Present state and future prospects for groundwater development in South Africa

OPINION by Yazeed van Wyk

Present state and future prospects for groundwater development in South Africa


World Water Day is an annual United Nations observance day held on 22 March every year since 1993, with the aim to raise awareness on the importance of sustainably managing freshwater. Today, about 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and 3.6 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services. UN-Water Member States and partners opted to highlight the significance of groundwater as a precious resource for future water security. The theme being "Groundwater, making the invisible visible"; and to support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal (SGD) 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030. The latest World Water Development Report (WWDR) also published this week is unique as it is the first time that it’s focused on a specific element of the global hydrological cycle—in this case, groundwater. This year’s report is more than just an angle or perspective through which to explore the role of water across various social, economic, and environmental goals and objectives. It concerns a critical freshwater resource that has remained ‘under the radar’ for far too long and will help translate science into policy for more effective decision making.

Groundwater is a major water-supply source and provides almost half of all drinking water worldwide, secondly groundwater also provides roughly 40% of water for irrigated agriculture, however this figure can be much higher considering that half the water flowing in rivers come from groundwater as baseflow. Thirdly, groundwater provides about a third of the water supply required for industry, not only that, but it also sustains biodiversity and terrestrial ecosystems. As a strategic resource and an important component to adapt to the threats associated with climate change.
Despite these impressive statistics, groundwater is out of sight and often out of mind for most people. Human activities (including population- and economic growth), poor land use planning, and climate change are putting pressure on groundwater resources. Serious depletion and contamination problems are reported for many parts of the world due to this lack of understanding, including South Africa.

Locally, groundwater plays a pivotal role in ensuring water security. It supplies approximately 13% of the total water supply but often provides up to 100% of water supply to some areas. It is thus a resource of strategic importance. The Water Research Commission has been a driving force in setting the research agenda for groundwater in the country for just over half a century. With a core focus to promote, create, and disseminate knowledge and innovation on the optimal and sustainable utilisation of South Africa’s groundwater resources through coordinated research activities.

An important issue that needs careful assessment - cities internationally are becoming increasingly reliant on groundwater, and right now roughly 50% of all urban populations worldwide rely on groundwater and this dependence will continue to increase. This dependence will intensify, particularly in the rapidly urbanizing areas of developing countries and emerging economies. But we need to be careful because they are going to become very reliant on groundwater, how sustainably
they use it will be key. As an example, how many cities are sinking faster because of aquifer compaction (over-abstraction) than sea level rise? This is something that has never been published in an IPCC report showing that cities are sinking because of groundwater over pumping. Cape Town is actively developing the Table Mountain Group (TMG) and Cape Flats Aquifers to increase long-term water security. This is in direct response to the unprecedented multi-year drought which dramatically reduced surface runoff into the main water supply dams. The drought serves as a case in point and gives us a sense of how we are on a definitive trajectory to a drier climate and that we will reach the 1.5°C average rise in global temperatures a lot sooner than expected.

A key intervention for adapting to climate change and to secure and augment the current water supply has been the practice of Manager Aquifer Recharge (MAR). South Africa has advanced significantly in this regard with a national map showing the prospects for MAR, an artificial recharge strategy on how to develop MAR projects, and well-documented case studies (e.g., Atlantis, Hermanus and Elandsfontein). Starting in the 1970s, the Atlantis scheme contributes approximately 25–30% of the water supply to the town of Atlantis and has recently been proposed for an expansion to support future drought resilience of Cape Town. A recent publication estimates that MAR as a fraction of groundwater use is 0.6% and this is because of new operations coming into operation since 2015 (e.g., Elandsfontein). However, the pace of MAR implementation in other areas has been slow and this could be because of a lack of awareness of and experience with MAR, financial resources, human and institutional capacity, enabling policy frameworks, sufficient and sufficiently well-functioning demonstration sites and poor understanding of aquifer hydrogeology and geochemical properties. Another challenge that will need to be looked at from a MAR perspective is the role of the shallow unsaturated zone thickness as there is a concern that some bacteria, viruses, or parasites could survive and contaminate groundwater.

The research that has been developed and implemented through Water Research Commission studies demonstrates that the “know- how” and technological solutions exist to address the many challenges we are facing in sustainably developing groundwater as an alternative mix to surface water. However, the general lack of groundwater professionals among the staff of institutions and especially at local government level, as well as insufficient mandates, financing and support of groundwater departments or agencies, hamper effective groundwater assessment, monitoring, planning, development, and management. Siting and constructing the higher-yielding boreholes that are necessary for large-scale irrigation or town supplies in complex hydrogeological environments requires considerable expertise. In addition, how we procure for professional groundwater development services is an area of concern.

Improved knowledge and capacity building and training is not enough; to protect aquifers, we also need innovation, in terms of technical interventions, institutional and legal reforms, improved financing, and behavioural changes. Individuals, researchers, governments, NGO’s, civil society, private sector indeed the entire international community need to make groundwater more visible. It is necessary that we work together to ensure each country can assess and sustainably managing its water resources. We are counting on you all to engage actively in our effort to make groundwater visible in 2022 and beyond and educate the next generation of groundwater industry leaders.

Yazeed van Wyk, Pr.Sci.Nat., GWD/GSSA
Research Manager – Groundwater Hydrology

Water Research Commission
Bloukrans Building, Lynnwood Bridge Office Park,
4 Daventry Street, Lynnwood Manor, Pretoria.
Private Bag X03, Gezina, 0031, South Africa.
Email: [email protected]