The great groundwater basins of North Africa and Arabia extend over an area of some 6.5 million square kilometres. Gradients on the isopiezometric surfaces of their confined ground-waters are generally interpreted as indicating present-day flow of groundwater. Can such flow occur in basins where most or all of the groundwater is fossil and where effective infiltration and recharge may have ceased some 10 000 years ago?
Assuming that there is indeed no current recharge in these arid and sem-arid regions, the paper identifies seven groups totalling 12 possible mechanisms which can contribute in varying degrees to maintaining flow of groundwater long after effective recharge has ceased. These are: (i) Residual heads; (ii) Tilting of basin; (iii) Compaction effects, in terms of sediment loading, basalt loading and water loading/unloading; (iv) Thermal drive; (v) Gas drive; (vi) Lowering of discharge level, by tectonic displacement, by pressure bursts and by collapse of cover; and (vii) Evaporation in the discharge zone, such as lowering of lake levels and evaporation from sabkhas. Nine additional mechanisms were considered but rejected.
Combinations of these mechanisms can produce heads inducing flow of fossil groundwater, but appear to be insufficient to account for present hydraulic regimes without some current surface recharge. The findings have direct application to studies leading to the development, use and management of these major water resources of the arid zones of the Sahara and Arabia.