Piloting a transboundary groundwater network during a pandemic: the Tuli Karoo experience

The Tuli Karoo Aquifer, shared among Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, is located in a very arid region. Surface water resources in the Tuli Karoo Aquifer area are scarce and unreliable, so groundwater is used as the primary source for agriculture, domestic and industrial water in the mainly rural communities living there. The degree of reliance on groundwater in the Tuli Karoo, coupled with challenges of water scarcity, climate vulnerability, and poverty, amplifies the need to manage this resource optimally. Yet it is difficult to optimally manage this resource when trends in water levels are unknown.

In response to this challenge, a pilot groundwater monitoring system is being developed—in the time of a pandemic. The system consists of a data logger with a telemetry system and visualization platform to monitor and transmit water level, temperature, and electrical conductivity. The aim is to provide near real-time data that allows rapid data sharing, to allow water managers to understand and manage the aquifer as a unit that enables optimal response to challenges like droughts.

Borehole site preparation (Photo credit: Fhedzisani Ramusiya)

The first monitoring equipment was installed in late February in Botswana, and the plan was to proceed to install additional systems soon thereafter. Unfortunately, plans could not be realized as a lockdown was implemented and international travel restrictions put in place; the lockdown has now been lifted, but travel restrictions remain. To move things forward in the context of the new normal, a plan B had to be devised and implemented. Instead of IWMI staff directly installing data loggers, country partners were capacitated to install. Online training consisting of data logger configuration, sensor calibration, and instrumentation, and online assistance during instrumentation was provided to the focal persons by UIT((Unmelt-und Ingenieurtechnik) GmbH Dresden, Germany and IWMI staffs.   Support was then provided to enable them to travel and install data loggers. Two additional systems were installed in Botswana and one in South Africa, in October 2020.

Installed data logger on a borehole ready for data transmission (Photo credit: Fhedzisani Ramusiya)

Overall, the alternate approach could not be spearheaded by IWMI staff on-site, which added to administrative and logistical hurdles. Nonetheless, this approach may be enhancing country ownership and capacity for sustained management of data loggers. Ultimately, while installation of a pilot transboundary monitoring network in the time of a pandemic has required extra effort, its presence may enhance resilience to the next disruption – pandemic or other – as data will be continuously transmitted in spite of travel restrictions and other impediments.

Written by Girma Ebrahim and Jonathan Lautze

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