Namibia recently made headlines with the discovery of a massive underground water source in the Ohangwena Region in northern Namibia.

This discovery is the result of a joint project that started in 2007 between the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, NamWater and the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources.

Last week, Callist Tindimugaya a Ugandan hydrogeologist and commissioner for water resources planning and regulation in the ministry of water and environment, said the water beneath Africans’ feet could transform the continent’s agricultural production, but only if it is managed wisely.

He argues that there is a fantastic opportunity in Africa to develop groundwater as an additional and sustainable resource for increased food security. Lessons learned in Asia can help African policymakers and farmers to avoid past mistakes, and implement robust and equitable management practices.

Namibia’s aquifer lies between Eenhana and Okongo, and stretches from Okankolo into southern Angola, where it is actively recharged during the rainy season.

According to Tindimugaya, all recharging depends on rainfall, but this aquifer has a big “buffer capacity.” Even many dry years would not affect it significantly.

Phase I of the project started between 2007 and 2009, while the second phase will continue until next year with the purpose of improved groundwater investigation and management in the north of Namibia.

The project will continue drilling for final investigation, monitoring and plans to make the first test well field (around 5 wells) in cooperation with NamWater at Eenhana.
This serves to calculate the sustainable recharge.

Furthermore, the area must be declared a controlled water area to avoid random drilling endangering the resource.
Generating water from the aquifer – estimated to be some 10 000 years old and with a capacity of at least 20 billion cubic metres – has since been identified as the best backup plan for the country, lasting for hundreds of years.

Marting Quinger, the project manager for the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, says the organisation, in partnership with the agriculture ministry and NamWater, is in the process of drafting a proposal to Cabinet to get funding for infrastructure that would supply water to the whole northern part of the country.

If government funds infrastructure to pump and distribute water from the aquifer that was discovered in Ohangwena Region about four years ago the country will have a solid water supply backup for a long time.

New Era understands that about N$50 million would be needed for the construction of the pipeline from the underground water source in Ohangwena to other regions in the north.

With drought afflicting much of southern Africa, it’s all too easy to succumb to the stereotype that Africa is a dry continent. Far from it. Recent estimates suggest that there is one hundred times more supply of groundwater in Africa than on the surface, for instance aquifiers such as the one discovered in Namibia.
Huge quantities of this subterranean water could be used sustainably for irrigation.

Tindjimugaya, who was speaking at a national conference on water resources, said the fundamental challenge is that groundwater is an “invisible commons” – farmers cannot directly see the resource, so find it difficult to judge how much they can sustainably use. In addition, pricing incentives designed to boost agricultural production, such as indiscriminate cheap power for pumps, have actually worsened problems of depletion in some areas.

Establishing sustainable use, therefore, will be dependent on the creation of effective and equitable incentives and institutions to govern and regulate the resource.

At present, only five percent of crops in Africa are irrigated. In many regions, farmers simply cannot afford the technologies needed to lift water from below the surface. This means they can only grow crops when the rains come.

As rainfall is highly seasonal in much of Africa, especially Namibia, that can leave smallholders mired in poverty, unable to exploit this valuable, and potentially renewable, resource for a year-round income as some 120 000 smallholders in the north are experiencing now.

If irrigation could be increased using groundwater, not only would it be a boost to continental food security, but millions of smallholder farmers could have more resilient livelihoods.

Globally, about 1,000 cubic kilometers (km³) of groundwater is withdrawn each year.
With good science, groundwater can be effectively and sustainably used throughout agriculture.

– Deon Schlechter,