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Q&A with Karen Villholth: Sharing Experiences Across Borders on Groundwater Management

This blog series will share interviews conducted with speakers for the international conference “Towards a Sustainable Water Future” held in Bengaluru, India from September 24 to 27, 2019. The conference is organized by The Sustainable Water Future Programme (Water Future), a Global Research Project of Future Earth, in partnership with the Divecha Centre for Climate Change. It will address the current state of global water resource challenges, future pathways and scenarios, and different technological, and institutional solutions to accelerate the implementation of water-related Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda. Here we talk to experts on the future of water.

Dr. Karen Villholth is a Principal Researcher at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), where she is a Sub-Theme Leader and Coordinator of the global partnership, Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP), working from the Southern Africa regional office in Pretoria, South Africa. She has built up a substantial team of researchers and a portfolio of projects and a wide professional network within the water research and management community in Sub-Saharan Africa and globally. In this interview, we ask her about GRIPP and groundwater management and solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Anupama Nair: Currently you’re working in IWMI (International Water Management Institute) under the Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP). So what work are you doing as a part of this?

Karen Villholth: I am coordinating this initiative called GRIPP, which is a global initiative.  At the moment we have about 30 international partners involved that all have some kind of expertise/experience in groundwater. The idea was to build this platform of partners that can support sustainable development of groundwater, as we found that there was kind of a gap in this area. This initiative started back in 2016, so we are on the third year. The background was that the issues of groundwater depletion and groundwater contamination around the world need further attention. There is a lot of research going on for groundwater and this is very valuable and valid, because groundwater is a complex resource.  You need to know what is happening in your system to manage it, but that is not enough. You need to take that knowledge to the next level in terms of how to use that information, how to shape a management structure and the institutions that are required, and how to involve stakeholders on the ground. That was where we felt GRIPP should come in. We are bridging some of these different approaches to managing groundwater. IWMI has been working in this field for 2 or 3 decades already, and we felt that we had a good role and background to take leadership on this platform. I’m coordinating it from IWMI and IWMI is the main contributor to the financing of the platform.

AN: That sounds quite extensive. Could you tell me about what the water future of Sub-Saharan Africa is going to look like per your work and your predictions?

KV: I work quite a bit on groundwater in Sub-Saharan Africa and what I see overarchingly is a lot more dependence on groundwater, as the population grows and water’s becoming in high demand and short supply. Already, about 75% of the population are depending on groundwater in Sub-Saharan African for basic water supply, mostly in the rural areas through small hand pumps and so on. So basically groundwater is sustaining these rural communities. It’s very important that these systems continue functioning because otherwise these people have very little water security.

I also see a trend towards more dependence on groundwater in the urban areas. There’s a lot of urbanization happening in Africa, the cities are growing and they need more water. So many of the cities are increasingly looking towards expanding and developing their groundwater resources.

I don’t see so much happening in the irrigation sector. But I think we’ll be seeing more of that happening in the future with solar irrigation coming in. As this gets accessible to smaller farmers, we’ll probably see a similar trend as in India, where farmers will adopt this technology to get access to groundwater.

AN: You mentioned that you see groundwater being used more in the urban areas in this part of the world in the future. As you know, the water scarcity in Cape Town has made news all over the world. How would you describe the problem that Cape Town faces and does it tie up to any of the work that you are doing? 

KV: It definitely has relevance to the work that we are doing in the sense that the risks that Cape Town has been facing is partly due to climate change, expanding demand, and maybe a backlog in development of the resources. It’s a very good example to learn from in other contexts around the world. They managed to solve the immediate drought crisis through various means, which demonstrates that with concerted efforts and collaboration from the individual households to the larger community and the national water supply systems, etc. they were able to solve the problem. But it also shows that there’s a need to be more proactive and you need to plan toward these potential situations in the future. Cape Town learned that they were not really in that position, so they had to fight quickly and hard to revert the situation. This is something we’ll see more in the future in other countries.

AN: So you’ve studied groundwater practices in lots of different locations. Could you give me an example of some of the best practices you’ve encountered for sustainable groundwater management? 

KV: We are seeing some concerted efforts to address groundwater risks around the world, At the implementation level, there’s movement to having more stakeholder engagement. At the end of the day, groundwater is both a local and regional resource, but the way that it’s being accessed is very localized – it’s through wells. So the people that are abstracting and using the resource need to be involved, and they need to engage with other users in order to find out how they can address any risks, whether it’s in terms of depletion or contamination. That is being seen, all the way from India, where they’re using citizen science to capacitate local farmers to monitor their own groundwater resources, to Australia and more developed countries where they’re implementing approaches where the farmers and users are being involved in their own management of the resource.

Another thing, is managed aquifer recharge. This is a way to enhance the management of the water storage underground and the buffer that it provides. It’s being practiced quite globally, but there’s still a huge scope to do this in more regions. Especially in areas where you have a high variability in water availability from very dry to very wet seasons, which we’ll see more with climate change. It can also partially alleviate groundwater depletion, so you are stocking back some of the groundwater that you have been taking out and keeping it an equilibrium in the system.

AN: Groundwater also has a role to play in maintaining the basal flow in a lot of rivers, and that in turn becomes a transboundary issue. Have you encountered any situation where groundwater has come in conflict as a transboundary resource?

KV: That’s something that we have been working on quite strongly at IWMI and with partners in Southern Africa in particular. We started out by understanding the context of these shared resources. A river can have an aquifer that spans across various borders, and there can be some transboundary impacts, for example, if one side pumps a lot or contaminates. So we looked at where these aquifers are, and secondly we looked at where these issues could be prevalent. Then we identified a couple of aquifers we should address first. Looking at those, we learned a lot: what are those issues, how transboundary are those issues, how can we look at these jointly in collaboration with the countries. We are now setting up institutional arrangements and frameworks that can help countries collaborate going forward, which relates both to sharing of data, agreeing on development of resource, counteracting contamination, adapting to climate change, etc. where groundwater is seen as an integrated part of that whole problem area. We also realized that when we look at transboundary aquifers, many of them are connected to surface water so we cannot address them separately – we need to understand the whole system.

AN: I found that you worked in the South Asia region as well. How have you found the problems and management practices of groundwater to differ between South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa? Would you say that the two regions can learn a lot from one another? 

KV: Yes, definitely there’s a lot of similarity in terms of the physical context – the hydrogeology of large parts of Africa are similar to the peninsula part of India. For that, we are already using some of the same tools to understand the resource. In terms of management, there’s also scope for further lesson sharing between the continents and in this regard, it may be more from India towards Africa because Africa has not developed its groundwater resources to the same extent as India has. India is much further down the line in terms of management but also issues they have like groundwater depletion etc. I don’t see this lesson sharing being developed pragmatically or in practice, as of yet so maybe there’s some scope for that. This is something that could be discussed at the Water Futures Conference. Having a working model is basically what is needed, and then addressing some concrete issues which are relevant like the solar irrigation, which India is now struggling quite a bit with and is being taken up in Africa. This is something that IWMI is starting to work more on, and in India and Africa. I think there’s a good opportunity to further expand on this lesson sharing.

Dr. Villholth will be one of the speakers at the second plenary of the conference titled  “Water and Climate Change: Challenges” on Wednesday, September 25. She, along with other representatives from IWMI and the International Association of Hydrogeologists (IAH), will be delivering a special session on “Innovations to Achieve Sustainable Groundwater Use in India” on the same day. She hopes that this conference helps initiate lesson sharing between countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia with regards to water management.