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Research showing the extent of Africa's significant groundwater reserves should not detract from the real challenges to meeting the continent's drinking water demands, argues Roger Calow, head of the Overseas Development Institute's Water Policy Programme.

Recent research has found that Africa's groundwater resources — water found in non-renewable aquifers underground — are 100 times greater than that found in rivers and lakes. Shallower supplies are enough to meet basic household needs — but physical availability of water is not the problem, says Calow.

He argues that the continent's water problems are rooted in poverty, governance, investment and population growth. More money for water, sanitation and hygiene services can help, says Calow, but effective action will mean that three things need to change.

First, funders need to invest in maintaining existing water services instead of investing in new ones. "One third of groundwater sources equipped with hand pumps simply don't work, a shocking statistic."

Second, investment in new and existing services needs to be better targeted at rural and other hard-to-reach areas. And third, although the new maps show the potential of using groundwater resources, they need to be produced at a higher resolution and at scales relevant to national and local decision making.

"The authors caution against a simple 'drill and provide' approach, noting that groundwater storage is patchy", writes Calow. Rather than repeating South Asia's Green Revolution, based on intensive groundwater development, the continent needs responsible water resources development.

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