Geosciences as a means to address water shortages in Africa

Gaathier Mahed, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

Geoscience or earth science, is mainly focused on studying the world around us by using various tools like satellites, ground based measurements and chemical analyses at different scales.

While the research area is firmly planted in the earth, it sometimes drifts off into space. Geoscientists also occasionally turn their attention to other elements - like water.

The tools mentioned above can be used to search for water, extract it, check its quality, supply it to the masses and maintain its integrity in a sustainable manner. In this way, geosciences may hold the answer to maintaining a sustainable water supply for Africa’s rural poor.

A history of geosciences and water

Henry Darcy, who is considered the father of hydrogeology, was a French engineer who looked at problems related to water flow in the mustard making town of Dijon. Darcy’s work has formed the fundamental basis for work related to water flow in porous media over the past 150 years and has spilled over into other sciences as well.

It is a fact that arid areas of the world have limited surface water resources. In the past people have therefore explored and drilled for the precious blue gold below the subsurface. The shadoof and hand dug well are prime examples of the ancient methods used to extract groundwater and are still utilised today.

This precious resource has moulded the way we look at many processes on the surface and subsurface and consequently the manner in which we extract, use and manage water resources has lead to the rise and fall of many civilisations, such as the great gardens of Babylon.

The problems relating to water scarcity also affect us today and in turn impact every other aspect of our lives. This could be of particular importance in an African context because the majority of the rural water supply stemming from groundwater.

Africa’s water issues

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for one of the most water scarce areas in the world. Approximately 300 million people live in water stressed areas. That is almost 50% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population.

Water scarcity is a major issue on the African continent. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

There are numerous projects underway on the continent aimed at addressing the water shortage issue. Hydrogeologists play a vital role in maintaining the world’s water. Well-digging, rain catchment systems and hand pumps are all initiatives on the continent to help people have access to clean water. These are all examples of geosciences and how they play a massive role on the continent.

The issue of the climate’s undulating patterns has been under the microscope for some time. It relates directly to water resources; the location, quality and availability thereof. In line with this the International Atomic Energy Agency has published maps related to the distribution of rainfall and also groundwater recharge.

Large scale monitoring of the water storage on the continent has also taken place with the use of satellites. Multiple papers published on the subject matter in major journal articles as well as mainstream media allude to dwindling freshwater resources. It should be highlighted that groundwater exceeds all other freshwater resources in terms of volume.

The changing rainfall has unfortunately lead to changing levels in aquifers being used for water supply. This coupled with unsustainable extraction could be viewed as the major sources for the lowering of groundwater levels. It should however be noted that artificial pumping into aquifers and some locations, floods, have actually led to the recovery of accessible reserves.

All hope is not lost

It is with the water crisis in mind that we have to look into the future of geoscience. A fixed amount of the blue gold on this planet and an ever increasing population could lead to a limited amount of water available for every individual. Furthermore the quality of said water should also be analysed in order to determine its suitability for use. In line with this, multiple universities and research centres globally have invested millions of dollars into understanding processes related to the water cycle as well as the quality thereof.

The latter property has been studied in its natural state as well as after we humans have used the precious resource. We have come so far that some universities have applied nanoscience to the problem of wastewater in order to process it for potable use. This integrative thinking with multiple scientists of various backgrounds working in the same lab to solve the one major problem of our time is the future of geoscience research. The more important question which is not in our future but right now: What are we doing to conserve our water?

The Conversation

Gaathier Mahed, Senior Lecturer of Environmental and Occupational Studies, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.