Scott McKenzie argues that the post-Arab Spring leaders in North Africa must embrace environmentally sustainable policies in managing their recently-mapped groundwater reserves. This post originally appeared on Global Policy.
The first quantitative map to review Africa’s considerable groundwater reserves was recently published, and with restrained management it promises to be a game changer for millions of people. Many of the individual aquifers that this document shows have already been known, but the panoramic way that the information is presented to the public at large and to policy makers suggests that these ancient waters could be a solution to today’s water crisis. This is an opportunity for post-Arab Spring North African countries with newly democratic governments, to embrace environmentally sustainable policies for future generations while developing natural resources today that encourage political and economic stability today.
The comprehensive survey published in the journal, Environmental Research Letters, showed that there are approximately 660 thousand cubic kilometers of groundwater throughout Africa. These gargantuan reserves are more than 20 times the amount of fresh water that is available in lakes above ground. The largest of these underground reserves are under the countries of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, and Sudan. Recent modeling, using isotopes of krypton 81, shows that much of this water has been underground for tens of thousands of years. Although many of these reserves will be difficult to fully extract because they are 100 to 250 meters underground, this is certainly not an insurmountable challenge for enterprising developers.
Mohamed Gad, a professor of hydrology at the Desert Research Center in Egypt says that “North African countries need to resume negotiations about the management of the shared groundwater.” He explained that some countries already have agreements to manage their groundwater. For example Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia have an agreement. However Egypt, Libya, and Sudan do not. Until there are comprehensive agreements have been completed, these resources are still vulnerable to exploitation and pollution.
Because these aquifers are not limited to the political boundaries of any one country, they stretch underground across the territories of both friends and foes. If there is any hope of sustainably managing these waters all the countries that have access to this water will have to find the political will to agree that extracting water must be done so that some is left for future generations and that pollution is managed so that no single incident makes the water unusable for everyone.
Policy concerns regarding the over-consumption and pollution of water sources are relevant to the development discussion throughout the world. These issues are particularly salient for water reserves in North Africa because the prevailing dry conditions provide a much thinner margin of error. Scientists caution that quickly drilling high-yield boreholes may not be the best answer to solve the pressing problems created by the dry conditions on the surface. Without a better understanding of individualized local groundwater conditions, and proper management practices, there are concerns that rapid extraction could be counterproductive in the long-term. Without forward planning and intelligent regulation, these aquifers could be quickly depleted by out of control drilling and pollution.
This requires not only intelligent planning at the national level, but also calls for a comprehensive legal agreement between the countries that share these resources. There are “free rider” concerns that if one country begins to pump water, its neighbors will respond by increasing their own extraction plans creating a rapid downward spiral.
One example of development without restraint, showing disregard for both neighboring countries and future generations was in Libya under the leadership of Muammar Gaddafi. The Brother Leader created the “Great Manmade River” project to bring groundwater from deep in the Sahara desert to the cities. While it is an impressive feat of engineering, it also has already resulted in a profoundly negative impact on the vast water resources in the country. Neil Sturchio, a geologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains that “As a result of the drawdown we have dried up the oases in a couple of places…they have dried up Kufra Lake…Right now it is a dry bed, because they are pumping so heavily.”
Numerous studies have shown that there are critical water shortages in many of these countries. They have been described as some of the most water insecure in the world. Access to fresh water is clearly a human rights issue that needs to be addressed immediately, but it is also a thorny political issue that governments are pressed to address. Overcoming the urge to immediately begin recklessly pumping these aquifers will be a difficult challenge.
It is unclear if the political impact of the Arab Spring will create the opportunity and incentive for these countries to pursue agreements that aim to create sustainable management practices. Or, will these new governments exploit these resources for a short-term economic stimulus that can be leveraged for political gain.
Geological scientists say that aquifers recharge slowly — only millimeters per year. This means that there will only be one opportunity to use these precious water resources. Advancing the shared development and sustainable management of water resources is important around the world, but perhaps nowhere is there greater risk, and more opportunity to get the process right. If the new Arab Spring governments, and their neighbors, want to show that they are truly forward-looking they will adopt international agreements that sustainably manage these newly discovered groundwater resources so that today’s development can be balanced with the needs of future generations.