What social, technical and political changes are needed to make the shift towards sustainable urban groundwater management in Sub-Saharan Africa – and how can those changes be achieved? Improving access to safe water in slums is really complex and challenging. Transition Management theory embraces that complexity to find radically new and collaborative ways of using and managing urban groundwater.
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 informal unplanned urban areas in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Adequate public water services are not provided in those areas. Explanations in the literature range from technical difficulties, weak institutional settings, and poor cadastral information. Also, urban poor tend to lack the political or economic resources to exercise power within the urban arena to change their situation; rather, they are subject to commercialisation, industrialisation and ‘full cost recovery’ for water access.
Groundwater as an alternative
In such cases, groundwater is turned to as an alternative, mainly through private vendors, self-supply from own or shared wells, and/or NGO-run kiosks. However, groundwater of good and safe quality is scarce, either seasonally or at different locations throughout the urban area. Also, there is very little insight in the hydrologic cycle within the urban area, including surface water and groundwater flow patterns and interactions, associated transport velocities, dynamics of pollutant transport, and the presence of recharge and discharge areas in the urban area. Therefore, it is unknown if and how long natural groundwater reserves can sustain these increasing urban groundwater demands.
Radical change
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 two main questions to be tackled are:

  • What are the relationships (over time and within a defined area) between above-ground and below-ground systems? This includes 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?
  • How applicable is Transition Management to slum areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how can it be tailored and improved? This includes testing the Transition Management Cycle (see Figure) in a number of slums. Key components of the TMC are 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.


Phase 1 of T-GroUP (2015-2017)
Hosted by Local Transitioning Teams, and focusing on parts of Kampala (Uganda), Arusha (Tanzania), and Accra (Ghana), as examples of growing mixed urban areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, including poor people in slums, who depend on groundwater, T-GroUP will first firmly root 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 what is how do financial and economic factors come into play? These are the more social, governance, institutional and socio-economic types of questions we ask ourselves.
From the environmental and natural sciences point of view, the aim is to unravel complex urban groundwater flow systems and patterns in pathogen distributions in aquifers, using next generation DNA sequencing techniques and qPCR techniques recently developed.
Phase 2 of T-GroUP (2017-2019)
The areas described above become Urban Transitioning Laboratories in which a Transition Management Cycle (TMC) is implemented. The TMC is able to properly deal with the complex societal problem and can convert unsustainable water use into inclusive urban groundwater management, thereby focusing on the role and the needs of the urban poor. Key components of the TMC include multi-stakeholder platforms (‘Learning Alliances’), strategic planning, and small scale demonstrations to show the promise in making the transition towards sustainable groundwater management. Being designed for development impact, the TMC is also subject of research: departing from a TMC earlier developed, the aim is to arrive at a TMC tailored to groundwater use in the complex context of our study areas, which can be replicated in other cities in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This project runs from 2015 to 2019.
T-GroUP is  a consortium-project of Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor (UPGro), a seven-year international research programme (2013-2020) which is jointly funded by UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education (The Netherlands), Makerere University (MU; Uganda), Central University College (CUC; Ghana), Nelson Mandela Institute for Science and Technology (NMIS; Tanzania), Uganda Christian University (UCU), Kwame Nkruma University of Science and Technology (KNUST; Ghana), Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI; Sweden),Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS; Sweden).
Roel van RaakDr Julia WittmayerGiorgia Silvestri
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Read more about the project at the T-GroUP-website.