Dr. Karen Villholth, sharing experiences across borders on groundwater management

Dr. Karen Villholth is a Principal Researcher at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), where she is a Sub-Theme Leader and Coordinator of the global partnership, Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP), working from the Southern Africa regional office in Pretoria, South Africa. She has built up a substantial team of researchers and a portfolio of projects and a wide professional network within the water research and management community in Sub-Saharan Africa and globally. In this interview, we ask her about GRIPP and groundwater management and solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Currently you’re working in IWMI under the Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice. Could you tell us what work are you doing as a part of this?

Karen Villholth: I am coordinating this initiative called GRIPP, which is a global initiative. At the moment we have about 30 international partners involved that all have some kind of expertise/experience in groundwater. The idea was to build this platform of partners that can support sustainable development of groundwater, as we found that there was kind of a gap in this area. This initiative started back in 2016, so we are on the third year. The background was that the issues of groundwater depletion and groundwater contamination around the world need further attention. We saw that there was a requirement for some more focus and collaboration around these issues. There is a lot of research going on for groundwater and this is very valuable and valid, because groundwater is a complex resource. You need to know what is happening in your system to manage it, but that is not enough. You need to take that knowledge to the next level in terms of how to use that information, how do we shape a management structure and the institutions that are required, and how do we involve stakeholders on the ground. That was where we felt GRIPP should come in. We have partners that are leading the stage in groundwater research such as the IAH (International Association of Hydrogeologists), and also some institutions in the UN system that are engaged such as the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Center (IGRAC). In that regard we are bridging some of these different approaches to managing groundwater. IWMI has been working in this field for 2 or 3 decades already, and we felt that we had a good role and background to take leadership on this platform. I’m coordinating it from IWMI and IWMI is the main contributor to the financing of the platform.

That sounds quite extensive. Could you tell me about what the water future of Sub-Saharan Africa is going to look like per your work and your predictions?

KV: I work quite a bit on groundwater in Sub-Saharan Africa and what I see overarchingly is a lot more dependence on groundwater, as the population grows and water’s becoming in high demand and short supply. Also with climate change having its impacts on the water resource, because groundwater is relatively stable and reliable and you can get access to it throughout the year in most places. I think that realization has been happening all over the continent. Already, about 75% of the population are depending on groundwater in Sub-Saharan African for basic water supply, mostly in the rural areas through small hand pumps and so on. So basically groundwater is sustaining these rural communities. It’s very important that these systems continue functioning because otherwise these people have very little water security.

I also see a trend towards more dependence on groundwater in the urban areas. There’s a lot of urbanization happening in Africa, the cities are growing and they need more water. So many of the cities are increasingly looking towards expanding and developing their groundwater resources. I don’t see so much happening in the irrigation sector. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there for small-scale irrigation, but it’s still happening at a relatively small and slow scale. But I think we’ll be seeing more of that happening in the future with solar irrigation coming in. As this gets accessible to smaller farmers we’ll probably see a similar trend as in India, where farmers will adopt this technology to get access to groundwater.

You mentioned that you see groundwater being used more in the urban areas in this part of the world in the future. As you know, the water scarcity in Cape Town has made news all over the world. How would you describe the problem that Cape Town faces and does it tie up to any of the work that you are doing?

KV: I have not been involved in very detail in the Cape Town case, but following it on the side lines. It definitely has relevance to the work that we are doing in the sense that the risks that Cape Town has been facing is partly due to climate change, expanding demand, and maybe a backlog in development of the resources. It’s a very good example to learn from in other contexts around the world. They managed to solve the immediate drought crisis through various means, which demonstrates that with concerted efforts and collaboration from the individual households to the larger community and the national water supply systems, etc. they were able to solve the problem. But it also shows that there’s a need to be more proactive and you need to plan toward these potential situations in the future. Cape Town learned that they were not really in that position, so they had to fight quickly and hardly to revert the situation. This is something we’ll see more in the future in other countries. I heard there’s a coalition of various cities that are trying to collaborate on these issues, to learn from Cape Town and learn between cities in similar situations. They can definitely learn from each other.

That sounds really good because in India, for example, there are cities that are facing big water scarcity issues already.

KV: Yes, if I could just give the groundwater angle to it, Cape Town was fortunate to not have developed their groundwater resources extensively so that was like a buffer that they could tap into, which is what they are doing both within the city and further away. They also learned to recharge, artificially or with managed aquifer recharge to further enhance the stock of groundwater that could be available during droughts or dry periods.

For India we have to look at what are the contexts of various cities there, and if they have already overexploited their groundwater, so they won’t have that particular buffer. That becomes a concern going forward to building that resilience towards climate change and population growth, etc.

You have studied groundwater practices in lots of different locations. Could you give me an example of some of the best practices you’ve encountered for sustainable groundwater management?

KV: We are seeing some concerted efforts to address groundwater risks around the world, and if you want to look at what’s happening on the ground at the implementation level. There’s more movement to having more stakeholder engagement. I think this is the bottom line that we will see more in the future. At the end of the day, groundwater is both a local and regional resource, but the way that it’s being accessed is very localized – it’s through wells. So the people that are abstracting and using the resource need to be involved, and they need to engage with other users in order to find out how they can address any risks, whether it’s in terms of depletion or contamination. So that is being seen, all the way from India, where they’re using citizen science to capacitate local farmers to monitor their own groundwater resources, all the way to Australia and more developed countries where they’re implementing approaches like this where the farmers and users are being involved in their own management of the resource.

