The Turkana people in Kenya have a new claim to fame. Rather than being the face of famine in the dustbowls of Africa, they have struck both oil and water in a span of two years, and with implementation of the new Kenyan constitution, devolution places these newfound fortunes on the governor of Turkana’s plate. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
For a county where the poverty rate is estimated to be over 90 percent, the successful drilling for oil in 2012 and the discovery of a huge aquifer in September 2013 will change the people’s lives, a drop at a time. Curiously, though, the locals are more intrigued about the aquifer than the highly sought after black gold. With its surface area more than 4,000 square kilometers, hydrologists estimate the aquifer holds about 200 billion cubic meters of freshwater, enough to take care of all of Kenya’s water needs for the next 70 years. There is no greater news for the inhabitants of this bone-dry area, who have lived through perpetual droughts. This might just be the one place in the world where water is more precious than oil.
Regarding this priceless water find, David Zetland, an economist who owns the blog Aguanomics, says the most pertinent questions are who has the rights to the water and who makes decisions on its extraction and use. He says the locals should get most of the rights and control, as well as the resulting profits from the water, because it’s their resource.
“A centralized ‘grab’ to put it into canals to use elsewhere is likely to help the rich and not the poor. It will probably not be sustainable, either,” Zetland adds. The extent of the impact of the discovery on the marginalized people will heavily depend on how the government, particularly the devolved administration headed by the Turkana governor, manages the aquifer.
Following the adage that you never miss the water till the well runs dry, Zetland says one easy way to mitigate damage is to limit extractions to less than 1 percent of the total water. This will provide adequate time for planning, managing and getting accustomed to the availability of water, without over-exploitation.
If the limit is agreed to, it might take about a century to deplete the water source. For a people who have buried their relatives because of the seemingly endless kilometers they had to walk in search of the scarce resource, there is little doubt that the vast water supply should be theirs. It seems only equitable for a place that in 2011 was hit by the worst drought in the Horn of Africa in 60 years. This can be seen as the climax of the burden they have had to bear, generation after generation.
Interestingly, though, the name of the area where the aquifer was found, Lotikipi, alludes to an underground water source, or so it’s said. But the birthplace of the Stone Age had a cruel surprise for its future inhabitants, as millions would die of hunger and become one with the endless sea of dust in the semi-arid area. Now, with the Turkana aquifer, every single drop counts.