It is estimated that groundwater makes up 13% of the water supply in South Africa. This seems a relatively small amount compared to the supply from surface water resources. However, this “mere” 13% provides water for 56% of the population, either as a sole source or with surface water. This is just over 34 million people in 23,746 settlements (78.5% of all settlements in the country).
Groundwater is a strategic water resource used to meet the water security needs of more than half of the South African population. But on average, groundwater is under-exploited in South Africa, with great opportunity for expansion.
This expansion can help communities and the country build resilience to the impacts of climate change and other drivers of water demand such as urbanization, population growth, industrialization, and agricultural expansion.
In South Africa, groundwater is mainly found in complex geological formations and is usually a local resource. Despite the vital role hydrogeologists play in the exploration and sustainable management of groundwater resources and the strategic nature of this resource, almost no local metro employs hydrogeologists to take care of this need.
Geologists specialize in the study of groundwater, including its properties, distribution, and movement through rocks and sediments below the Earth’s surface. In addition, they design and manage wellfields and develop and implement operating rules to ensure that these systems are operated and maintained as efficiently as possible.
South Africa has a competent core of hydrogeologists across the public and private sectors – except where it matters most.
Unfortunately, as far as we can determine, only one metro employs three hydrogeologists and one in one district municipality—two of the 254 municipalities have skilled groundwater employees.
It is thus not surprising that groundwater is labeled “unreliable” and “dirty” by decision makers who do not ensure that these strategic water supply schemes are adequately resourced.
Around the world, groundwater is the invisible resource that many people rely on to achieve water and food security. It is the preferred resource where a huge pipeline does not reach.
Efficient management of groundwater systems is essential to ensuring that the water they provide is safe and reliable; That the environment is protected, and that the resource is used sustainably.
This is particularly true in South Africa where the landscape is characterized by complex fractured aquifers which require systematic exploration and development at the well field or borehole level. Our understanding, development and management of these systems is well supported by excellent research. This is an intense activity, but if done properly, it can ensure that the resource provides a sustainable water supply.
It is worth trying to visualize this complex system.
The water stored in surface reservoirs is easy to visualize and understand. For example, it is easy to imagine a dam having a storage capacity of 100% (a full bucket). Now try to imagine a body of rock with complex porous systems (fractures and/or pore spaces). If we saturate it with water, the complexity of determining (or visualizing) how full it is is even more difficult.
To unravel this complexity, hydrogeologists use various indirect and direct methods to determine the volume of water within these systems, including the flow through these rock bodies. It’s not something an untrained person can do.
Aquifers may be underground layers of permeable rock, as has just been described, or layers of permeable soil or sediment that contain and transport water. Once explored and developed, it needs more direct and indirect measurements to maintain a reliable and clean supply.
Inefficient management of groundwater schemes can lead to inefficiencies, increased costs and reduced performance. On the other hand, a competent department can help optimize operation and maintenance costs, ensure efficient use of resources and increase the life of groundwater schemes.
If we hope to improve water and food security while becoming climate resilient, we must insist on adequate capacity to manage and develop local groundwater systems.
In municipalities where groundwater is used as a sole or shared resource, adequate permanent and qualified personnel are required. There is a glimmer of hope in some municipalities as they explore alternative ways to improve the development and management of their groundwater resources.
In a few cases, there are excellent groundwater champions—these are institutional entrepreneurs.
Institutional entrepreneurs are known for their ability to identify and exploit opportunities for change, to challenge established practices and norms, and to mobilize support for their initiatives. They achieve this through proper planning and budgeting for assistance. This assistance generally comes from the private sector.
Hydrogeologists and drainage geologists assist nationally and regionally where they can, but hydrogeological expertise locally and globally has migrated from the public sector to the private sector.
In the context of South Africa, as interest in groundwater waned, many of these needed experts simply left the country.
Hydrogeologists trained in understanding these complex aquifer settings are in demand internationally but are generally neglected domestically.
In September, South Africa will host a global groundwater conference where the latest developments in this field will be discussed and presented. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, no municipal officials have registered for this event.
The role of hydrogeologists is essential to ensuring sustainable management of groundwater resources, which are essential to human survival and economic development.
If we are really serious about making communities resilient while still adapting to a hotter, drier climate, we need to correct groundwater mismanagement, especially in the municipal arena.
Strategies, plans, tools and expertise are there to do this and must be harnessed. DM
Dr. Shafiq Adams is the Executive Director of the Water Research Committee.