Potential Impact of Climate Change on Improved and Unimproved Water Supplies in Africa
Published:24 Aug 2010
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H. Bonsor, A. MacDonald, and R. Calow, in Sustainable Water, ed. R. E. Hester and R. M. Harrison, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2010, pp. 25-49.
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With significant climate change predicted in Africa over the next century, this chapter explores a key question: how will rural water supplies in Africa be affected ? Approximately 550 million people in Africa live in rural communities and are reliant on water resources within walking distance of their community for drinking water. Less than half have access to improved sources (generally large diameter wells, springs or boreholes equipped with hand pumps); the majority rely on unimproved sources, such as open water and shallow wells. Major climate modelling uncertainties, combined with rapid socio-economic change, make predicting the future state of African water resources difficult; an appropriate response to climate change is to assume much greater uncertainty in climate and intensification of past climate variability. Based on this assumption the following should be considered:
Those relying on unimproved water sources (300 million in rural Africa) are likely to be most affected by climate change because unimproved sources often use highly vulnerable water resources.
Improved rural water supplies in Africa are overwhelmingly dependent on groundwater, due to the unreliability of other sources.
Climate change is unlikely to lead to a continent-wide failure of improved rural water sources that access deeper groundwater (generally over 20 metres below ground surface) through boreholes or deep wells. This is because groundwater-based domestic supply requires little recharge, and the groundwater resources at depth will generally be of sufficient storage capacity to remain a secure water resource. However, a significant minority of people could be affected if the frequency and length of drought increases – particularly those in areas with limited groundwater storage.
In most areas, the key determinants of water security will continue to be driven by access to water rather than absolute water availability. Extending access, and ensuring that targeting and technology decisions are informed by an understanding of groundwater conditions, will become increasingly important.
Accelerating groundwater development for irrigation could increase food production, raise farm incomes and reduce overall vulnerability. However, ad hoc development could threaten domestic supplies and, in some areas, lead to groundwater depletion.
Although climate change will undoubtedly be important in determining future water security, other drivers (such as population growth and rising food demands) are likely to provide greater pressure on rural water supplies.