June 17, 2022

Groundwater Offers Lifeline for Drought-stricken Eastern Rwanda


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Woman fetches water from a well in eastern Rwanda

In eastern Rwanda, where temperatures have been in the upper highs for many decades, there is very little water on the surface in the form of natural wells, streams, rivers, and lakes.

While government-led interventions such as massive afforestation have improved the situation, the rains are not as widespread as in other regions – mainly because of the flat terrain.

Access to water for human consumption and other uses remains a challenge for the more than three million Rwandans in six of the seven districts that make up the eastern province. Had it not been for groundwater reserves that dot the area, the drought-stricken region would probably be uninhabitable for any life.

The eastern region has been divided into two water supply corridors: the upper corridor comprising Nyagatare, Kirehe, and Ngoma districts with heavy population and water infrastructure. 

The lower corridor comprises Gatsibo, Kayonza, Bugesera, and Rwamagana districts that were minimally inhabited until 1994 as the vast portion of it was a national park. The water infrastructure was established in these areas in the past two decades and is ongoing.

According to central and local government officials, the lower corridor has experienced a population explosion composed of post-1994 returnees and people from other regions. The resultant impact has been an increasing need for water, yet it already has negligible amounts of surface water.

Over 80 percent of the population in the six districts depends on crop and livestock farming, which is still largely rain-fed, while demand for drinking water is also increasing.

Official data shows water coverage rate for the Eastern Province stands at 82 percent, far below the country’s average of 85 to 90 percent for rural areas. The actual situation could be worse.

The solution the authorities have been looking at is groundwater, through boreholes and valley dams, among other ways. Besides domestic use, groundwater is also being sought for industrial and commercial agriculture.

Indeed, some visible efforts are in place. By 2016, the government and its partners dug up over 5,600 wells and boreholes to take advantage of groundwater.

In January 2018, China and Rwanda signed a USD32 M deal to dig up more than 250 both hand pump and solar-powered boreholes, mainly in eastern Rwanda. The project also involved establishing a training program at TVET colleges that would increase local knowledge of the latest borehole drilling technologies and manage existing infrastructure. 

The solar-powered boreholes are a recent phenomenon whereby they bring water effortlessly from the ground, reducing congestion at water spots and making it easy for women and children to access.

However, solar-powered boreholes are very expensive. A cost estimate provided by Eng. Jean-Paul Ngarambe from the water utility Water and Sanitation Corporation (WASAC), a Solar-powered pump costs over Rwf35 million ($35,000) while the hand pump borehole goes for between Rwf 8 to 16million ($8,000-$16,000) He also pointed out that a Solar-powered pump has to be installed from a source with a lot of groundwater and that drilling extraction for a borehole is done to get water from about 50-100 meters deep.

A Chine-government funded scheme is digging up thousands of boreholes in eastern Rwanda and other regions to bring water closer to communities

The other major use for groundwater in eastern Rwanda is a supply source to the vast Kanzenze Water Treatment Plant that is meant to provide piped water to parts of Kigali and the fast-growing Bugesera district, where a new multimillion-dollar Bugesera International Airport is currently under construction.  

Inaugurated in February last year, the water plant was designed to extract groundwater from the southern bank of River Nyabarongo. Some 30,000m3/day of water is supplied to the City of Kigali and 10,000m3/day to Bugesera District.

In 2016, the government of Rwanda developed a strategy for rainwater harvesting. It included groundwater recharge techniques meant to ensure the water table isn’t depleted, which could have far-reaching consequences.

The highlighted techniques for groundwater recharge include multipurpose dams, check dams, gullies plugging, and water ponds.

According to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), the interaction between groundwater and surface water systems (rivers, wetlands, lakes) is poorly understood and has not been adequately considered in the Basin.

The NBI says studies have shown that groundwater availability (or depletion of it) in the region has a strong bearing on poverty, migration, conflict, school attendance, and human health.

For these reasons, the intergovernmental organization is currently implementing a Groundwater Project – ‘Enhancing Conjunctive Management of Surface Water and Groundwater Resources in Selected Transboundary Aquifers: Case Study of Kagera Mt. Elgon, and Gedaref-Adigrat shared aquifers.

The project aims to strengthen the knowledge base, capacity, and cross-border institutional mechanisms for sustainable use and management of the three selected transboundary aquifers. It will also aid the national achievements and reporting of water-related Sustainable Development Goals; and will be supportive of environmental protection while enhancing the socio-economic development of the Basin’s population.

The five-year (2020 – 2025) project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), implemented by United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and executed by NBI.

This article was supported by InfoNile with funding from Nile Basin Initiative.

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