I really enjoyed reading the news in several media about an incredible discovery:
Apparently there are aquifers below the soil of Africa ………………..!!!!!! and there is WATER in the aquifers…..
Who would have suspected that?
I thought I should give you some background on the media coverage about the "groundwater in Africa story" which broke originally in the BBC on Friday. Not often we see groundwater so prominent.
We published a paper in Environmental Research Letters last week where we attempted to quantify groundwater resources in Africa in terms of storage and also potential borehole yields. It was building on previous mapping from WHYMAP, BGR, BGRM, BGS, country maps and also a review of about 300 aquifer studies. The research was part of a larger project funded by DFID who saw a strong need to translate groundwater information into something more easily accessible in terms of resilience and water supply investments for CC adaptation and food security.
The journal decided to put out a press release - I've published more than 50 papers that have not had much response from the media (apart from one linking farmers in Scotland to nitrate pollution!) - so was not expecting the story to go far. In fact I was working in a remote part of Iceland on groundwater/glacier interactions when the story broke, and had to hastily get to somewhere with decent web access.
It's a bit unsettling when the media take hold of something and simplify the messages, but I think most of the coverage has not been too outlandish and on the whole the BBC and others (beneath the headlines) have done a fair job of ensuring that the caveats and subtleties have been left in and discussed. Many thanks to some of you for your help in getting the balance right in the other articles and coverage. Some have also used the coverage to help discuss the broader issues of sustainability, lack of investment and broken handpumps, etc. I hope it has been useful to help groundwater get out a bit more in the open!
In our interviews and discussions we are trying to take the opportunity to get the main messages from the maps across:
1. Groundwater storage is a much larger water resource than any other in Africa - so should be considered in any water scarcity assessments
2. There is a great variety of groundwater conditions across Africa
3. Generally groundwater can meet the demands of rural communities and small scale irrigation economically and relatively easily if accompanied by appropriate investigation
4. The demands of large scale irrigation or large urban centres is much more problematic and will require detailed investigations and favourable conditions to be successful
Not startling news to many of us, but seemingly news to a lot of people.
My sense is that some of the criticism directed at MacDonald et al. can be attributed to the 'I Could've Done That!' or 'My Kid Could Do That!' syndrome. You see a piece of abstract art or a simple device that's selling millions of copies and proclaim, 'I could've done that! C'mon - maps of Africa?'
"[Science] is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. ... The obvious is sometimes false; the unexpected is sometimes true." - Carl Sagan