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Will Turkana's aquifer be a blessing or a curse?

by Ray Obiero | @ray_obiero | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 16 September 2013 16:30 GMT

A Turkana woman carries water on her head before attending a drought and peace meeting in Lobei village of Turkana district in northwest Kenya, October 2, 2009. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The vast new underground water stores under Kenya’s arid north are great news – unless they lead to pastoralists falling victim to corrupt land grabs

Kenya is abuzz with news of the discovery of an unknown stock of a most precious resource – water – in a most unexpected place.

For ages the northern part of Kenya and specifically Turkana County has been synonymous with droughts, conflicts centered on grazing rights, food aid and the like. But now one of the largest aquifers not just in Kenya but in the region has been discovered there, overnight transforming perceptions of the region.

Located in the Lotikipi basin in Turkana, the basin – discovered last year but its size only recently confirmed - is so big that the superlatives associated with it are not in the everyday Kenyan vocabulary. It’s estimated to hold enough reserves to sustain Kenya’s water consumption for the next 70 years or about 200 billion cubic meters of water.

The aquifer is believed to be fed by underground streams, and is far bigger than nearby salty Lake Turkana. Better yet, about four more aquifers are waiting to be verified via drilling after satellite imaging confirmed their existence.

For residents in the region, this is of far much significance than even recent oil discoveries in the county. But the aquifer discovery also raises some important questions that need to be addressed if the region is to realize the full potential of the resource.


One of these is land. Turkana has been a flash point for different tribes primarily over grazing rights and animal watering points. The greater Turkana area is inhabited by the Turkana community, who view the county as their ancestral land. This means that almost no individual owns land in the county and it is instead held in trust by the county government for its inhabitants.

However the availability of water potentially could change the county from a pastoralist driven economy to a farming one. This would require a change in land holding from community to individuals or commercial farms.

Kenya has a murky and rather poor experience in dealing with land issues. Almost all settlement schemes since colonial to modern times have been embroiled in controversy and corruption, which occasionally flares into deadly land clashes. Moreover, government officials have been known to grab such land and benefit from it or sell it to their associates to the detriment of locals.

 At the announcement of the discovery, the environment cabinet  secretary, Judy Waghungu, hinted at the possibility of gazetting the land under and near the aquifer, as the national and Turkana county governments mull over how best to approach the land issue in the area.

This is one of the driest and most food insecure areas of the country and priority may be given to transforming it into a food basket for the country. This would mean a change in the economic and cultural activities of its residents (assuming the land issue is well handled).The key is to make sure that the residents are not swindled of the land by people who have more experience and finances when it comes to farming.


 It’s hard to ignore the fact that the aquifer could end up being a source of conflict not just among the local community but with their neighbors as well. A potential conflict arises when herders drive their animals into new farms. An of such a recent clash came at the Tana River area of Kenya, where herders and farmers engaged in brutal clashes that left several people dead and families without homes.

The other major issue that the region has to deal with is oil. The new county government system has seen counties focus in on the resources at their command. Turkana County in particular has been very open about making oil the major economic driver for the county.

But it’s hard to see how oil would quickly transform the county in terms of jobs and opportunities, even though the infrastructure may benefit. The aquifer discovery now gives the county government a new headache - albeit a good one.

The oil industry is not known to generate a lot of jobs but agriculture can. It will be interesting to see how the Turkana county government handles these two very important resources bearing in mind the county is among the poorest in the country.

There is bound to be some friction between the county and the national government on how best to utilize the two valuable resources. There are concerns too that oil exploration and extraction activities may contaminate the aquifer and others in the county.

There no clear guidelines in the Kenya when it comes to safety and contamination of water resources from oil drilling, or even reparations in case of oil spills. Both the national parliament and county assembly would need to come up with new legislations to see that the oil industry will not pose a danger to the commercial use of water from the aquifer(s).

The geo politics of the region will also be affected by any exploitation of the aquifer. Kenya’s borders with her northern neighbors, including Somalia and Ethiopia, are very porous and it’s not uncommon for communities who straddle these borders to move in and out of one country to the other. This has never really bothered the countries concerned but this may soon change.

The national government will be keen to keep aliens from taking advantage and settling in the area and this may raise some diplomatic issues with Kenya’s neighbors - especially because most people in northern Kenya and even across the borders have no identification documents.

While the discovery of the aquifer is definitely some of the best news for the country this year, careful planning will be needed to make sure this transforms the lives of northern Kenya residents and the nation as whole.

Ray Obiero is a physics graduate of Kenya’s Egerton University and blogs for AlertNet Climate on climate change issues.

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