Groundwater: Achieving Global Development Goals


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Episode recorded May 18, 2023
Episode released on July 13, 2023

Karen VillholthKaren Villholth is Director of Water Cycle Innovation (WCI), a unique consultancy specializing in water and food security and climate resilience – underpinning sustainable development. WCI emphasizes the “Whole of the Water Cycle” and has a global reach with a geographic stronghold in Africa.

Highlights  |  Transcript

  • Karen established in 2016 the Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP), a global network of 30 international organizations, aiming to bring groundwater to the forefront of the global development agenda and to collaborate to solve key water issues, through integrated technical and governance approaches with a focus on developing countries. 
  • Karen, through WCI, supported the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York in March, which focused on stepping up commitments on achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Groundwater was high on the political agenda, and many governments expressed commitments towards addressing groundwater, including in transboundary cooperation. 
  • The World Water Day 2022 and the UN 2022 World Water Development Report focused on groundwater, with the UN-Water Summit on Groundwater in December 2022 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France being the first of its kind. 
  • Surface water and groundwater linkages. In the 20th century, water management was synonymous with surface water management. This is rapidly changing with groundwater becoming the go-to resource during drought, water scarcity and pollution, and climate change. Now, it is overdue to manage them in conjunction. 
  • Cape Town Day Zero. Pre-Day Zero: 100% reliance on six surface water reservoirs. During and after the drought: groundwater resources played a key role in recovery and adaptation to a new normal: Cape Flats Aquifer and the Table Mountain Group Aquifers. Also, through obtaining water from the Atlantis  Water Resource Management Scheme north of Cape Town, which recharges stormwater and domestic wastewater in a managed aquifer recharge (MAR) system, Cape Town is now on its way to resilience through a diverse portfolio of water sources and management options. 
  • Limpopo Basin (415,000 km2 shared between Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa). Heavy groundwater reliance in the South African part, ~9% intensively irrigated. Water level hydrographs show decadal decline and recovery cycles, where aquifers replenish abruptly during extreme events after decades of progressive decline. Sustainability under climate change could be challenged.
  • Climate extremes in Sub-Saharan Africa linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation. Dipole exists between Southern and East Africa: Drought in Southern Africa and flooding in East Africa during El Niño - vice versa during La Niña. 
  • Smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa increasingly use groundwater to secure crop production. While technical, infrastructure, energy access, policy, and gender aspects still limit benefits, new challenges add to making food security a distant goal: competing subsidized food import from Europe, land grabs, export of virtual water through horticultural crops, food aid, external seed market dominance, net export of fertilizers, etc.
  • The work of large international development-supporting organizations is increasingly highlighting groundwater as a key resource for water security, food production, resilience, regional cooperation, peace and stability. Africa will increasingly depend on groundwater for its resilience and socioeconomic transformation. Technical and management capacity needs to accelerate to keep up with the growing needs at multiple levels. Regional and transboundary collaboration is becoming a vehicle for advancing the political attention and increasing resources needed. Large programs, funded by the World Bank, GEF, SDC, UKRI, and others support the creation of enabling environments, with good examples from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and other regions in the continent.

    Villholth, K.G., Lopez-Gunn, E., Conti, K. I., Garrido, A., & van der Gun, J. (2018). Advances in Groundwater Governance, CRC Press/Balkema, Taylor & Francis Group, London, UK., 594 p.

    Role of groundwater in Africa’s socioeconomic development
    Role of groundwater in Africa’s socioeconomic development and link to the SDGs (African Ministers’ Council on Water - AMCOW).

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