Can shallow groundwater sustain small-scale irrigated agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa? Evidence from N-W Ethiopia

John Gowing*, David Walker, Geoff Parkin, Nathan Forsythe, Alemseged Tamiru Haile, Demis Alamirew Ayenew

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

We present an evidence-based approach to identify how best to support development of groundwater for small-scale irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). We argue that it is important to focus this effort on shallow groundwater resources. We demonstrate and test this proposal at a case study site: Dangila woreda in the north-western highlands of Ethiopia. This site was selected to allow exploration of a shallow weathered volcanic regolith type aquifer formation which is found to the South of Lake Tana and also exists more extensively across Ethiopia. We believe lessons from this case study are transferable and there is a case for arguing that shallow groundwater represents a neglected opportunity for promoting sustainable small-scale irrigated agriculture in SSA. In comparison with other global regions, the groundwater resources of SSA are among the least understood; borehole records and hydrogeological studies are lacking. Assessments of groundwater resources do exist, but they rely on remotely sensed data combined with modelling at national or regional scale, and they focus on deeper aquifers. There is a need for these broad evaluations to be supplemented by localised and detailed assessments. The case study here presents such an assessment in order to support analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats associated with developing small-scale irrigation utilising shallow groundwater. A multimethod groundwater recharge assessment was conducted utilising formal and community-based monitoring, field investigation and existing published data. Water table recovery tests at existing hand dug wells confirm that well yields of 1 l/s are achievable at the end of the wet season when water would be available to support an additional irrigated crop. Hydraulic conductivity estimates ranged from 0.2 to 6.4 m/d in the dry season and from 2.8 to 22.3 m/day in the wet season. Specific yield estimations have a wider range though the mean value of 0.09 is as would be expected. Records of groundwater levels and rainfall monitored by the local community for the period April 2014 to April 2018 show that all the wells maintained useable water levels beyond the end of the rainy season. An assessment of the hydrology of the Kilti catchment provided insights into groundwater availability within the wider area. The catchment receives about 1600 mm/year of rainfall, of which about 350 mm/year enters the groundwater as recharge, discharging to the river as baseflow with a similar amount of rapid runoff contributing to a total river flow of about 400 mm/year. The lowest value of baseflow is 82% of the mean baseflow, which suggests a degree of buffering and indicates that groundwater is available even in a very dry year. We conclude that arguments previously put forward against the promotion of shallow groundwater use for agriculture in SSA appear exaggerated. Our analysis challenges the view that shallow aquifers are unproductive and that irrigation will have unacceptable impacts on wetlands and other groundwater-dependent ecosystems. We believe lessons from this case study are transferable, and there is a case for arguing that shallow groundwater represents a neglected opportunity for promoting sustainable small-scale irrigated agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. It appears that factors other than the physical availability of groundwater control the ‘triggering’ of development. Interventions to promote development of groundwater resources should recognise the importance of shallow aquifers.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100290
JournalGroundwater for Sustainable Development
Volume10
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Ethiopia
  • Groundwater
  • Irrigation
  • Participatory approach
  • SWOT analysis

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