Harnessing Turkana’s water discovery


In September 2013, UNESCO and the Government of Kenya announced the discovery of massive groundwater reserves under Turkana. The aquifer could change thousands of lives, but only if technical challenges can be overcome, and the resource managed for the benefit of local people.

This arid and semi arid county in the far north west corner of Kenya – home to over 700,000 people -, is widely acknowledged to be the poorest in the country with over 95% living in absolute poverty on no more than $US1 per day.  The discovery, which was the
result of a groundwater mapping study, was massively hyped but in Turkana nothing has changed; people still rely on unprotected scoop holes dug into dry river beds to collect water or queue at handpumps, often walking long distances and typically surviving on 10 litres per person per day, half the recommended minimum.

And therein lies the problem: whilst discovering huge quantities of water contained in previously unknown aquifers beneath Turkana is clearly good news, There is a big difference between water lying 200 or 300 metres underground and  water flowing out of tap-stands or into troughs where people and  animals can use it.

There is a big difference between water lying 200 or 300 metres underground and  water flowing out of tap-stands.Headlines have focused on the reported magnitude of the find – at least 200 billion m3 with reportedly 1.2 billion m3 annually recharged (and therefore sustainable) which would be more than enough to supply the whole county.  Clearly this is a simplification that doesn’t consider the practicalities of how this water will be
abstracted or where the people are in relation to the aquifers, or the enormous investment needed to get the water above ground and to maintain sustainable water services in the future. Turkana has endured decades of underinvestment and marginalisation.  With low literacy levels, few asphalt roads and even fewer villages with electricity or mobile communication, even finding a qualified mechanic or the spare parts needed to repair a pump are major challenges.

So, there are a lot of challenges ahead, but knowing big aquifers exist, and where, is still a really good start. It has been notoriously difficult to find water in many parts of Turkana. Drilling a borehole there is not unlike tossing a coin and calling correctly: success rates are at around 50%. Oxfam has a better record of success than most; we have drilled over 100 boreholes in Turkana since 2007 and over 70% have been productive, supplying the needs of over 50,000 people. Yet
this still means that for every 10 boreholes drilled 2-3 will be dry.

This UNESCO groundwater study will help to further weight the odds in our favour, however – as any hydrologist knows – interpreting satellite maps, seismic and geophysical data is not a precise science which is why groundwater investigations (the UNESCO one included) talk about groundwater “potential” or “probability” : success is still not guaranteed.

If well managed, this discovery has the potential – over time – to make a huge positive difference to communities in Turkana, and help Kenya in its quest to become a middle income country by 2020.

The most important requirement is that decisions are taken in consultation with Turkana representatives  The most important requirement is that decisions are taken in consultation with Turkana representatives and that they are first and foremost in the interests of Turkana communities. Sadly, this is not guaranteed to be the case. A disproportionate amount of benefit may go to external investors, with profits drain out of the region, and traditional livelihoods will not benefit. Economic activity can lead to land
, pushing up the price of land and displacing local people.

The immediate needs of the Turkana people are for water for people and animals, but already there is talk of this discovery contributing towards the government’s target of getting 1.2M hectares of new land under irrigation. Numerous irrigation schemes in Kenya and elsewhere have not brought the benefits promised and, worse, have adversely affected local communities, for example by blocking traditional migration routes or reducing communal grazing lands.

It’s a positive sign that the Government have invested in this study: it suggest they are serious about addressing decades of under investment and marginalisation by successive governments before them. However let’s not forget that the water discovery follows the discovery of viable oil reserves in Turkana in 2012.

They may be living on top of some of the largest natural resource wealth in Kenya, but for now the people of Turkana remain the poorest in the country.

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Author: Brian McSorley
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.