New Study Links Drought Resilience to Underground Water

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“New study says shortage of water a major cause of local conflicts, low breastfeeding rate, increase in cases of miscarriage”

Results from a recent study carried out by the British Geological Survey (BGS), the University of Addis Ababa and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has shown that people who have access to groundwater from boreholes are more likely to overcome the effects of drought than those who get their water supplies from surface sources like wells and springs.

Highlights of the study published in Augusts 23 edition of Environmental Research Letters republished by Pan African Media Alliance for Climate Change (PAMACC) also shows that shortage of water is a trigger factor for conflict in local areas leading also to migration, a decline in breastfeeding rates, rise in miscarriage rates, and more children missing school.

This is as it has shown that Installing more boreholes to tap underground water will improve resilience to drought, especially in rural communities. These were evident in Ethiopia where the study was carried.

Groundwater experts from the BGS monitored 19 hand-dug wells, springs and boreholes in two districts in northern Ethiopia over 18 months. They also held focus-group discussions with local people, including school and health centre staff, near each of the groundwater sources.

They found that boreholes drilled to 50–100 m were found to be the most reliable source of water during the extended drought of 2015–16 and through the dry season.

Prof Alan MacDonald, the BGS hydrogeologist who led the research, was quoted in the PAMACC report as saying boreholes can transform the water security for rural villages and make them much more resilient to the effects of climate change.

According to MacDonald, water from boreholes were of better quality, an assertion that runs contrary to the impression that water from boreholes are not safe

“We found that boreholes equipped with hand pumps were more reliable than springs or hand-dug wells, and this reliability was not affected by drought or seasonal change. As hand-dug wells dried up and springs failed, the boreholes we monitored gave exactly the same flow throughout the year,” Prof MacDonald stated.

“As the drought ended and rain started falling many of the springs and hand-dug wells became grossly contaminated. The boreholes performed much better, with less than half of them showing any level of contamination,” he said.

The findings of the project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Department for International Development (DfID) make a clear case for the installation of more boreholes to improve resilience to drought. If constructed carefully and regularly maintained.

Dr Seifu Kebede from Addis Ababa University’s earth sciences department, cited findings from the study which revealed that people without boreholes spent time in search of water during the dry season and drought, and end up scooping very low volumes afterwards.

According to the BGS’s African Groundwater Atlas, Ethiopia has a high potential for groundwater in the highland regions due to the mostly permeable rocks. A major challenge, however, is the rugged terrain, which can hinder the movement of drilling rigs.

“People were routinely queuing for up to 10 hours, which led to tension and sometimes violence, and had wide-ranging impact across communities. Women breastfed less and experienced more miscarriages, meals were missed and farm work was reduced to help collect water. School attendance was down in all but one district, as children were involved in water collection,” Dr Kebede said.

He noted that all health centres in the study area reported upruge in diseases. It was also found that employees were paying for water collection to keep the centres functioning in some of the locations.

“We must look at how communities source water during a normal dry season to predict how they will cope during drought years. This study shows that boreholes, where they can be installed, could be the most reliable source of groundwater in these areas of northern Ethiopia,” he said.

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