Groundwater Conference 2011

Excerpt from "Shotha" the official weekly newsletter of the Department of Water Affairs - 23 September 2011

Water scarcity and security including the role of groundwater

Some of the delegates who attended the International Conference on Groundwater

The challenges which countries such as South Africa (SA) face in their efforts to achieve and sustain water security are determined by many factors such as the natural hydrological environment determines the absolute level of water resource availability, its spatial and temporal distribution and variability.

According to England-based international researcher, Phillip John Chilton, the socio-economic environment including the structure of the economy and the behaviour of its participants will reflect legacies, influence policy choices including determining the capacity to develop water infrastructure and manage water resources to improve availability.

Chilton noted this during a ground-breaking three-day International Conference on Groundwater that was held at the Centre for Scientific Innovation and Research (CSIR) in Pretoria from Monday, 19 September 2011.

Changes to the future environment, according to Chilton, resulting from climate change are likely to have a significant impact on both productive and destructive capacity of water.

Water shortage is used to describe an absolute shortage in which volumes of available water do not meet certain defined minimum requirements. The United Nation (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) regards water as a severe constraint on socio-economic development and environmental protection if the mean volume of internal renewable water availability is less than 1 000m3/capita. “Where mean availability is less than 2000m3/capita, water is regarded as a potentially serious constraint which could become a major problem in drought years.”

Chilton noted that water scarcity is a much more relative concept which describes the relationship between demand for water and its availability, and therefore immediately takes on a social and economic dimension. Water demands vary considerably between countries and between regions within a country depending on the amounts of water used by different sectors. “A country with a high industrial demand or which depends on large scale of irrigation will become more likely to experience times of scarcity than a country with similar climate conditions, but without such demands.”

Water stress is the consequence of scarcity which may manifest itself symptomatically by increasing conflicts over sectoral usage, falling service levels, failure of arable crops and livestock farming, food insecurity, malnutrition, death, environmental degradation, displacements of communities and creation of refugees.

The more desirable situation of water security means reliable and secure access to water over time. This does not necessarily equate to a supply of constant quantity, but more to its predictability, which enables water conservation measures to be taken in times of scarcity to avoid stress.

Chilton noted that the role of groundwater in these situations is that groundwater storage sustains groundwater supplies and this process provides the buffering through dry seasons and droughts which helps to ensure water security. “Moreover, like surface water storage, groundwater can be manipulated and enhanced by managed aquifer recharge schemes which build infrastructure or modify the landscape to increasing groundwater recharge to providing additional storage. Again, like surface water, groundwater adds an important operational dimension within the overall integrated management of land and water resources.”

In terms of delivering water security in a groundwater context, Chilton noted that it is important ensuring that the groundwater resources utilised are sustainable, needs knowledge of the quantities of the resource available in terms of stored volumes and annual replenishment from recharge – helping to avoid the physical water scarcity referred to earlier.

In conclusion, Chilton added that enhancing the volumes of stored water can provide significant buffering against extremes of water variability because this is the key to attaining national water security and sustainable development. “Conversely, weak national capacity to invest in increasing storage maintains drought susceptibility and persistent poverty.

Another international speaker, Professor Stephen Foster, noted that in Sub-Saharan African countries, the strategic agenda of the water sector is undergoing substantial changes because of demographic pressure, climate change and economic transformation.

Foster pointed out that groundwater is the critical underlying resource for human survival and economic development in extensive drought-prone areas across the African continent. The accessibility of groundwater in dug-wells, springheads and seepage areas has always controlled the extent of human settlement beyond the major riparian (along river banks) tracts – and the widespread introduction of drilling rigs and water pumps since 1970s to enhance human activity.

Professor Willi Struckmeier, President of the International Association of Hydrologists (IAH) explained that groundwater quality has numerous facets. In many regions of the world, natural quality of groundwater is fit for human consumption and meets drinking water quality standards of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Ike Motsapi