Experts from Southern Africa and beyond gathered recently in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the annual SADC Groudwater Conference, hosted by the Groundwater Management Institute of the Southern African Development Community. The conference focused on assessing progress toward achieving the goals set forth in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The U.N. agenda set ambitious targets such as eliminating poverty and hunger, and improving access to water and sanitation.
Of particular concern in Southern Africa is the widening gap between water demand and availability, as nations depend heavily on groundwater without having accurate data to monitor how it is deployed. These concerns are hardly theoretical, as South Africa’s second-largest city, Cape Town, narrowly avoided running out of municipal water in 2018, and many urban and rural areas in the region remain in a drought cycle.
The conference focused on three themes:
All three are critical elements behind the existence of the Big Data Analytics and Transboundary Water Collaboration for Southern Africa, or Collaboration for short. Coordinated by the USAID-funded Sustainable Water Partnership (SWP), the Collaboration is supporting four research projects aimed at improving the management of groundwater resources shared between two or more Southern African countries. The projects focus in particular on the interaction between groundwater and surface water.
The Collaboration’s overarching goal is to enhance understanding of shared groundwater resources to improve transboundary groundwater management by employing big data analytics and machine learning approaches to data management. The critical activities include the provision of big data skills development and capacity-building, as well as networking opportunities for Southern African practitioners, researchers and young professionals.
Introductory remarks by Lindiwe Lusenga, deputy director-general of South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation, highlighted that reaching Southern Africa’s sustainable development goals will require focusing on water: specifically water security, data sharing across sectors and countries, and transboundary collaboration for shared water bodies.
On the first day of the conference, panel members representing the research and government sectors agreed that in addition to data sharing and transboundary collaboration, more communication and integration between science and policy is needed, as well as knowledge transfers to ensure expertise is grown in the region and not always imported.
On the second day, two of the four Collaboration research projects presented their concepts and framework for implementation. Andrew Gemmell of Umvoto, a South African water resource consultancy, introduced the idea of creating a transboundary, big data-ready database for the Ramotswa Aquifer, which is shared between Botswana and South Africa. The database would be made available to both countries’ Departments of Water and Sanitation and the Limpopo Commission, which manages the Ramotswa sub-aquifer. This effort would require a major data-sharing effort from governments and research institutions.
As an example of the legal framework for such an effort, University of Botswana professor Piet Kenabatho presented on a multi-country cooperation mechanism created for the Stampriet River System. The Stanpriet provides water to communities in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. Kenabatho is a partner with Umvoto on the Collaboration’s first research project, which seeks to improve water resource decision-making through consolidation of data and application of big data tools to enhance national and transboundary data sets in Southern Africa. Of note, the nonprofit International Water Management Institute has developed a framework and protocol for data exchange in the region.
Collaboration team member Zaheed Gaffoor, a Ph.D candidate of the University of the Western Cape, presented on the use of big data to localize data analysis and improve decision-making in the Ramotswa aquifer and the Shire aquifer (shared between Malawi and Mozambique).
On the last day of the conference, Helen Seyler of Delta-H Water Systems Modelling presented her conceptualized work for a sustainability strategy based on big data analytics. The strategy will be piloted on dolomitic aquifers, about which there is voluminous data in South Africa, and then applied to the Ramotswa once the master database is ready. This presentation exemplified the kind of integrated work and collaboration required of the four project teams. The current challenges cannot be solved by working in isolation, but only by working with others in a collaborative network.
Stemming from the SWP panel discussion on how to achieve SDGs in Southern Africa, panelists agreed that the sustainable development goals must be seen as part of a continuous process of adaptability and resilience; the goals may spur progress in the right direction, but that direction may alter course with changes to the ecosystem and human priorities. Secondly, all agreed that embarking on the SDG path means leaving no one, and no country behind: As a region, SADC member states need to work together and cooperate to continue in the sustainability path. Third, inclusivity and collaboration begin with the conference’s participants working together to achieve the bigger sustainability vision, sharing data and information to improve integrated planning, and involving utilities in the process.
Dr. M.W. Lubczynski of University of Twente in the Netherlands delivered a meaningful quote for the Collaboration, SWP and its audience: “The more data you have, the less uncertainty.” We could add that the more data you share, the better the planning.
SADC-GMI is a partner in the Collaboration, alongside USAID’s Water, Global Development Lab and Southern Africa Mission, the South African Department of Science and Innovation, IBM Research Africa, the Water Research Commission of South Africa, and the U.S. Geological Survey.