Groundwater has often been seen as the underground resource that never runs out. This "out of sight out of mind" attitude means wells and boreholes are indiscriminately sunk and that groundwater is abused by the public and even by governments. This is exacerbated in times of drought and even more pronounced in arid areas.
Banking water ensures a steadier, reliable supply in future. Shutterstock/Gilles Paire
Since groundwater was developed as a science 150 years ago by Henry Darcy, several ideas using engineering and technology have cropped up on how best to manage it. Aquifers, which are groundwater reservoirs, have been used for centuries as a water source for drinking and agricultural purposes.
One idea is known as managed aquifer recharge. Here, groundwater is recharged in a controlled way into the aquifer. This allows water to be “banked” – stored underground – so that it can be used later.
Banking water minimises the impact of evaporation and means that water can also be recycled from various sources, instead of being wasted. This recycled water could stem from stormwater or even wastewater treatment plants and then be put back into the aquifer.
The fundamental idea behind better groundwater management emerged from the Middle East during the 1st millennium BC, where they are known as Qanat systems. These were hand dug tunnel and outlet well systems, which basically lead groundwater from one point to another for abstraction.
Today, various forms of managed aquifer recharge projects can be seen all over the world. In the US, they’ve increased from three well-fields in 1985 to approximately 72 in 2005 and many are in various stages of development.
In Africa multiple projects are being developed in several countries including Namibia and South Africa.
South Africa’s Atlantis dune field, which is comprised of infiltration ponds, has been operating for over 40 years. It uses recharge basins that are larger than 50 hectares in size. The aquifer produces about four million cubic metres of water each year. This supplies the town of Atlantis with the majority of its water.
Groundwater recharge, defined as the addition of water to the aquifer once it has reached the water table, can happen in several ways:
• Water flows downward, because of gravity, and reaches the water table
• Water flows underground from one aquifer to another
• Groundwater abstraction leads to pumping and changes in flow directions below the surface and so nearby surface water bodies release water into the connected aquifers
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About the author
Gaathier Mahed is representative of the Geohydrologist Department of Geosciences, Nelson Mandela University
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