groundwater, is a fairly well-established science with its roots very close to early-days civil engineering, geophysics, and of course, geology. It has developed to a science no longer concerned solely with water supply from boreholes (or wells), but to one understanding the complexity of the hydraulics of aquifers and its place within the greater water cycle.
No, we don’t just pump boreholes. And no, groundwater doesn’t come from underground rivers and lakes. It is more complex than that. I’d encourage everyone to start with the book by Nel 2 and then to work through the amazing free online platform of groundwater science information at the Groundwater Project (https://gw-project.org).
We need to study the mechanics of the aquifer to understand the regional ramifications of lower watelevels in boreholes. We need to understand the substantial significance of allowing water quality to deteriorate at one point in the water cycle.
Numerous cities and towns throughout South Africa are dependent either fully or partially on groundwater in the water supply mix. 3,4,5 Urban groundwater also brings with it so much more than just matters of supply, also requiring input into water-related disasters, flooding, flooding of underground infrastructure, sustainable drainage solutions, and so much more.6,7
Cities are very often founded on or near water to serve as transport corridors, or for nutritional (drinking) purposes. Cities are near coastlines or rivers. Yet Gauteng is on top of a significant water divide in South Africa, diverting surface water to the Indian Ocean by means of the Crocodile, Olifants and Limpopo rivers, as well as to the Atlantic Ocean by means of the Vaal and Orange rivers. The founding of Pretoria, which predates the discovery of gold and the founding of Johannesburg, is deeply rooted in the high yielding springs from the Malmani Subgroup in the present-day Fountains Valley Resort. As you enter the capital city from the Fountains Valley Interchange, you are greeted with fountains, reminding us of the two high-yielding springs around the corner. To this day, these two springs (Upper Fountain and Lower Fountain) supply in the order of a combined 30–40 million litres per day to Tshwane. The discharge from the springs has remained constant for the 160 years since its first use, and they now supply 5–10% of the City of Tshwane’s water, together with some other springs and boreholes.
Unlike the karst springs in Pretoria, Cape Town itself has a number of springs associated with the Table Mountain Group that have contributed to the water supply of the city throughout its history. Even though the hydraulics of these springs is different from the karst springs in Pretoria, they also provide consistent discharges of remarkably good water quality.
One should never waste your word count with things everyone knows. Yet this needs to be said: South Africa is water scarce. South Africa’s water is erratically distributed. South Africa is predominantly semi-arid to arid.
None of this matters. We have to make do with what the complex geological and geomorphological development of our country has left us, and how this is further compounded by the climate and the changing climate. We have to make do with the difficult job we have as hydrogeologists, and how this is further compounded by ignorance and miscommunication. We need scientists who can communicate science through stories that will captivate audiences and convert those who fall prey to dishonesty and misrepresentation.
Maybe the water cycle also deserves some herd immunity; an additional layer of care and resilience where it is possible, to attempt to mitigate possible adverse effects elsewhere where it is more vulnerable...
Hydrogeology is a fascinating science that South Africa is remarkably competent in internationally. Our hydrogeologists are well respected abroad, and we contribute to academic research, collaborative research, and the international professional bodies. As a country, we are hosting the 50th Congress of the International Association of Hydrogeologists in Cape Town as a joint partnership between its South African National Chapter and the Ground Water Division of the Geological Society of South Africa, in 2021. This is the third on the continent and the second in the country. What a wonderful opportunity to showcase our country’s competence in the science of groundwater!
Hydrogeology is becoming increasingly important. The amount of work done by hydrogeologists in augmenting water supply during the recent droughts is astonishing. These teams spent months to years with geophysical investigations, field visits, modelling, hydraulic testing, and sampling to come up with water supply solutions that are sustainable in the long-term. As hydrogeologists, one needs to test and monitor to continuously verify and improve models. While these are very easily and very often neglected, the consequence of untested and unmonitored schemes is inevitably failure at the expense of the environment and the people. Water supply is as much a matter of drilling a borehole as driving is a matter of having a key, and doing it wrong is an enormous risk.
We no longer study and teach borehole drilling. The hydrogeologist of the twenty-first century has to manage the resource to ensure long-term sustainability and equitable access to the benefit of the people and the environment.
1. NWA. National Water Act 36 of 1998. Government Printer.
2. Nel M. (2017). Groundwater: The Myths, the Truths and the Basics. SP 108/17. Water Research Commission. Pretoria. Available online at www.wrc.org.za.
