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Can shallow groundwater sustain small-scale irrigated agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa? Evidence from N-W Ethiopia

Lookup NU author(s): John Gowing, Dr David Walker, Dr Geoffrey ParkinORCiD, Dr Nathan ForsytheORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


We present an evidence-based approach to identify how best to support development of groundwater for small-scale irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa. We argue that it is important to focus this effort on shallow groundwater resources. However, it is necessary to consider constraints, since shallow groundwater resources are likely to be vulnerable to over-exploitation and climatic variability. We present a methodology for assessing and interpreting available shallow groundwater resources and argue that community-led resource management based on participatory monitoring is desirable and feasible. We consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats associated with developing small-scale irrigation utilising shallow groundwater.We demonstrate and test this proposal at a case study site; Dangila woreda in the north-western highlands of Ethiopia. Part of the study site drains towards Gilgel Abay River and Lake Tana; the remaining area drains towards Beles River. Both are part of the Abay (Blue Nile) catchment of the River Nile. The study site was selected to allow exploration of a shallow weathered volcanic regolith type aquifer formation which is found to the South of Lake Tana and also exists more extensively across Ethiopia.We conclude that arguments previously put forward against the promotion of groundwater use for agriculture in SSA appear exaggerated. Our analysis challenges the view that shallow aquifers are unproductive and that irrigation will have unacceptable impacts on wetlands and other groundwater-dependent ecosystems. We believe there is a case for arguing that shallow groundwater represents a neglected opportunity for promoting sustainable small-scale irrigated agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Gowing J, Walker D, Parkin G, Forsythe N, Haile AT, Alamirew D

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Groundwater for Sustainable Development

Year: 2020

Volume: 10

Print publication date: 01/04/2020

Online publication date: 14/10/2019

Acceptance date: 11/10/2019

Date deposited: 21/11/2019

ISSN (print): 2352-801X

Publisher: Elsevier


DOI: 10.1016/j.gsd.2019.100290


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