Another thing, is managed aquifer recharge. This is a way to enhance the management of the water storage underground and the buffer that it provides. It’s being practiced quite globally, but there‘s still a huge scope to do this in more regions. Especially in areas where you have a high variability in water availability from very dry to very wet seasons, which we’ll see more with climate change. This technology comes in well as it tries to capture the water when you have a lot of it – during wet periods- and getting it under ground, and subsequently when you need it during droughts dry periods it can be abstracted and used. It can also partially alleviate groundwater depletion, so you are stocking back some of the groundwater that you have been taking out and keeping it an equilibrium in the system.

Groundwater also has a role to play in maintaining the basal flow in a lot of rivers, and that in turn becomes a transboundary issue. Have you encountered any situation where groundwater has come in conflict as a transboundary resource?

KV: That’s something that we have been working on quite strongly at IWMI and with partners in Southern Africa in particular. We started out by understanding the context of these shared resources. A river can have an aquifer that spans across various borders, and there can be some transboundary impacts, for example, if one side pumps a lot or contaminates. So we looked at where these aquifers are, and secondly we looked at where these issues could be prevalent. Then we identified a couple of aquifers we should address first. Looking at those, we learned a lot: what are those issues, how transboundary are those issues, how can we look at these jointly in collaboration with the countries. We are now setting up institutional arrangements and frameworks that can help countries collaborate going forward, which relates both to sharing of data, agreeing on development of resource, counteracting contamination, adapting to climate change, etc. where groundwater is seen as an integrated part of that whole problem area. We also realized that when we look at transboundary aquifers, many of them are connected to surface water so we can not address them separately – we need to understand the whole system.. Because we have many river basin organisations in Southern Africa, and they have historically focused on the river systems but increasingly we are realising from both sides that we need to collaborate and we need to understand the whole of the resource when managing. In a sense, we can manage the resource better if we take into account the subsurface storage, the flows, the rivers, and the connection between them. By doing that we have a broader portfolio of solutions that we can bring into play, and we try to increase the water security and so on.

You’ve already mentioned climate change a couple of times. What are the kinds of impacts of climate change that you are already seeing on groundwater resources? What impacts do you expect to see almost immediately or in the near future?

KV: That’s a question we’ve been researching quite intensively over the last 5 years in collaboration with a lot of partners and focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa. We actually had a paper in Nature recently that addresses that question. In that research we looked at the whole of Africa and extracted information about the historical changes in groundwater levels. By looking at the historical footprints of the groundwater and interrelationship with the climate, we can see how groundwater reacts to climate. Through that, if we know how the climate will change in the future we can also say potentially what will happen to the groundwater. What we found was that there’s a difference between arid areas and less-arid areas in the way that groundwater is being replenished and reacting to climate. The important thing here is when you look at the arid areas, the groundwater is very important because this is where it is being exploited more. So understanding what happens in these areas with climate change becomes much more critical. And what we found in these areas is that with increasing rainfall and climate change, you have higher intensity rainfall events, and you get more recharge during these events. With climate change, you might actually get more recharge as well, at least during these events. This can be seen in the historical records and we will probably see it happening in the future as well. We are not quite sure whether it will be counterbalanced by longer droughts, where we don’t get any recharge and so the net result will be the same kind of recharge. It’s important to know where the recharge is happening and then protect areas because that makes you capture more of the water in the ground. So we’ve also found that these floods in arid areas – a lot of the water accumulates in ponds and rivers, etc. and these are actually the hotspots for recharge. Recharge is not like a uniformly distributed process, but is quite localised.

How do your studies at the Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP) translate to actual policies and practices made in South Africa and what kind of improvements would you like to see between your research and the policies that are made?

KV: Actually following onto the previous question, what we found in this research related to groundwater and climate change, and impacts on replenishment of the resource is that this is good news because some of the events that are generating large recharge can be predicted from climate circulation models. We think that with further research we can help inform the policies. For instance, through climate/seasonal forecasting, we would be able to tell in 9 months advance that this year will be an el Niño event with a lot of rainfall in this particular region and then people can be prepared and make sure they capture the water and put it underground during those events. This can insulate them against droughts in the next 10 years. These events happen maybe on a decadal basis, and then you get much less recharge. So this is the kind of thing we would like to develop further and make policymakers more aware of.

You have also worked in the South Asia region. How have you found the problems and management practices of groundwater to differ between South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa? Would you say that the two regions can learn a lot from one another?

KV: Yes, definitely there’s a lot of similarity in terms of the physical context – the hydrogeology of large parts of Africa are similar to the peninsula part of India. For that, we are already using some of the same tools to understand the resource. In terms of management, there’s also scope for further lesson sharing between the continents and in this regard it may be more from India towards Africa because Africa has not developed its groundwater resources to the same extent as India has. India is much further down the line in terms of management but also issues they have like groundwater depletion etc. I don’t see this lesson sharing being developed pragmatically or in practice, as of yet so maybe there’s some scope for that. This is something that could be discussed at the Water Future Conference. There’s a good basis for it, but it’s a matter of seeing what could be a good working model. Having a working model is basically what is needed, and then addressing some concrete issues which are relevant like the solar irrigation, which India is now struggling quite a bit with and is being further taken up in Africa. This is something that IWMI is starting to work more on, and in India and Africa. I think there’s a good opportunity to further expand on this lesson sharing.

Dr. Villholth will be one of the speakers at the second plenary of the conference titled ‘Water and Climate Change: Challenges’ on Wednesday, September 25. She, along with other representatives from IWMI and the International Association of Hydrogeologists (IAH), will be delivering a special session on ‘Innovations to Achieve Sustainable Groundwater Use in India’ on the same day. She hopes that this conference helps initiate lesson sharing between countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia with regards to water management.