3. Dippenaar M.A. (2013). Pretoria’s Fountains - Arteries of Life. SP 44/13. Water Research Commission. Pretoria. Available online at www.wrc.org.za.
4. Dippenaar M.A. (2015). Johannesburg: Gold in the Rand, Water from the Land. SP 91/15. Water Research Commission. Pretoria. Available online at www.wrc.org.za.
5. Dippenaar M.A. (2016). Cape Town: where sweet Waters meet the Sea. SP 95/16. Water Research Commission. Pretoria. Available online at www.wrc.org.za.
6. Armitage N., Vice M., Fisher-Jeffes L., Winter K., Spiegel A., Dunstan J. (2013). The South African Guidelines for Sustainable Drainage Systems. TT 558/13. Water Research Commission. Pretoria. Available online at www.wrc.org.za.
7. Seyler H., Witthüser K., Sunaitis M. (2019). Urban Groundwater Development and Management. 2741/1/19. Water Research Commission. Pretoria. Available online at www.wrc.org.za.
Wish All a very Happy Season and good rest over this holiday period. We are thankful that we could spend the year together - staying in touch and finding even more opportunity to meet and share. Let us take the best of the year moving forward and take on 2021 with renewed vigor, focus and intent.
11 x Zoom sessions. Interesting intersecting topics hosted by the different GWD Branches: Western Cape, North West, Eastern Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Central (Bloemfontein).
Special mention of all the Stakeholders, Networks, Memberships, Trade partners of 2020:
BWA, WISA, SADC-GMI, GEOSS, UP, IHP-SA, GAKZN, UKZN, WRC, UWC, DWS, GSSA, CGS, IGS
There is little that delights as much as seeing (and drinking) water when you are thirsty.
It satisfies a fundamental need, it’s a sensory experience bar none and its presence or lack thereof, a deeply emotive issue.
Thus when a community bereft of water for so long, see the first blow of it – spectacularly - from underground, it’s indeed an emotional almost spiritual experience.
And rightly so that the country and press celebrates the fact with them. Celebrates the hands that make it possible. The awe and thankfulness of the people that can now for the first time, some ever, have water close at hand to drink, to wash, to sanitise.
Access to groundwater has changed many lives, particularly also over this year. That is something that the sector also celebrates, after all – this is their trade, their science. Their body of knowledge being honed and studied and shared and debated for decades already: how to bring groundwater - responsibly, sustainably, and with good quality – to those that needs it.
But there is a cloud that seems to obscure this bright sunbeams/ waterstreams of light and hope. It resides and lies uneasy in the stomachs of those that know and rests heavy on the shoulders of the custodians:
Spectacular results can often end in spectacular failures....or just make for some complications later
Geohydrologists (groundwater specialists) realizes that it is difficult to create excitement and buzz around a mostly unseen commodity. A river, dam and waterfall can awe and become part of a scenery – its visual and spatial and you can interact with it to create memories. Groundwater on the other hand – well yes, its hidden. The only thing indicative of it (if anything) is usually a windpump or pumphouse or a 2 dimensional map. Not very sexy or newsworthy. (Nowadays, it is the exciting new playground of the data modellers and animators that bring the science more to life! Watch the press on this one)
That said, nothing is as spectacular as a blow yield. Water shooting up in the sky and raining down with the promise of life-giving nourishment.
But seasoned geohydrologists and drillers know only too well that it is mostly all show. There needs to be a constant yield pumping test done for at least over 8 to 12 hours and water needs to be tested to see if it is indeed suitable for human consumption. The test pumping will indicate the actual yield that can be pumped sustainably at long term as to ensure the impact on the underground aquifer, and all the interconnected flow, is not permanent. That the well can not only give water until the press and its followers turn the camera’s off and move on to the next ‘story of the moment’.
Giving the gift of water is a blessing also for the many geohydrologists that can do it – daily – but it is done, carefully and measuredly - not to overpromise, not as a show but through consideration and in support of their science, their well-toned and constantly honed body of knowledge.
In the year ahead we will start sharing ‘Our Stories’. It will be about our members and member organisations’s experiences working in the groundwater field – with communities, Industry, government, learning institutions – individuals. There is excellent work being done out there and telling about and sharing that work and the impact it have on those giving and/or receiving , groundwater – making up 98% of freshwater on the planet – will ensure this resource is properly celebrated and made visible.
