As South Africa draws thirstily on its groundwater resources, it must urgently educate role-players that these are not infinite, and that careful controls must follow the drilling of boreholes to make sure they last.
According to Gert Nel, principal hydrogeologist in SRK Consulting’s East London office, the current drought in many parts of the country has refocused attention on the frequent lack of monitoring of groundwater use.
“Underground aquifers are fed by rainwater, so drought will impact on their abstraction capacity,” said Nel. “We are also seeing more demand on groundwater as towns expand, higher levels of services are required, and municipalities must ensure water delivery is meeting the demand.”
After South Africa developed a large number of well-fields in recent decades, he said we now face the danger of depleting them through careless use – unless water service providers such as local and district municipalities are provided with better information about the policies and practices that need to be applied and implemented.
“Each of the agencies in this field has their role to play, and consulting engineers and scientists like SRK are already making valuable technical contributions,” he said. “But we can do more at a number of levels, such as raising awareness at district municipalities, and giving local municipalities practical training and ongoing mentoring.”
Nel emphasised the need to roll out a scientific learning programme that relates directly to each town or region where it is presented – so that it can be applied immediately in addressing local groundwater challenges.
“There are plenty of generic ‘groundwater training’ resources and documents available but we need to move beyond the general to the specific, ensuring that role-players engage practically with their issues during these sessions and take back solutions they can implement with the help of mentors,” said Nel.
Consulting engineers and scientists are ideally placed to adapt their training in this way, as they have on-the-ground experience and understanding of the problems that water managers face every day, he said.
According to Nel, catchment management agencies (CMAs) are being established to pursue integrated water management within water management areas (WMA) and coordinate functions of other institutions involved in water related matters. However, it will take time for the CMAs to fully engage all groundwater users.
More urgent, however, is the position of the water services authorities (WSAs), typically the district municipalities, who oversee the work of water services providers (WSPs), typically local municipalities, in ensuring actual delivery of water services and maintenance of facilities.
Training should be tailored for each of these levels, as their needs are different, he said. The district municipalities’ water planning personnel, for example, need to understand that groundwater must be monitored and managed; numerical models can be developed and predictions made about future borehole performance at current abstraction levels.
At local municipality level, the required focus is on how to physically monitor usage – using equipment such as flow meters and water-level meters – and how to manage groundwater contamination. The training can therefore include an assessment of municipal and private groundwater abstraction, identifying the various users so that the local authority can engage them in controlling usage. The location of possible contamination sources like refuse dumps, waste water discharge, cemeteries and abattoirs can also be mapped.
“Water services authorities and providers receive funding from various sources, such as the Municipal Infrastructure Grant, to install the necessary water systems, but they are seldom equipped or funded to scientifically manage their groundwater sources,” he said. “The training content needs to be applied to their specific conditions, so that delegates can be assisted to develop a groundwater monitoring programme – and supported with mentoring to ensure ongoing implementation.”
“The danger of continuing as we are,” said Nel, “is that groundwater is being abstracted on a large scale and boreholes are inevitably drying up – leading to the unsustainable and expensive practice of simply drilling new holes.”
“Those involved need to develop an understanding of water tables, groundwater recharge and related scientific issues, so that the ‘invisible’ world of groundwater can be revealed and managed to everyone’s long-term benefit,” he said.
“Groundwater users must understand that only by working together, and openly sharing knowledge can their groundwater resources be protected, both from a quantity and quality perspective. It is a necessary condition of raising citizens’ standard of living.”
Even where experts have been used to test boreholes, users sometimes mistakenly believe that the ‘recommended yield’ provided by the hydrogeologist can be applied for the lifespan of the borehole.
“This is of course not true,” said Nel. “The recommended yield given by the hydrogeologist is the yield that can be used to put the system in operation, but the yield will have to be adjusted downwards when drought periods arrive. Similarly, the yield can be increased in times of above-average rainfall. Groundwater abstraction must be managed as it is a resource dependent on rainfall and recharge.”