As world leaders continue to make pledges to achieve net zero global warming targets, it’s time to reflect on the potential of the country’s underground water, and how to sustainably manage and protect these largely untapped natural resources that would be a game-changer for our economy.
Kenya is a water scarce country with large parts of our lands being predominantly arid with frequent water shortages including in major towns.
Again, surface water resources like rivers and lakes are only concentrated in specific parts of the country meaning that in other areas the population must rely on groundwater resources to address their water needs. Severe droughts in recent years have also compounded the severity of the water situation in the country and deforestation has also contributed to reduced rainfall and surface water supplies.
All these challenges have left up to 15 million Kenyans without access to clean water while 15 percent of Kenyans are compelled to rely on unimproved water sources, such as ponds, shallow wells and rivers, according to data from Water.org.
To further exacerbate the situation 41 percent of Kenyans lack access to basic sanitation solutions, exposing many more Kenyans to deadly diseases.
There are also high costs involved in accessing water with water.org showing rural households bearing the biggest burden – approximately Ksh 3,800 in coping costs compared to an average monthly water bill of Ksh460 a month. While climate change will continue to impact the availability of surface water making droughts more common occurrences, there is still hope.
Kenya like elsewhere in Africa, still has abundant groundwater resources and if used sustainably, it can become a viable alternative to surface water.
Sustainable extraction of groundwater is extremely important – if the groundwater is removed faster than it can be replenished back into the ground then the problem of water scarcity will be compounded. This is the point where we need to have a concerted, multi-stakeholder collaboration to harness our individual strengths. We will need better policies to create a favorable investment climate where players can easily access affordable drilling equipment.
We will also need financing instruments to ensure that we scale faster by opening up supply of water pumps, drilling and piping equipment to ensure we reach as many people as we can.
A key challenge to extraction of groundwater resources has always been the requirement for an electric pump to bring the water up to the surface. Unfortunately, much of the water scarce areas in Africa also have limited coverage by the main electric grid.
By pumping using solar power, remote communities with no access to the main electric grid, are able to access groundwater resources. Promotion of solar pumping for groundwater extraction though education and incentivization among other measures should be a key aspect of policy development by African governments when looking at sustainable groundwater use.
In the developed world extensive rural and urban piped water networks have been established over centuries to bring water from central utility companies to consumers. But for many countries in Africa including Kenya, we have limited water distribution networks making it difficult for centralized water utilities to get water to consumers. Tapping into groundwater resources through decentralized wells and boreholes however allows decentralized access to water enabling even the most remote customers to access water without a water utility connection.
While some work has been done to tap these water resources, there is still need for a comprehensive overhaul and review of groundwater resources inventory and their capacity.
This coupled with an understanding of the recharge requirements of each of the major aquifers will give Kenya and other African governments a clear picture of the groundwater resource available for current and future generations.
Different governments in Africa are at different levels with regards to policy development to manage groundwater resources and while some countries are very advanced and have done extensive work in defining policies for groundwater abstraction others are still far behind. In addition to policy development, what is also critical is enforcement of the policies to ensure sustainable use.
Lastly, it is important to remember that groundwater needs to be replenished. It is not sufficient to promote the extraction of groundwater, governments must also encourage activities that will replenish groundwater resources such as planting of trees, establishment and protection of water catchment areas, as well as building swales.
The writer is the Technical Director of water and energy solutions firm Davis & Shirtliff