From 2010 to 2050, the urban population in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to almost quadruple from 300 million to over 1 billion people. Most of the urban growth will take place in rapidly expanding slums. In those areas, groundwater is used, but groundwater of good and safe quality is scarce. Also, there are few or no institutions effectively concerned with managing urban groundwater reserves. In such a complex social, institutional, and environmental system, radical changes are required to move away from non-existent or unsustainable practices towards sustainable urban groundwater management, which takes the interests of slum dwellers into consideration. These radical changes are characterized by social learning of urban frontrunners, based on solid information, integration of ideas, and systemic thinking.
The T-GroUP project
From May 2015 – May 2020, a 5 year research project took place called ‘Experimenting with practical Transition Groundwater management strategies for the Urban Poor in Sub Saharan Africa’ (T-GroUP). Focusing on Bwaise slum, Kampala (Uganda), Unga and Sombetini in Arusha (Tanzania), and Dodowa near Accra (Ghana; see figure below), as examples of growing mixed urban areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, including poor people in slums, who depend on groundwater, T-GroUP first firmly rooted itself in cutting edge demand-led interdisciplinary social and natural research.
What are current and historic multi-scale groundwater use-regimes and multi-level governance arrangements, how were and are power structures and power dynamics present in these areas, and how do financial and economic factors come into play? These are the more social, governance, institutional and socio-economic types of questions we asked ourselves. From the environmental and natural sciences point of view, we aimed to unravel complex urban groundwater flow systems and patterns in pathogen distributions in aquifers using next generation DNA sequencing techniques and qPCR techniques.
In brief, the two main research questions of T-GroUP were:
1. What are the relationships (over time and within a defined area) between above-ground and below-ground systems?
This included developing a detailed understanding of the geology and movement of water, pollutants, viruses and pathogens; the social and political power dynamics of who is “in control” of the slum; the financial and economic costs and benefits of using groundwater; how has the situation evolved over time and to what extent have the changes below and above the ground influenced each other?
2. How applicable is Transition Management to slum areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how can it be tailored and improved?
This included testing the Transition Management Cycle (Figure 1) in a number of slums. Key components were the establishment of multi-stakeholder platforms or social learning alliances, shared strategic planning, and small scale demonstrations to show the promise in making the transition towards sustainable groundwater management. Sustainable groundwater management should be thought of as a journey of discovery rather than a fixed goal that can be worked towards.
Transition Management Cycle (TMC) involves long-term planning through small steps based on learning and experimenting (source: SWITCH Transition Manual at www.switchurbanwater.eu).
The T-GroUP project is part of the UPGro programme. Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor (UPGro), is a seven-year international social and natural science research programme (2013-2020) to enabling sustainable use of groundwater for the benefit of the poor. UPGro focuses on improving the evidence base around groundwater availability and management in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to enable developing countries and partners to use groundwater in a sustainable way.