Groundwater quality in Africa
Groundwater quality can be influenced by both natural and anthropogenic processes. At present there are few studies on groundwater quality for Africa, and no regional or national assessments. Some of the key issues and studies related to groundwater quality in Africa are described below. More detail is given in individual country pages.
A detailed review of groundwater quality issues in Africa can be found in:
Xu, Y, and Usher, B (eds). 2006. Groundwater pollution in Africa. Taylor & Francis/Balkema, Netherlands.
The World Health Organisation sets guidelines for drinking water quality:
World Health Organisation. 2011. Guidelines for drinking-water quality, 4th edition. ISBN: 978 92 4 154815 1
Geogenic contamination refers to naturally occurring elements that are generally present in groundwater due to dissolution of the aquifer material. Geogenic contaminants in groundwater can have a negative effect on human health, particularly when consumed over prolonged periods of time. The most common geogenic contaminants are fluoride and arsenic. More than 300 million people worldwide are thought to use groundwater contaminated with fluoride or arsenic as a source of drinking water.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) has developed a method to assess the risk of groundwater contamination by fluoride or arsenic in a given area, using geological, topgraphical and other environmental data. The Groundwater Assessment Platform (GAP) enables users to upload their own data and generate hazard maps for specific areas. The Groundwater Assessment Platform also hosts a GAP Wiki where you can find and share information about geogenic contamination, associated health risks, and mitigation options.
Further information on the methodology used by Eawag to can be found in the following publications:
Amini, M., Mueller, K., Abbaspour, K.C., Rosenberg, T., Afyuni, M., Moller, K.N., Sarr, M. and Johnson, A. 2008. Statistical modeling of global geogenic fluoride contamination in groundwaters. Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 42, 3662–3668.
Amini, M., Abbaspour, K.C., Berg, M., Winkel, L., Hug, S.J., Hoehn, E., Yang, H. and Johnson, A. 2008. Statistical modeling of global geogenic arsenic contamination in groundwater. Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 42, 3669–3675.
Salinity is another important groundwater quality issue that can be driven by both natural and anthropogenic processes. Processes such as sea-level rise and intense evaporation can lead to naturally high salinity in groundwater, while overabstraction, irrigation and waste disposal can exacerbate groundwater salinity issues. Salinity has important consequences for human health and agricultural productivity.
IGRAC have compiled a global map of groundwater salinity occurrence by extrapolating documented cases into larger areas of high probability of saline occurrence. The global salinity map can be downloaded from the IGRAC website:
Nitrogen occurs naturally in the environment and is essential for plant growth. Nitrogen-based fertilisers are therefore often applied to increase crop yields. Leaching from agricultural land can lead to high concentrations of nitrogen in groundwater, which can have a negative impact on both the environment and human health.
IGRAC are currently carrying out a global assessment of nitrate contamination which will result in global scale maps of nitrate in groundwater. Further information can be found on the IGRAC website:
Urban and peri-urban areas are expanding in many parts of Africa, particularly across sub-Saharan Africa. Groundwater is often a very important source of improved drinking water in urban and peri-urban environments however high population densities put pressure on these resources in terms of both quantity and quality.
Groundwater quality can be influenced by a large number of contaminants in the urban environment, from microbiological pathogens and heavy metals to macronutrients, herbicides and pesticides.
Some of the key sources of urban pollution include:
- Pit latrines, which are often located close to abstraction points, particularly in densely populated peri-urban or unplanned urban settlements
- Sewer leakage and sewage effluent
- Uncontrolled disposal of household and industrial waste
- Peri-urban agriculture, which includes pesticides/fertilisers and livestock waste
- Storm water runoff
- Vehicle emissions, power stations and mine waste
There are few studies looking at urban groundwater issues in Africa and those that have been carried out mainly focus on large cities and include only basic chemical and microbiological parameters.
Some studies of urban groundwater quality are
Kulabako, N.R., Nalubega, M. and Thunvik, R. 2007. of the impact of land use and hydrogeological settings on the shallow groundwater quality in a peri-urban area of Kampala, Uganda. Science of the Total Environment 381 (1-3), 180-199. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2007.03.035
Sorensen, J.P.R.; Chibesa, M.; Pedley, S.; Lapworth, D.J.; Nkhuwa, D.C.W.; Stuart, M.E.; Gooddy, D.C.; Bell, R.A.; Chirwa, M.; Kabika, J.; Liemisa, M.. 2015 [http://www.bgs.ac.uk/africagroundwateratlas/fulldetails.cfm?id=AGLA050013 Emerging contaminants in urban groundwater sources in Africa]. Water Research 72, 51-63.