Author: USAID/Sustainable Water Partnership (SWP)
Site of publication: globalwaters.org
Type of publication: country profile
Date of publication: 25 August 2021
Liberia Water Resources Profile Overview
Liberia has abundant water resources throughout the country. Water availability per capita is the third highest in Sub-Saharan Africa at 49,028 m3 and is significantly higher than the Falkenmarki threshold for water stress. Water abstractions are also quite low. The ratio of water withdrawals to renewable supply is less than one percent.
Groundwater is generally accessible due to high water tables and is the primary drinking water source in rural and urban areas. However, groundwater quality is threatened by the high prevalence of unprotected wells and pit latrines, which are easily contaminated by sewage, especially during wet season flooding. Contamination of shallow groundwater can pose serious health risks to communities who depend on the resource for drinking water supply.
Water resource management responsibilities are distributed across several management entities however the sector does not have a ministry dedicated to water resources. Limited coordination across these entities impedes water management efforts. Low funding and limited technical capacity also undermine implementation of Liberia’s Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) Policy.
Surface Water Resources
Liberia has 23 small coastal drainage areas and 15 principal basins that drain from the northeast to the southwest towards the Atlantic ocean. The headwaters of the six main rivers (Mano, Lofa, St. Paul, St. John, Cestos, and Cavalla Rivers) are in the Fouta Djallon Mountains in Guinea. These rivers drain 56 percent of Liberia while 11 medium-size tributary rivers and numerous short coastal rivers drain the rest of the country.
Almost all of Liberia’s groundwater exists in hard rock aquifers except along the northwest coast near Monrovia where there is a thin stretch of unconsolidated sedimentary aquifers. Aquifer productivity is variable in both groundwater systems, but there is limited understanding of aquifer characteristics. Most wells are shallow (5 to 25 meters deep) but have relatively low yields. Groundwater may also be found in deeper, more productive layers, however, drilling deep wells can be costly and risky as groundwater availability is highly variable.
Surface Water Outlook
Municipal water supply and industry are the main sources of demand for freshwater water but there is limited data on surface water abstractions. Surface water is used in municipal supply systems in Robertsport, Monrovia, Voinjama, and Sanniquellie. Little information is available about industrial demand for water but major industries include iron and gold mining and processing of agro-industrial products such as rubber. Smaller gold mining operations often rely on surface water and are clustered along the coast and the Lofa, St. Paul, Cess, and Dubo Rivers. Irrigation demand is low as most farmers rely on rainfed agriculture and plans indicate modest increases in irrigation.
Rainfall is highest along the coast where it peaks at 1,000 mm/month
Surface water supply is highly seasonal for most rivers, but impacts are limited, except on the St. Paul River where hydropower generation capacity diminishes during the dry season. The St. Paul River’s average flow rate in September exceeds 1,400 m3/ s and declines to 50 m3/s in February. The Mount Coffee Dam on the St. Paul River is a key source of electricity for Monrovia, producing 70 percent of the nation’s municipal power supply, and is the only dam with appreciable storage capacity in the country. The Dam usually operates at full capacity with all four turbines, but hydroelectric generation declines sharply in the dry season as low reservoir water levels force the shutdown of three turbines.
Groundwater resources are not well understood but it is a principal source of drinking water, particularly through shall, hand-dug wells. Assessments of aquifers and hydrogeological characteristics assessments are limited. Groundwater is the primary source of drinking water in rural and urban areas and is used by over 70 percent of the population. However, data on groundwater use by sector is limited. Most municipal water systems were damaged during the civil wars, which forced most people to obtain water through shallow, hand-dug wells.
Water Resources and Climate
Climate change impacts on total rainfall is uncertain, although increasing rainfall intensity will worsen flooding and contribute to outbreaks of infectious diseases. Liberia has high annual precipitation with a wet season from May–October and a cooler, dry season from November–April. Rainfall is highest along the coast where it peaks at 1,000 mm/month. Liberia’s climate has already warmed by an average of 0.8°C and an additional increase of 1.4-2.4°C is expected by the end of the century. Total rainfall has decreased since the 1960s, however, future changes to total rainfall are uncertain. Riverine flood risks are high throughout Liberia and impacts have worsened in recent years. Climate change will increase rainfall intensity, which will worsen flooding and outbreaks of waterborne diseases. Informal settlements in cities such as Monrovia are most at risk from flooding and public health crises, especially cholera outbreaks. Almost 85,000 Cholera cases have been reported in recent decades, with over 18,000 cases in 2003 alone. Sea level rise and coastal erosion pose significant risks to coastal ecosystems, infrastructure, and communities. Liberia is vulnerable to sea level rise due to its extensive coastal plains and large coastal population. Rising sea levels can accelerate coastal erosion and make inland areas more susceptible to seasonal storm surges.
Water Policy and Governance
Technical and organizational capacity constraints and low funding hinder water resources management. Water resources management responsibilities are distributed across seven different ministries. The World Bank has recommended a dedicated ministry for water resources and sanitation to consolidate sector activities, funding allocations, and capacity within one institution.
The impacts of low funding and technical capacity are far reaching and elevate risks from flooding and water pollution, especially in Monrovia. Like many other cities, Monrovia has poorly developed storm water management infrastructure, wastewater treatment and sewerage systems, and inadequate urban planning, zoning, and policy enforcement. With underdeveloped sanitation and flood control measures, the wet season routinely disperses sewage and solid waste throughout Monrovia, deteriorating public health, livelihoods, and infrastructure.
Water Quality Monitoring
Water quality monitoring and data management responsibilities are shared between the LHS, Ministry of Public Works (MPW), MoHSW, and the Liberia EPA. The LHS is broadly responsible for surface and groundwater quality monitoring per the IWRM Policy, while the MoHSW and MPW share mandates for monitoring drinking water quality. Additionally, the EPML requires that the Liberia EPA regulate and monitor industrial effluent discharge, harmonize environmental regulations across various ministries, and establish water quality standards based on water use. While most standards are still in the draft stage, the Liberia EPA has adopted WHO standards as interim drinking water quality standards until national standards are approved. Drinking water quality standards used by the MoHSW, however, are more stringent than the WHO standards used by the Liberia EPA. Key sectoral entities such as the LWSC have called for regulatory authority of drinking water to be consolidated under one single agency, in addition to water quality monitoring mandates. Comprehensive water quality assessments are scarce. In 2017, the MPW completed a survey of over 20,000 water points across all counties, although the survey provided only limited water quality data related to fecal coliforms and basic chemical parameters.
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