Manage groundwater resources—expert tells Sadc countries

July 2, 2021


Population growth in the Limpopo River Basin will exert pressure on the demand for water in the region amid calls by an expert for Sadc countries to manage transboundary water resources.

The Limpopo Basin’s population is increasing and estimated to grow to 20m by 2040 from 18m in 2012. The basin winds its way through four countries – Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe

Karen Villholth, principal researcher, coordinator (groundwater) at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) told Business Times said there will be increased demand for water for drinking, food and industrial production.

“The Limpopo River basin has a population of approximately 15m. With projected water availabilities per capita approaching a low of 1000 cubic meters per year in 2025, the countries are heading towards what is termed ‘absolute water scarcity’,” Villholth said.

“Water resources are becoming sparse by the day in the Limpopo Basin due to the population growing – overridden by climate change, which makes us go through consecutive droughts, and also hitting floods that are more intense than usual. This adds to the challenges of managing water in a region, which is already dry under natural conditions.”

Researchers from IWMI found that groundwater is the resource that people go to in times of drought and outside of supply schemes supported by surface water. As a natural fallback, farmers and smaller communities access this water as it is widely available – under the ground when needed.

However, as droughts strike and more people depend on this resource there are twin threats: groundwater running out or becoming polluted.

With the hunt for more water, countries are increasingly looking for new resources, and some of these are transboundary, meaning they flow from one country to another, or they are stored on or below the ground in border areas, the expert said.

“Who does this water belong to? How can it be developed? How can it be shared – sustainably and peacefully? These are critical issues that countries have to deal with, including groundwater reserves underground, the so-called aquifers,” Villholth said.

IWMI and its partners worked on the Ramotswa Project, a transboundary water resource shared by South Africa and Botswana. The aquifer shared between the two countries serve a population of about 50,000 and it was facing degradation from intensive use and dense onsite sanitation.

Villholth said the project was instrumental in creating a platform for the joint investigation of the water resource, and ultimately to the setup of the joint committee for groundwater under the Limpopo Watercourse Commission (LIMCOM), which is the overarching international body overseeing the management of water resources in the Limpopo Basin, which also counts on Mozambique and Zimbabwe as riparian states. The project also prompted the investigation of other transboundary aquifers in the basin, and under the coordination of LIMCOM.

Villholth said water resources are key to livelihoods and economic growth adding that transboundary waters are key to regional cooperation and integration.

“Good neighbourliness around water resources can pave the way for peaceful and sustainable development of a region, in this case Sadc,” she said.

Villholth said groundwater in the Limpopo basin needs attention by managers at multiple, but integrated levels. The farmers and communities have a large stake in their groundwater, and increasingly take on responsibility of managing them, for example, through gentlemen agreements around how and when to abstract it and also to enhance its replenishment.

Others are tuning into citizen science to take a stance and control of the information around their resources and hence getting empowered to better control their lives, she said.

“Governments need to address their national groundwater resources, ensuring infrastructure keeps working during droughts, monitoring and keeping track of the resources, both in terms of quantity and quality, and setting up systems for fair and equitable allocation. Governments also have to address their transboundary aquifers pro-actively and cooperatively. Maybe aquifers are shared between the same few countries. Getting a good head start, like with the Ramotswa transboundary aquifer is key,” Villholth said.

She said Zimbabwe is also embarking on investigating and understanding its transboundary aquifer resources, building on experiences from the Ramotswa work.

“The Tuli Karoo Transboundary aquifer is another aquifer which is shared, in this case among three member States—Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.  The strong institutional partnerships, academic collaboration and platform created for collaboration is expanding, and similar processes are pursued to build a joint and coherent approach to the development and protection of the Tuli Karoo,” Villholth said.

“For example, a joint monitoring system is being implemented to be able to track the status of the groundwater resources in the aquifer. The Tuli Karoo is also underlying transfrontier conservation areas, in this case the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. IWMI is also paving the way for more cooperation around these larger landscape resources shared between states in Sadc, including the largest one, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area.”

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