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Ground water Africa’s solution

- By Kemantha Govender

Ground water is a vital resource for Africa and one that can address water shortages in different parts of the continent, says Professor Tamiru Abiye.

Speaking at his inaugural lecture recently, the professor of hydrogeology affirmed that water supply is insufficient especially in regions like north Africa which he says is completely dry despite being rich with ground water. Libya is the richest country in ground water in Africa.

Groundwater refers to water stored inside rocks.

Abiye’s interest in this field started during his younger years.

“I was born and raised in the southern part of Ethiopia where the only gold mine in the country is located (Adola). When I was at high school, I used to interact with geologists coming from the gold mine and regional mapping.

“When I was a Grade 10 student my town got its first water supply borehole. It was during a summer break that I spent more than a week observing the borehole drilling and well completion processes,” he said.

Abiye deals with ground water from a geological aspect but said there is a need for understanding groundwater problems from different angles, because of its multidisciplinary nature.

He explained that geo-hydrology which focuses on the hydrological aspect of groundwater – differs from hydrogeology – which focuses on the role of rocks in controlling groundwater occurrence.

As a significant contributor to the development of groundwater science, Abiye described the vast amount of ground water across the globe.

“In Africa, groundwater storage is approximately 175 times bigger than surface water and the total groundwater storage in Africa equals 66 trillion m3 which is more than 100 times estimates of surface water. This is something the politicians have not yet accepted,” he said.

“Surface water is not sustainable, can be easily polluted, easily evaporates and has no large spatial coverage,” he added.

The South African private sector focuses on the business aspect of groundwater with “no concerted effort aimed at discovery of new major aquifers”.

He said the public sector is plagued with some major issues. “Most groundwater professionals lack in-depth geological training. Hence, these professionals cannot solve complex groundwater problems. Government departments have low levels of expertise and are poorly staffed”.

Abiye said humans rely mainly on rivers and lakes as water sources yet elephants can be considered “ground water experts” because they know where to find it.

“Groundwater resources represent an essential part of climate change adaptation strategies. It’s hidden nature and slow recharge process categorises it as resilient to climate change,” he said.

He said groundwater is a natural buffer against seasonal changes in temperature and rainfall.

His other area of interest is the impact of Fluorosis (condition caused by the excess of fluoride) on people. It is a common problem in 25 countries in Africa, including South Africa.

Rocks such as pumice, ignimbrite, volcanic ash and obsidian are major sources of fluoride in ground water and is facilitated by hydrothermal activities.

To address this issue Abiye said one of two things can be done, government needs to treat fluoride and provide drinking water or identify rocks that contain low fluoride concentrations. He said some governments are listening to these suggestions.

Together with a colleague he authored a text book for 4th year hydrology students in Ethiopia who struggle with access to such educational material.

Abiye said it was appropriate that Wits leads knowledge in ground water production because the name “Witwatersrand”  refers to the groundwater that runs under the Witwatersrand region.

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