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Underground aquifers containing 100 times the amount of freshwater available on Africa’s surface have been located by researchers from the British Geological Survey and University College London. Scientists found the water in the Sahara desert area, which receives less than three inches of rain per year, with the largest reservoirs under the North African countries of Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan.
“There is sufficient groundwater under Africa to support low yielding water supplies for drinking and community irrigation,” reported hydrogeologist Helen Bonsor, who contributed to the research.
Currently, 5 percent of Africa’s arable land is irrigated, and more than 300 million Africans are without safe drinking water.
Scientists estimate that with proper drilling, including the use of smaller holes to extract a modest amount of water, the supply could last 20 to 70 years for rural communities on the continent. If the reservoirs were used on a larger scale, such as to supply water to heavily populated areas, researchers warn the aquifers could be rapidly depleted. Because northern Africa receives little rain, they are not naturally replenished.
But other factors come into play regarding water accessibility.
Roger Calow of the United Kingdom’s Overseas Development Institute stated in a Reuters article that “water shortages in large parts of Africa do not stem from scarcity…a third of hand pumps across Africa have broken down due to a lack of maintenance.”
Internal conflicts and lack of funds have also affected water extraction programs. For instance, drilling costs and logistics have been the main factor in halting groundwater irrigation projects in Nigeria.
Representatives of aid agencies, including Nick Nuttall, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi, Kenya, are guardedly optimistic about the find.
“The discovery of substantial water reserves under parts of Africa may well be good news for the continent but it may prove hard to access in the near term and, if not sustainably managed, could have unforeseen impacts,” he told Reuters.