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Jenica Hierman & Lowe Börjeson

Initial Observations of Groundwater Discourse in Tanzania

Jenica Hierman is a fourth year undergraduate studying linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Their primary interests involve deepening their understandings of environmental justice, social and interdisciplinary engagement,


decolonization theory, communality, and the powers of empathy and compassion. 

A researcher of farmer-environment relations affiliated with Stockholm University, Lowe Börjeson is now the principal investigator of a collaborative, community engaged project dedicated to furthering understandings of smallholder experiences with groundwater in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania. Although currently in Santa Cruz, California working with the node of the T2GS project focused on the Pajaro and Salinas Valleys, Börjeson’s insight into the research being primarily done by his colleagues Kris de Bont and Hans C. Komakech in Tanzania sheds light on their initial findings as well as the directions in which the research will proceed. 


According to de Bont and Komakech in their article Differentiated Access: Challenges of Equitable and Sustainable Groundwater Exploitation in Tanzania, “the implementation of any kind of groundwater regulation has not only been hampered by disagreeing authorities, but also by a lack of knowledge on both the nature of existing aquifers, the locations of recharge zones, and actual groundwater abstractions” (de Bont and Komakech, 9). When asked about the issues associated with groundwater sustainability that the project in Tanzania hopes to address, Börjeson laughed apologetically and said that Tanzania’s groundwater has — until recently —not been utilized and that as a result, very little is known about the interaction between surface water and groundwater, the quantity of groundwater, the recharge levels, and just how quickly the aquifers recharge in the area. “There’s no knowledge really. There are no signs that there’s any kind of issue, it’s just an abundant resource.” 


At this point, Börjeson and his partners in Tanzania aim to explore the discourse on who is using which types of surface and groundwaters (shallow or deep) and for what purposes, and to investigate the interaction between surface and groundwater as well as that degree of interaction as perceived by local smallholders. They intend to observe and learn from local engagement with water realities from the perspectives of smallholders, and to then determine how they as researchers can participate in dialogue with these communities. Furthermore, they will consider how they can potentially contribute insights that may be beneficial in the course of the sustainable development of regional groundwater usage, per the results of their research. 


For Börjeson, working with groundwater is uncharted territory. However, as he points out, “It’s a new field for a lot of people in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course groundwater has been used for domestic purposes for a while, but not so much for agriculture. This is a really big problem that is underutilized. It has been a driver for development in so many other parts of the world for prosperity.” This precedence of prosperity and raised standards of living in places that have previously developed groundwater infrastructure suggests in turn that such associated benefits may also be attainable for communities in this region of Tanzania. Stressing the importance of approaching such development from a standpoint that takes issues of equity and justice into account, Börjeson poses critically speculative questions in reference to how the State might push for development strategies that aid commercial powers over smallholders. In formal Tanzanian policy, farmer led development tends to be invisibilized and “washed towards the side” in favor of colonial legacies and large scale economic enterprises. “Who are those that are capable of making rapid utilization of groundwater, for what types of purposes, for who, when, and how would that look like? How are the smallholders doing it and what can we learn from them? What are they coming up with that can be useful as lessons for this type of big development and rapid change?” 


With surface water becoming increasingly scarce, smallholders in the Kilimanjaro region are turning towards groundwater as a supplemental resource. As drilling technologies have become more accessible in the form of cheap Chinese made petrol pumps, smallholders throughout the region have dug hundreds of shallow wells in the past twenty or so years. Additionally, access to groundwater allows for year-round crop productivity, a factor attractive to both smallholders and commercial growers. In reference to such conditions, Börjeson comments, “There are these discourses forming around how the deeper and sometimes safer and cleaner groundwater goes to the bigger commercial uses and then the shallow groundwater that the smallholders can have involves more risks with contaminations and fluctuations. And so there are justice issues developing as the resource becomes more exploited.” 


Komakech and de Bont have worked with focus groups composed of different types of actors so as to get an idea of how people across varied backgrounds understand and imagine groundwater. Their preliminary findings suggest that there’s “a large divide between the kind of more science based hydrologist point of view that would think of groundwater as dynamic flows of circulation, and the smallholder view of groundwater that it is very much a stationary resource. It is just there in the ground, no ideas that it’s kind of scarce.” At one point, smallholders were upset because they felt that commercial flower growers were taking up too much surface water. They advocated that these large scale growers make use of their financial resources by drilling boreholes, thereby leaving the surface water to smallholders who don’t have access to such capabilities. 


“The imaginations are that these are completely separate; that there is no conflict around it. But you don’t know, maybe they pull up all the deep groundwater and if those water aquifers are connected, the surface water levels drop, right? But it could also be that they are not connected. We do not know yet. But it was very clear that the smallholders were really keen to let the commercial growers have the deep groundwater.” 


Komakech, Hans C, and Chris De Bont. “Differentiated Access: Challenges of Equitable and Sustainable Groundwater Exploitation in Tanzania.” Water Alternatives, vol. 11, no. 3, 2018, pp. 623–637 .,

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