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We must protect SA’s groundwater

By Chetan Mistry, Strategy and Marketing Manager at Xylem Africa.

THE borehole is a South African staple, accessing water from underground aquifers. 

This is called groundwater, which South Africa has relatively abundant supplies of but if we don’t take care of these underground reservoirs, they will start to buckle just when we need them the most.

South Africa relies primarily on surface water, which is rainwater captured on the surface by rivers, dams and reservoirs. 

But groundwater is our backup, and there is already substantial usage of this resource. Agriculture operations are the main consumer, accounting for two-thirds of current groundwater consumption, followed by mining and residential consumption at roughly 15% each.

South Africa predominantly relies on surface water for around three-quarters of local demand. Yet, local groundwater usage is growing, reflecting global trends. In most places on the planet, groundwater is crucial: according to the Groundwater Project, it supports nearly half of Earth’s population and three-quarters of its irrigation needs. South Africa is currently an outlier, but this is changing. 

Growing populations and shifting climates are increasing the demand for groundwater. Rural communities, in particular, often depend on groundwater to supply safe drinking water. 

Groundwater’s delicate state

One might think that groundwater is naturally protected, seeing as it resides deep underground. But the influence of human activities is not sparing these underground reservoirs. 

Different types of pollution are contaminating groundwater sources, while a lack of aquifer rehabilitation and counter-pollution measures allows the damage to fester and grow.

The 2021 study, Groundwater contamination in Sub-Saharan Africa, published on ScienceDirect, exposes a worrying groundwater pollution trend. Traditionally, we assume water pumped from underground sources is clean and ready for consumption. Yet, the researchers tested groundwater at numerous boreholes and discovered concerning levels of harmful bacterial life, such as E. Coli, likely contamination from SA’s buckling wastewater treatment sites. The study suggests what was once unthinkable: local groundwater may need treatment before it is fit for human consumption.

How to invest in groundwater

This trend is very concerning, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. We can still make an impact and protect our groundwater sources. Greater investment in smart systems, which provide better water management insight and efficiency, will help reduce pollution from treatment and industrial sites. Mines can invest in better water recycling and filtering, which adds the double benefit of more operational resilience. Farming operations can reduce overall water consumption and curtail manure pollution. Urban areas can promote smarter water management and encourage citizens to report leaks and pollution. Hefty fines and enforcement of environmental laws will reduce the harm being caused to underground water.

Nature is our ally. South Africa’s many wetlands are natural filters for clean water and play a massive role in feeding underground aquifers. Reducing pollution and improving sanitation are the most effective ways to secure both groundwater and surface water in South Africa. 

Effective urban planning and conservation strategies will help establish and maintain a balance between growing settlements and sustainable water sources.

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