Water securityIdentifying, utilizing water resources in Africa drylands

Published 17 April 2017

Researchers say that by 2050, almost half of the world’s population will live in countries with a chronic water shortage. In African drylands, it is not a water shortage problem, but an inability to capture water for food and other uses. Israeli scientists help villagers in Ethiopia, Zambia, and Uganda to identify water sources and test water quality – and also better capture and use water which is available.

According to Prof. Noam Weisbrod, director of BGU’s  Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, the shortfall is population growth, which leads to a greater demand for food, increased pollution and climate instability.

Prof. Weisbrod and his team of 80 scientists and 250 graduate students are working on ways to tackle the problem using cutting-edge science in partnership with academics around the world.

“Not everything can be about novel research,” Prof. Weisbrod says. It is also about educating a new generation of water experts and scientists.

The American Associates, Ben Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU) says that seven years ago, Prof. Weisbrod established a yearlong course called Rural Water Development to further educate students working on graduate degrees about such global problems. In the past few years, he has brought student groups to villages in rural areas of Ethiopia, Zambia, and Uganda.

In each locale, the students work with locals and a cadre of non-governmental organizations to identify their water sources and test water quality. Projects range from drilling wells with local materials to building storage tanks that collect rainwater and installing bio-sand filters to reduce contamination.

“The students research the water challenges of wherever they will be traveling and determine the low-tech solutions they will implement when they get there,” Prof. Weisbrod says.

In Ethiopia, for example, students drilled boreholes to provide drinking water and installed low-tech water pumps. In Uganda, they built a rain catchment system near school bathrooms, allowing children to wash their hands after going to the toilet.

Prof. Emeritus Pedro Berliner, former director of BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, is also combating water issues. He has spent the last twenty-five years working on projects for third-world countries, and estimates that the University spends as much as a few million dollars per year on these projects.

“The point here is that desertification — the process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation or inappropriate agricultural techniques — is a real problem in third-world countries,” he explains.

In African drylands, it is not a water shortage problem but an inability to capture water for food and other uses. To combat this, Prof. Berliner’s team established specially prepared plots of land in Wadi Mashash, an experimental farm operated by the Blaustein Institutes. There they are growing olive trees and crops between the rows, which helps trap flood water.

“This technique allows us to produce higher yields using the same amount of water or less water,” Prof. Berliner says. The knowledge gained is shared with developing countries.

“By helping people in these areas, we are helping avoid massive migration [to overpopulated urban areas].”