We are starting up a new feature on our website called ‘Our Stories’. We want to give a platform for our members to share their success stories/projects to the world. Tell us about your challenges with difficult drilling site and how you overcome it; the new method you applied in an area; the research that you are busy with, etc. We need to share.
We are requesting only a maximum of 200 words, a photograph/figure and contact details. The writing must consist of a title, short description, the results and the impact of the work.
The contact details need to contain your details, the company/organisation/university details as well as the company/organisation/university logo.
We invite all our member to share experiences with us. And if the media picks up on a story, you will be contacted and not the GwD. This is free advertising for you and your organisation.
Let us Talk about It!
Email us your NAME & TALK THEME to add you to the List:
|1||Mrs Constance Mafuwane, SANBI||FRAMEWORK TO ENHANCE THE CURRENT DEGREE OF EFFICIENCY IN THE MANAGEMENT GROUNDWATER AND SPRINGS IN MPUMALANGA PROVINCE|
Part Love Letter to Groundwater & its Custodians
'Pro-active' has never really been a term associated with the local water sector. In the business of water – just like in life...and water is Life, not so? - our Agendas are informed mostly only by that 'must-do's, can't put this off any longer's' that scream the hardest for our attention at any particular time. And that is the nature of 'reactive' responses – cleaning up the mess, apologising, rationalising, blaming, promising action in mitigating the next disaster. All with hindsight – sometimes offering embarrassing insights – and mostly ending up in the minutes of a meeting or draft plan that will be dusted off / rebooted when the time is just a bit past twelve.
But that is bureaucracy, a wheel without power steering.
Enter our rugged and real <selective, note> groundwater technicians and groundwater scientists that actually walk the dusty plains and hills and valleys of this beautiful country. They talk with headman, the farmer, the woman and kids. They shake the hand of the mine boss, can stomach the boardroom bore and ethical tightropes with the best of MDs and Developers and do the corridor shuffle down the bleak hallways of government buildings..
..but their place is outside in the sun: measuring, plotting, drilling and probing
These workers of the science of the unseen. Most exciting, in my mind. This world below our feet that where, also ions old, fossil water turns.
< sidenote: A recent snippet read – it was a whole article but I can just only process snippets in this too much information world- of the study into the 'memory' of water made me wish I could tap into that world too>
But you don't just 'tap into groundwater'. It's a complicated and much involved science of geology and lithology and soil and gradients and impacts and hydraulics and Darcy's Law....and so much more. And it's also a frontier. Explorers by heart, our scientist map (and use all advanced new ways) and model to help us visualize our 'hidden treasure'.
And now they bring us news (based on scientific data no less) from out there ...from over the river and around the bend.
There is trouble in the land! Our treasure is being depleted...and in some places showing 'no signs of recovery'. Mother nature retaliates, users pollute, over abstract and sometimes just blatantly ignore the impacts that our way of living balancing the economy vs the ecology / environment... have on the world around and below us...
Our last, and in some places, only resort for sustainable living is being threatened.
And then stakeholders gather together and in a chorus affirm each other's concerns and call for action!
...Is the indicator on and blinking yet? And which way will the wheel turn?
How can we insure that we act purposefully and successfully upon these early warnings, I ask myself.
Having been part of the bureaucratic system where I witnessed first-hand how difficult (and cumbersome) the road to implementing any new policy or strategy is, I do a quick relaxation exercise to calm my mind. WE CAN DO THIS.
We can "raise awareness", we can go to press and call to action more stakeholders. Create such 'bottom-up' furore that the powers 'that be' take notice. This bring to mind the huge outcry in Polokwane over the....but that is another story for another day.
We can go to Green Peace <the activist in me that is> or Green Scorpions <has its sting still?> and 'safe our wetlands and the largest freshwater lake in South Africa' campaign it!
But I always stop there in my mind. I look for the possible alternative solution...opposite of the obvious? It is not the first 'early-warning' and not be the last. Not in the least...
Big picture, big solution? Is it possible? For now, until we can find partnerships in like-minded 'Actioneers'..this is a story as old as time...
Perhaps just as old as the groundwater you drink 😉
FOOTNOTE ADDED 27/05/2020 Opinion entirely my own. This piece was penned about a year and a half ago in response to a wetland report that landed in our inbox. I actually still have no idea what was the outcome/ resulted after the report went public.