The man who revealed there’s a lot more water in Africa than anybody thought speaks out

By Liz Kalaugher

Back in 2012, Alan MacDonald’s paper in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) revealed that there’s a lot more water beneath the African continent than most people suspected. “Quantitative maps of groundwater resources in Africa” is one of the open-access journal’s most highly downloaded papers, clocking up more than 83,000 downloads and 49 citations to date. The article hit the headlines worldwide, bringing the British Geological Survey researcher and his colleagues to the BBC News website, The Telegraph, AlJazeera, Mail Online, Huff Post, Reuters, Yahoo! News, Spiegel Online, Welt Online,, Le Monde, and more.

More than three years later, we caught up with MacDonald to find out the impact of this publicity and where the paper has led.

“When the press release went out I was working on a glacier in Iceland,” he told environmentalresearchweb, “so it was quite a challenge to get [mobile] reception to do lots of media interviews. But I was manfully helped by all my co-authors at the time. It was slightly surreal having such media attention when I was in a remote place far away from African groundwater.”

Immediately after publication, MacDonald found his time went to interviews and enquiries from radio and newspapers; in the following five or six months he became more involved in writing, and contributing to, opinion pieces.

Building awareness

So what effect did all this communications work have on policy makers and the wider public? For a start, John Beddington, then UK government chief scientific advisor, contacted MacDonald, and the article was widely quoted by governments around the world.

“It’s hard to pin down individual changes in a country’s policy, but I think the paper and the media interest surrounding it did get some of the messages about groundwater further up the chain within governments and in UN agencies,” said MacDonald. “So there are a lot more people and even government ministers in various countries who are more aware of the groundwater available within their country, and have begun to think about how that can be used.”

Using groundwater for irrigation across Africa is of interest because of concerns about food security. Although his ERL study revealed that there are sufficient volumes of groundwater across much of Africa that could be used for rural water supply, MacDonald believes that high-demand uses like agriculture using groundwater “could be problematic in a lot of areas and would need to be accompanied by more research and monitoring.”

Research flow

Perhaps the most direct follow-on from the African study was a similar project in South Asia. MacDonald and his team have just spent three years analysing the extent of groundwater resources across the Indo-Gangetic plain; they hope to submit a paper on their results by Christmas. “The proposal was in motion before all the media interest, but the media attention certainly helped speed things through,” he explained.

Back in Africa, the original study area, the team is now part of a large four-year research programme dubbed UPGro (Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor). “That certainly coincided with and was helped by the media interest in our paper,” said MacDonald. “It was much easier for the donors and the funders to earmark money for groundwater research.”

MacDonald is involved in two strands of the programme. In the first, Hidden Crisis, he’s investigating why around 30–40% of the hand pumps in Africa fail, even though there’s groundwater available. Funding for this project got the go-ahead in May; MacDonald has just returned from Ethiopia for the first meeting with the 20 project partners.

The failures may be due to physical or hydrogeological factors, how the community manages the water point or engineering problems, so the team will take a multidisciplinary approach. “[It] might be that the water point has been abandoned because the groundwater has poor quality, or the materials used in the hand pump have become very corroded and leave lots of iron in the water,” said MacDonald. “Or it could be that there are no spare parts for the hand pumps that fail so they won’t be fixed.” In some areas too little water comes out of the ground, perhaps because boreholes have been drilled where the ground’s not permeable enough. “If [the hand pumps] had been sited slightly better in the village, they might have intersected more groundwater and been more reliable,” said MacDonald. To find out more, the researchers will study a total of roughly 600 waterpoints in Malawi, Ethiopia and Uganda.

Recharge rates

MacDonald is also looking at how fast groundwater resources recharge and how they may vary as climate and land use change, as part of UPGro’s GroFutures strand. “Part of the media interest surrounding that paper was ‘there might be a lot of groundwater there but is it renewable?,’” said MacDonald. So now the team is investigating renewability, with a particular focus on agricultural use.

MacDonald and colleagues believe that precipitation extremes and high intensity rainfall, which may increase under climate change, might be more likely to recharge groundwater supplies than more “normal” rainfall. This study should garner more data.

“Measuring groundwater recharge is really difficult,” said MacDonald. “You can’t see it. You can measure the rain that lands on the ground, you can monitor how groundwater levels go up and down, but how it actually gets there is hard to investigate reliably.”

Led by Richard Taylor from University College London, UK, who was a co-author on the ERL paper, GroFutures will set up groundwater observatories in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Niger. “We’re going to instrument catchments in different areas, establishing long-term monitoring sites to examine rainfall, changes in soil moisture, groundwater levels, and also how people use groundwater.”

One of MacDonald’s favourite UPGro projects is the online African groundwater atlas. “This is perhaps one of the things I’m most excited about as a direct result from the publicity surrounding the paper in 2012,” he said. “We’ve got hydrogeologists from different African countries to contribute towards an entry for each of their nations. That’s been a lot of work. We’ve developed a Wikipedia-style atlas with maybe 5–10 pages on each country.”

The atlas is due for release early in 2016. In parallel, the team has built the African Groundwater Literature Archive, a free database of articles, reports and maps, some of them unpublished – the oldest article dates from 1897.

Wider attention

Of course, the ERL paper didn’t just attract attention from policy makers, governments and professional scientists. The BBC News website story on the article was shared 10,000 times on social media; it was the site’s most popular science and environment story for three days. MacDonald himself realised the full extent of the media reach when, back in Iceland a year later and staying at a remote hut by the Virkisjökull glacier, two French hikers joined him for a night’s rest. Although he had language difficulties communicating what he was working on, MacDonald spotted that the tourists had a recent copy of French newspaper LeMonde containing coverage of his African groundwater map. He was able to point at the picture and say “C’est moi”.

This article first appeared on Environmental Research Web.

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