One of the key uncertainties surrounding the impacts of climate change in Africa is the effect on the sustainability of rural water supplies. Many of these water supplies abstract from shallow groundwater (<50 m) and are the sole source of safe drinking water for rural populations. Analysis of existing rainfall and recharge studies suggests that climate change is unlikely to lead to widespread catastrophic failure of improved rural groundwater supplies. These require only 10 mm of recharge annually per year to support a hand pump, which should still be achievable for much of the continent, although up to 90 million people may be affected in marginal groundwater recharge areas (200–500 mm annual rainfall). Lessons learnt from groundwater source behaviour during recent droughts, substantiated by groundwater modelling, indicate that increased demand on dispersed water points, as shallow unimproved sources progressively fail, poses a much greater risk of individual source failure than regional resource depletion. Low yielding sources in poor aquifers are most at risk. Predicted increased rainfall intensity may also increase the risk of contamination of very shallow groundwater. Looking to the future, an increase in major groundwater-based irrigation systems, as food prices rise and surface water becomes more unreliable, may threaten long-term sustainability as competition for groundwater increases. To help prepare for increased climate variability, it is essential to understand the balance between water availability, access to water, and use/demand. In practice, this means increasing access to secure domestic water, understanding and mapping renewable and non-renewable groundwater resources, promoting small-scale irrigation and widening the scope of early warning systems and mapping to include access to water
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