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Agricultural groundwater use and rural livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa: A first-cut assessment


The rapid expansion in agricultural groundwater use in the last few decades has transformed rural economies in large parts of the developing world, in particular South Asia and North China. There has been no such “Groundwater Revolution” in most of sub-Saharan Africa and little is known about the actual role of groundwater use in supporting agricultural livelihoods in the region or opportunities to expand this role in the future. Published literature has been reviewed to paint a preliminary, region-wide picture of the contribution groundwater makes to agriculture, and in turn to rural livelihoods, within sub-Saharan Africa. The findings indicate that groundwater is used on only 1–2 million hectares of cropped area, directly contributing to the livelihoods of 1.5–3% of the rural population. Groundwater also plays a critical role in the vital livestock sector as well as an important indirect role in the supply of domestic water to agricultural households. While data are lacking, these latter two roles likely surpass the direct importance of groundwater to crop production. This suggests that an understanding of the value of agricultural groundwater use in support of rural livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa should be based on different models than have typically been applied in Asia.


L’expansion rapide de l’utilisation des eaux souterraines pour l’agriculture, durant les dernières décennies, a transformé les économies rurales de plusieurs parties du monde, et en particulier en Asie du Sud et dans le Nord de la Chine. On connaît peu le rôle qu’aurait cette «Révolution de l’Eau Souterraine» sur les moyens de subsidence agricole dans la plus grande partie de l’Afrique Sub-Saharienne, et dans les régions où se présenteraient cette opportunité. Les publications sur ce thème ont été revues de manière à décrire une image préliminaire et régionale, de la contribution des eaux souterraines à l’agriculture, du point de vue du milieu rural en Afrique Sub-Saharienne. L’eau souterraine est utilisée pour 1 à 2 millions d’hectares cultivés, contribuant directement à 1.5 à 3 % de la population rurale. L’eau souterraine joue également un rôle critique pour l’élevage, ainsi que pour l’alimentation en eau domestique des fermiers. Bien que les données sont manquantes, ces deux derniers rôles devraient surpasser l’importance directe des cultures. Ceci suggère qu’une compréhension de la valeur de l’eau souterraine agricole dans le milieu rural de l’Afrique Sub-Saharienne, devrait être basée sur des modèles tels que ceux qui ont été typiquement appliqués en Asie.


La rápida expansión en el uso de agua subterránea para agricultura en las últimas décadas ha transformado las economías rurales en grandes partes del mundo en desarrollo, en particular el Sur de Asia y el Norte de China. No ha existido algo como “Revolución de Agua Subterránea” en la mayor parte de África sub-Sahariana y se conoce poco acerca del papel actual del uso del agua subterránea en el apoyo de subsistencias rurales en la región o de oportunidades para expandir este papel en el futuro. Se ha revisado la literatura publicada para obtener un marco preliminar regional de la contribución que el agua subterránea hace a la agricultura, y a su vez a las subsistencias rurales, dentro de África sub-Sahariana. Los resultados indican que el agua subterránea es usada en solo 1–2 millones de hectáreas de área cultivada, contribuyendo directamente a las subsistencias del 1.5–3% de la población rural. El agua subterránea también juega un rol crítico en el sector fundamental de ganadería así como un rol indirecto importante en el abastecimiento de agua doméstica en granjas agrícolas. Aunque faltan datos, estos últimos dos roles probablemente sobrepasan la importancia directa del agua subterránea en la producción de cultivos. Esto sugiere que un entendimiento del valor del uso del agua subterránea en agricultura en apoyo de las subsistencias rurales en África sub-Sahariana debería de basarse en modelos distintos de los que han sido aplicados típicamente en Asia.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    sub-Saharan Africa is defined to include all of Africa with the exception of the North African countries of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.

  2. 2.

    Much more hydrogeologic information on specific locations is available in grey literature and project reports. However, there is presently no systematic collection of this information.

  3. 3.

    Separating groundwater from surface water estimates is complicated because of the interchange between the two systems. FAO separately calculates surface water, groundwater, and their overlap. The numbers presented here are for groundwater only. However, the estimated surface water/groundwater overlap is almost as large as the groundwater estimate. It should also be noted that the estimate for sub-Saharan Africa was derived by adding data from individual countries.

  4. 4.

    Or three zones depending on whether consolidated and unconsolidated sediments are considered separately.


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The author expresses thanks to IWA Publishing for permission to publish this modified version of a paper scheduled for publication in Water Policy. The paper contributes to the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture ( and was supported through grants from the government of The Netherlands and the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) Fund for International Development. Comments from two anonymous reviewers are gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Mark Giordano.

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This paper is a modified and expanded version of Giordano (in press), currently scheduled for publication in December 2005 in Water Policy, Issue 7 (6). Permission to publish in Hydrogeology Journal has been granted by the copyright holders, IWA Publishing.

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Giordano, M. Agricultural groundwater use and rural livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa: A first-cut assessment. Hydrogeol J 14, 310–318 (2006).

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  • Africa
  • Agriculture
  • Groundwater development
  • Livestock
  • Socio-economic