Water without Borders: A Signature STIP Effort

Monday, February 29, 2016

By John Harris, Foreign Service Officer, USAID/Southern Africa 

The vast Limpopo River rises in South Africa and flows eastward as it makes its way toward the Indian Ocean. Its course marks South Africa's border with Botswana and Zimbabwe before it turns south, flowing into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. An impressive 18 million people live alongside the river, depending on it for farming, fishing, tourism and other means of income. The Limpopo's vast watershed includes Johannesburg (southern Africa's largest city), Kruger Park (one of the region's largest tourist attractions), two national capitals, and important industrial and agricultural sites.

With so much at stake in the watershed, USAID/Southern Africa has partnered with the countries on its borders since 2012, as well as the Limpopo Watercourse Commission, to improve shared management of the basin's water resources.

Resting near the source of the Limpopo, the Ramotswa Aquifer forms part of these resources. South Africa and Botswana, both of which are suffering water shortages, share the aquifer, at times causing internal tensions. Botswana's capital, Gaborone, has instituted regular water restrictions, and South African farms are struggling to produce crops due to lack of sufficient water, which has led to protests and water rationing during the last two years. Moreover, climate change models predict a significant tightening of water availability for the area in the near future. This fact, coupled with an ongoing drought in the region and an impending El Niño cycle, serves as a warning of things to come.

But with the launch of the Ramotswa Aquifer project, USAID is aiming to use cutting-edge technology to gather scientific data to inform healthy management of the watershed across its borders. For example, transboundary water management in the basin has typically focused only on surface waters, but the project aims to measure groundwater as well, and assist local governments and communities in recognizing and managing it. As the saying goes, "groundwater: ignore it, and it might go away."

With science, technology, innovation and partnerships (STIP) at the core of the project, USAID's Global Development Lab is one of the program's partners and, in fact, has designated the watershed program one of its Signature Efforts. Drawing upon the Lab's expertise, alongside that of local and international partners, the project is harnessing science and technology to collect better data on how fast water moves from the surface into the ground, pollution levels, and geological characteristics of the aquifer system, as well as the potential impacts of climate change.

The Mission hopes to use the study as a pilot project, informing the analysis of other transboundary aquifers in southern Africa and beyond.