OECD Observer
Water balance

In September 2013 the Kenyan government and the United Nations announced the discovery of huge underground reserves of water in northern Kenya, enough water to last the entire nation for 70 years. The Lotikipi Basin Aquifer and Lodwar Basin Aquifer were located by satellite in drought-afflicted Turkana County, where water scarcity and competition for grazing land has led to deadly cattle raids between communities. 

The discovery of the aquifers was made possible by GRIDMAP (Groundwater Resources Investigation for Drought Mitigation in Africa Programme), a joint initiative between the Kenyan government and UNESCO. Three other aquifers were also identified but must be confirmed by drilling. Funding is being sought to extend GRIDMAP to Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan, all arid countries threatened by the severest drought in the Horn of Africa for 60 years.

Water scarcity in Africa is expected to worsen in the coming decades. Although underground reserves may exist, data on their location and capacity are outdated or incomplete. Sub-Saharan Africa is equally vulnerable. The OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) recently reported that 25% of all water aid went to this region. On a positive note, however, the DAC noted that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people without access to drinking water had been reached five years ahead of schedule. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa with access to improved drinking water had doubled.

GRIDMAP was funded by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In terms of overall water aid, Japan is the OECD’s premium donor, accounting for 23% of total water aid. The country spent US$1.8 billion in 2010-2011, more than twice as much as any other OECD country. GRIDMAP is not the only project of its kind. Similar technology is being used in Ethiopia by a project funded by the US and Belgium.

Despite these encouraging breakthroughs on the drinking water front, the MDG for sanitation is unlikely to be met. In northern Africa, sanitation coverage increased by 18%, but by only 4-5% in sub-Saharan Africa. Part of the trouble is the lack of information on funding for sanitation. Donors have revised the accepted method of classification to distinguish aid for water supply from aid for sanitation.

Whether for sanitation or consumption, water resources face unprecedented stress in the coming years. South Africa, for example, is the most water-stressed of OECD partners, with the exception of Israel. While water management policies are in line with international best practice, 30% of the country’s renewable water resources are already being used. These resources will come under immense pressure as the population grows and economic activity increases. The OECD’s Environmental Outlook to 2050 projects that over 40% of the global population will be living in water-stressed areas by that year, with a significant percentage of that population in Africa and Asia. Global water demand is expected to rise by nearly 55% due to heightened demand in manufacturing (a rise of 400%), electricity (140%) and domestic use (130%).

New reserves such as those revealed by GRIDMAP may not be enough. Improved infrastructure and social reform is just as important. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the daily chore of fetching water is a serious barrier to development. Women and girls are the usual water bearers, spending on average 30 minutes per day transporting it. Data from 25 sub-Saharan countries (48% of the region’s population) suggest that, taken together, women spend 16 million hours per day fetching water, compared to 6 million for men. That comes to a total of 1,825 years–years that might be devoted to furthering an education or pursuing a career.

- Lyndon Thompson


Strategic groundwater reserves found in Northern Kenya. UNESCOPRESS 11 September 2013. 

OECD (2012), OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: the Consequences of Inaction, OECD Publishing

OECD/DAC (2013), Financing Water and Sanitation in Development Countries: the Contribution of External Aid 

Please vist: www.oecd.org/africa/

© OECD Observer No 296 Q3 2013

Year 2013 in opening paragraph added:World Water Day 22 March 2015