Zimbabwe has to better manage groundwater resources which provide a high potential for coping with and mitigating the impacts of climate change and food insecurity, a water expert has said.
Groundwater is the largest store of freshwater in Africa. It holds approximately 100 times more freshwater than discharged annually in all rivers, and 20 times the freshwater stored in lakes on the continent.
Karen Villholth, principal researcher and Groundwater Focal Point at the International Water Management Institute, told Business Times this week Zimbabwe is not effectively and systematically protecting its groundwater resources despite the existence of a “good understanding” around the hydrogeological conditions and groundwater resources in Zimbabwe.
“Groundwater pollution is widespread in and around larger cities like Harare, and dependence on the resource is increasing in urban areas especially through self-supply because of lack of adequate public supply. There is a strong need to better manage groundwater in urban areas, due to concurrent dependence and pollution of the resource,” Villholth said.
“Regulations and guidelines on groundwater management exist from 1999 and compliment the Water Act of 1998.”
She said governments need to pay attention to groundwater as one of the water resources to bring into the mix in their water supply, but done in a sustainable and evidence-based manner.
The benefits of groundwater, Villholth said, could outweigh the investment costs.
“With strategic investments into drilling professionalism and pumping solutions for small farmers, for example, through off-grid solar pumping technologies, the food value chains can be boosted significantly, while building the necessary resilience and food security for millions of smallholder farmers across SADC,” she said.
“Using it strategically can support resilience in SADC as it is available year-round and in a distributed manner and renewable in most areas. It can enhance water security and livelihoods and food production for smallholder farmers, shelter communities against droughts and climate change and combat poverty in rural and peri-urban areas – if developed and managed properly.”
Recently, there was a session on groundwater in which players identified solutions that applied from a local to a region scale, from water supply to small communities in dry and drying areas, to identifying high-level political buy-in required to support the necessary policies and management frameworks is central.
The session was held in partnership with Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP), the SADC- Groundwater Management Institute (SADC-GMI), the African Ministers’ Council on Water, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Bank and IWMI.
“Many larger groundwater units, so-called aquifers, are shared across borders and hence need international cooperation, which is strongly supported by SADC, GRIPP and partners,” she said.
Villholth said climate change was hitting SADC particularly hard, due to its already vulnerable context of drought proneness and precarious agriculture based primarily on rain-fed farming, leaving food security questionable especially in the dry seasons and even more so during recurrent droughts.
“Groundwater access provides the perennial water source that may tie over the dry period for irrigated agriculture, and in particular for those high-value and very nutritious crops required to support healthy growth of kids and young generations – significantly supporting food security and socioeconomic development,” she said, adding that a recent session on groundwater use provided an opportunity to deliberate, identify and address the current challenges and opportunities faced in terms of developing groundwater for smallholder farmers in SADC.
“Research by the International Water Management Institute shows that the area irrigated under groundwater in Zimbabwe could be expanded by a factor of 10-20 times, from approximately 20m hectares to anywhere from 148 to 370m ha spread across the country, while still providing sufficient water for domestic supplies, livestock and environmental needs.”
Villholth said the region can learn from other parts of the world on how they manage groundwater.
“South and East Asia, with epicentres in India and China, respectively, have seen huge booms in groundwater use over the last half century, with some downsides in terms of over-exploitation and degradation of the resource with negative implications for poverty alleviation and rural livelihoods. It is critical to learn from these lessons,” she said.
There are fears that the SADC region will be unable to meet the Social Development Goals number 2 on Zero Hunger.
“The main message is that groundwater holds an almost unexplored opportunity to raise food production and achieve leapfrogging towards SDG 2 on Zero Hunger in SADC, if governments and partners step up to the challenge and develop the policies, investments and capacity that unlock and sustain groundwater-based value chains in agriculture that will ensure the sustainable food production for rural and as well as urban populations.”