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Methodological studies of exploration (Shale gas, natural gas, oil...) ✓ Industrial Engineering : New physical exploration techniques and production ✓ Fund manager / Fund partner

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Us energy information administration
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Securing Utility and Energy Infrastructures
  • Groundwater In The Sahara And Sahel Zones 0 comments
    Oct 7, 2013 10:04 AM
    Groundwater in the Sahara and Sahel zonesPOSTED 6:51 AM by INTERNAL VOICES in LABELS: 8TH EDITION

    Sabria Regragui Mazili, intern at UN DESA in New York

    "Into the well from which you drink, do not throw stones." (Arabic proverb, meaning "care for the water upon which you depend.")

    Imagine the vast desert landscapes of the Sahara and Sahel. Seething heat, interminable sand, and barren vegetation come to mind. But think again - how is it possible that people live in these areas? How can there be agriculture in North Africa? You might think that the only water in these countries comes from the coastal areas or from rivers such as the Nile. However, the biggest water treasures are to be found where you least expect them. Buried deep underneath the perennial sands and sunshine lie gigantic basins of fossil groundwater, aquifers, which cover 90 per cent of the drinking water needs of North Africa's populations.1

    The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, for example, covers an area of just over two million km2, comprising north-western Sudan, north-eastern Chad, south-eastern Libya, and most of Egypt, and contains an estimated 150,000 km3 of water. Just to put this into perspective, according to UNEP estimates, annual global precipitation onto landmass amounts to "only" 100,000 km3 on average.2

    These aquifers are crucial in economic development, which remains a key challenge in the region, but studies have also shown that they could also play a key role in adaptation to climate variability, in particular by providing a cushion against excessive drought. However, it is precisely due to climate variability and ecological fragility that recharge levels are currently close to nil. Rising sea water levels may bring about potentially contaminating saline formations and sea water intrusions that will degrade the water quality in aquifers. The relationship between climate change and North Africa's aquifers is thus a type of catch-22 situation - the region needs the aquifers to deal with climate change, but climate change is threatening to erode their usability for future generations.

    How to get out of this catch-22? The first step would, of course, be to clearly define the parameters of the situation - but this is where the trouble starts. Many people within the water sector are aware that climate change is affecting water resource management, but they are unsure how to incorporate climate information into their management structures. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that climate change is likely to be associated with increased water stress in much of Africa;3 however, the scenarios for the Sahel region are ambiguous, reflecting the lack of information on the current state of water resources.

    According to the groundwater experts at the Sahara and Sahel Observatory in Tunis, Tunisia, a crippling lack of knowledge about the exact effects of climate change on groundwater is exacerbated by a shortage of in-depth studies of these complex systems.4 Existing studies are often confined to a single country, and pay little attention to the cross-border effects of intensive water withdrawals. In fact, climate-induced water shortages combined with ever-increasing pressure from industrial and agricultural development have generated a situation where individual countries compete for access to shared water resources.

    But not all is gloom and doom. Increasingly countries realise that it is in their best interest to think about their neighbours' interests as well. In the case of the North Western Sahara Aquifer, which is shared between Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, a consultation framework to build the cooperation between the countries is already established. In 2000, UNESCO launched a project on Internationally Shared Aquifer Resource Management.5 This has generated some of the first data sets on the basins' characteristics and brought in partners, such as the UNDP, to advise countries on management strategies that take into account both economic development and ecological sustainability objectives. These kinds of initiatives have to be reinforced, applied to smaller basins, and institutionally adapted to the new challenges posed by climate change.

    As with almost everything in development, the hitch is financing. Adaptation to climate change in the water sector is clearly a top priority in the region, and while it is incredibly difficult to estimate the exact costs of adaptation, it is safe to say that it will take a significant commitment from both national budgets and international donors. Now, the finance of climate change adaptation has been a key theme of the post-Kyoto negotiations. While we're at it, it is time to make some noise in Copenhagen about the invisible resource that may help us tackle the problems associated with climate change.

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