Rapidly increasing water demand and impacts of climate change almost certainly mean that conventional surface water resources will not be able to satisfy future water needs in many regions of South Africa. Recent water shortages in some of South Africa’s larger cities (Cape Town and Gqeberha for example) and rural areas is testament to this reality. Groundwater is an essential source of freshwater and its role in meeting current and future water demands related to population growth, amidst the effects of climate change, will only become more critical. Already, in sub-Saharan Africa, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) heavily relies on groundwater, with an estimated 70% of the SADC’s population utilising this resource to meet their basic water needs.
Making Groundwater Visible
Unfortunately, the sentiment “out of sight, out of mind” is unanimous with groundwater and supports why the UN-Water have declared 2022 the year of “Groundwater – making the invisible visible”. In South Africa, groundwater remains shrouded in mystery, and is often colloquially explored through discussions of water diviners and the myriad of speculative methods employed to find groundwater. Beyond such theatrics, contaminated groundwater is often the next most prevalent means by which groundwater receives recognition.
Groundwater supply to meet the evolving water demand (not to mention the environmental water requirements) is put at risk when poor spatial development planning or land use practices leads to oversight in protecting strategic groundwater resources (and the hosting aquifers) from potentially contaminating activities. It is, therefore, crucial to ensure long-term protection of aquifer integrity and groundwater quality against contamination or further deterioration, and to mitigate the detrimental effects of groundwater contamination, with the ultimate goal of ensuring economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable groundwater supply.
Groundwater contamination is mostly a consequence of human activity with a direct link to land-based activities, such as waste disposal, industrial zones, mining, agricultural and household activities. The South African Government have legislative policies and guidelines to ensure our groundwater resources are protected from pollution, for example the National Water Act, National Groundwater Strategy and Groundwater Management Frameworks, and while numerous municipalities have included strategic groundwater resources into their spatial planning tools, there remain several practices that individuals can initiate to promote the understanding and protection of groundwater resources.
Ways to protect groundwater
In celebration of World Water Day, here are some ways you can help make groundwater visible and promote aquifer and groundwater protection:
- Ask where your water comes from and where it ends up going. Asking this basic question helps us understand and be mindful of the activities we conduct on the land surface. Often, we live or work on top of our resource (look at the Cape Flats Aquifer for example) or don’t worry where our used water goes (stormwater or effluent can directly affect the groundwater quality). Recognising the pathways of our water use removes some of the mystery behind it, especially that of groundwater.
- If you use or need to use groundwater, seek the advice of a professional hydrogeologist. Aquifers are complex and groundwater supply is not as straight forward as drilling a borehole. It requires a transdisciplinary approach and on-going monitoring to effect true sustainability.
- Groundwater use and its protection is governed by law. Be sure to understand the applicable laws and promote implementation thereof when undertaking an activity or benefitting from a groundwater resource.
- Properly dispose of and manage waste – especially septic tanks, motor oil, batteries, and other chemicals or medications. There are many contaminants that can threaten an aquifer / groundwater resource. Mindful management and disposal of such waste, by industry, municipalities, and households alike, can make a huge difference in preventing contamination of groundwater resources.
We can all play our part to ensure sustainability and resilience of our water resources. Check out worldwaterday.org to promote, donate and learn more about groundwater.