Nature and Biodiversity

Water shortage in Africa is a deadly problem - but this innovative solution could change that

This article is published in collaboration with This is place.
David Muganyura, 70, walks amongst coffee plants growing on his farm in Honde Valley, Zimbabwe, June 27, 2019.  Picture taken June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo - RC19D2147500

While more than 90% of Africa's agriculture is rain-fed, farmers are facing increasing rainfall variability due to climate change, say environmental experts. Image: REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Nita Bhalla
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Fresh Water

  • Solar pumps collect data to monitor underground reserves of fresh water.
  • The pumps' sensors record real-time data such as energy usage and pump speed, which is used to calculate groundwater extraction rates and levels.
  • The technology could help tackle water scarcity and monitor water usage across the continent.

High-tech solar pumps mapping underground freshwater reservoirs across Africa are collecting data that can help prevent them running dry, according to the project's developers.

Manufactured by British social enterprise Futurepump, the solar pumps are being used by thousands of small-scale farmers in 15 African nations, including Kenya and Uganda, as a cleaner, cheaper option to diesel and gasoline-powered ones.

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The pumps' sensors record real-time data such as energy usage and pump speed in each location, which is shared with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) to calculate groundwater extraction rates and levels.

"We fitted remote monitoring sensors on to our pumps for our own in-house reasons - for looking at their technical performance - and we've collected tens of millions of data points," said Toby Hammond, Futurepump's managing director.

"So this project is a really exciting opportunity to do something far richer with the data. We want to make it available for the good of the sector - for those advocating solar irrigation and those working to ensure sustainable water use."

Many of the world's major aquifers are stressed because too much water is being taken out for household, agricultural and industrial use and not enough surface water is seeping in to replenish the underground rock formations.

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A Kenyan farmer sets up her solar irrigation pump in Busia county, Kenya on February, 2019. Image: Futurepump

While more than 90% of Africa's agriculture is rain-fed, farmers are facing increasing rainfall variability due to climate change, say environmental experts.

To ensure food security for the continent's 1.3 billion - and growing - population, countries need to manage their water resources more efficiently, from harvesting rainwater to maintaining aquifers, or underground water basins.

Studies by the Sri Lanka-based IWMI suggest that in many regions of Africa there is still much untapped and sustainable groundwater potential - particularly if recharge from the surface is managed.

But there is a shortage of local data to develop policies.

IWMI plans to use the data from Futurepump's 4,000 pumps to calculate how much water is being extracted at any given time, which can help governments ensure it is used sustainably, with limits on extraction or a shift to less water-intensive crops.

"People often see solar pumps as 'free energy' ... They feel since it's not going to cost extra to extract more water, it can be taken," said IWMI's David Wiberg, who uses tech to make water use more efficient.

"But once you put in place an information system like this, farmers will be able to see that pumping extra amounts of water is not helping them or their neighbours grow extra crops."

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