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Responding to salinity in a rural African alluvial valley aquifer system : to boldly go beyond the world of hand-pumped groundwater supply?

Rivett, Michael O. and Budimir, Laura and Mannix, Nicholas and Miller, Alexandra V.M. and Addison, Marc and Moyo, Phideria and Wanangwa, Gift J. and Phiri, Owen L. and Songola, Chrispine E. and Nhlema, Muthi and Thomas, Mavuto A.S. and Polmanteer, Reid T. and Borge, Amando and Kalin, Robert M. (2018) Responding to salinity in a rural African alluvial valley aquifer system : to boldly go beyond the world of hand-pumped groundwater supply? Science of the Total Environment, 653. pp. 1005-1024. ISSN 0048-9697

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Effective response to groundwater salinity in the developing world may critically safeguard drinking-water supplies. Groundwater resources throughout rural Africa are exploited by a vast and increasing number of hand-pumped boreholes for community supply. Our research in TA Ngabu (Shire Valley), Southern Malawi aims to: define groundwater-salinity problem occurrence within its semi-arid alluvial-valley aquifer setting and rural developing-world context; critique current capacity to respond; and, to discuss future response options - in particular considering the need to explore alternative options that boldly go beyond the world of hand-pumped groundwater supply. Salinity problem definition was achieved through survey of 419 hand-pumped boreholes that revealed widespread brackish groundwater causing non-potable (unpalatable) drinking-water supplies. Persistent non-functionality or abandonment of boreholes was typically ascribed to salinity. Whilst salinity is conceptualised to arise from shallow-groundwater evaporation, formation-evaporite dissolution and faulted-area upwelling, sparse data locally renders attribution of salinity sources to individual boreholes difficult. There is a significant need to better resolve the vertical distribution of salinity. Problem response capacity was hampered by multiple factors, including, sector inertia, low drilling costs compromising water-point integrity, and lack of technical vision for alternatives. Various recommendations are made to improve response capacity continuing to work at the hand-pump supply scale. However, in areas where salinity is significant, exploring the feasibility of other options is advocated in conjunction with technical capacity development. Groundwater options may utilise high borehole yields possible from alluvial aquifers, grossly under-exploited by hand pumps. Groundwater at depth, albeit of unknown quality typically, or pipeline transfers of probable good-quality groundwater from valley-margin units, should be considered. Surface-water pipeline supplies may be viable for (growing) population centres. Canal-fed irrigation schemes (pending for the area), should be multiple-use, protective of groundwater and embrace pipeline drinking-water supply and managed-aquifer-recharge opportunities. Advancing desalination technologies, although presently unaffordable, should be kept under review.