Blue gold: Africa’s enormous secret water wealth

Sudanese internally displaced people (IDPs) pump water at the Gallab camp, south of Al-Fasher, the capital of Northern Darfur (AFP Photo / Ramzi Haidar)
Africa is sitting on a giant reservoir of groundwater, British scientists have discovered. But the new information might prove both a boon and a curse.

­Researchers from the British Geological Survey (BGS) and University College London collected all the available water information from governments and recent surveys. Their conclusion: there is 100 times more water underneath the surface than there is on it.

Among the countries with the richest reserves are some of the driest in the world like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.

Three hundred million people in Africa already have no access to clean water, and the pressure on existing water resources is predicted to cause poverty, instability and even war within the next two decades.

But Dr Alan MacDonald from the BGS says that his team wanted to strike out against the "scaremongering" over water supplies, saying there is enough water – as long as it is used judiciously.

"With careful exploring and construction, there is sufficient groundwater under Africa to support low yielding water supplies for drinking and community irrigation," he said.

The groundwater in some of the drier parts of Africa may have first fallen as rain before being absorbed and moving downwards. In some of the areas surveyed, the climate has shifted so much that the last time water supplies were replenished was 5,000 years ago.

And here is the risk: just like oil or gas, groundwater is a finite resource that has to be extracted responsibly.

MacDonald recommends building small pumps for personal use and local irrigation.

Instead, he fears giant boreholes will be drilled to satisfy agricultural needs. He said that such a method would take up to 100 times more water than the use of hand pumps would and could cause a depletion of supplies.

With Africa’s population expected to double to 2 billion in four decades, many of those under the rule of some of the world’s most inefficient and corrupt governments, it is open to doubt whether MacDonald’s advice will be heeded.