GroFutures: Groundwater Futures in Sub-Saharan Africa

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sussex
Department Name: Sch of Global Studies


The Groundwater Futures in Sub-Saharan Africa (GroFutures) project will assemble an inter-disciplinary team of highly experienced physical and social scientists from Africa and Europe to generate new scientific evidence and methods to enable groundwater to be used sustainably and equitably tom improve the lives of poor people in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) by way of improved access to safe water for drinking and domestic purposes as well as water for agricultural production. As SSA is a region of small-scale farmers, sustainable year-round access to water for agriculture is a core component of poverty alleviation strategies in this region. GroFutures also recognises the importance of protecting the quantity and quality of groundwater discharges that sustain rivers, lakes and wetlands and the benefits (e.g. fish, hydropower) derived from these.

Under a one-year catalyst grant, the GroFutures Team will work with government water ministries in Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania to conduct a series of pilot studies characterising and quantifying seasonal changes in groundwater demand under a range of potential development options including increased use of groundwater for irrigation as well as urban and rural water supplies in selected basins. Indicative changes in groundwater supply by way of rain-fed groundwater replenishment (recharge) will also be evaluated under this pilot research by examining relationships between climate and groundwater recharge in semi-arid (central Tanzania) and seasonally humid (northern Uganda) environments where long-term observational records exist. The evaluation will focus on observed recharge responses to changes in the intensity of rainfall that is projected to increase in a warmer world, under these contrasting climate regimes.

A significant innovation of the research conducted under this catalyst grant is the development and trial of a new metric of water availability that, for the first time, explicitly considers groundwater resources. Water availability will be redefined in terms of water storage requirements, be it natural (e.g. groundwater) or constructed (e.g. surface reservoirs), that are required to address imbalances between water supply and demand. As such, the metric will directly inform water management including sustainable allocations of groundwater. Because access to groundwater often disfavours poor water users, GroFutures will investigate pathways to enhance the governance and management of groundwater that recognise and support access of the poor to groundwater.

The interdisciplinary GroFutures Team is uniquely qualified to undertake the proposed research. It has conducted pioneering research evaluating factors that influence groundwater demand and supply and, as such, possesses invaluable long-term and detailed datasets as well as an acute understanding of the national development plans required to develop robust projections and scenarios of the future with which to determine the sustainability of groundwater resources in different settings. Having enjoyed long-term collaborations with government ministries who are project partners, the team is also able to review critical questions of groundwater governance and management.

Another key attribute of the GroFutures proposal is the holding of a pan-African workshop which will enable a rare opportunity for scientists in Anglophone and Francophone Africa to share their experiences and expertise. Scientists and government stakeholders in the GroFutures project will run the workshop jointly with a Francophone network of researchers, PICASS'EAU, from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Niger, and Nigeria as well as potentially other UPGro Consortia and several invited international scientists who will examine the wider applicability of GroFutures pilot-study results to SSA and inform research to be proposed under a subsequent large, inter-disciplinary consortium proposal to the UPGro programme.

Planned Impact

GroFutures will benefit: (1) poor people (including women) in SSA through the increased and disseminated knowledge and evidence on positive outcomes from groundwater development for health and livelihoods enabling poverty alleviation; (2) water planners and policy makers in SSA through the development of evidence and methodologies to quantify groundwater demand and supply through recharge thereby enabling equitable and sustainable use of groundwater resources; and (3) national and regional research communities in SSA through an improved networking and information exchanges as well as ultimately by way of improved knowledge, evidence and tools to develop and manage groundwater resources equitably and sustainably.

The primary pathway by which the GroFutures catalyst project will generate impacts for poor people in sub-Saharan Africa is through the development of evidence and tools which water managers in the focal countries can (a) target groundwater development where it can most effectively reduce poverty, and (b) ensure equitable and sustainable development of groundwater resources.

GroFutures will contribute to unlocking the poverty-reducing potential of groundwater in SSA by:
1) generating new evidence on groundwater availability and demand, including insights into how these are likely to change over the next two to three decades giving planners at basin, national and regional levels the information they need to plan for an equitable and sustainable allocation of groundwater, for multiple users and uses;
2) Identifying locations and circumstances in which groundwater development (for domestic supply or irrigation) is a feasible strategy to reduce poverty;
3) Identifying areas where groundwater is at risk of future depletion due to likely demand/supply imbalances enabling management responses to be developed on a preventive rather than curative basis;
4) Providing specific information on the seasonal variations of water availability and demand which can carry high costs for economies and for the livelihoods of poor people and make planning and management difficult;
5) Piloting a new tool (water availability metric incorporating groundwater storage) which planners can use to assess groundwater futures in their basin;
6) Strengthening the capacity of water planners through co-production of knowledge and collaborative, demand-based research and piloting;
7) Identifying governance options for pro-poor, sustainable groundwater management, in collaboration with water managers and other key stakeholders; and
8) Disseminating evidence and knowledge on the positive outcomes of groundwater development for health and livelihoods enabling poverty alleviation.

The GroFutures team will engage staff of national, regional and local water bureaux in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Tanzania as project partners from the start in the research planning, data analysis and tool/metric development and piloting. They will also embed new scientific knowledge, models and methods for managing groundwater for poverty alleviation within water ministries to inform decision-making and initiate discussions about equity in groundwater development among relevant stakeholders. Findings and methods will also be actively shared with a West African initiative on groundwater in West Africa, PICASS'EAU, for impact outside the study countries.

Production and dissemination of high quality, open-source publications - in the form of academic outputs in high impact journals, as well as targeted policy briefs and other bespoke communications materials suited to different audiences - will be a central aim of the project. These will be co-authored by African and UK-based collaborators and published in English, as well as Amharic and Swahili, where appropriate. The materials will be posted on a dedicated Groundwater Futures webpage of the ESRC-STEPS Centre (, with links to the websites of other key partner organisations.


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