Kenya’s challenge: How best to manage its new-found water wealth?

In the midst of worrisome news about droughts, desertification, unreliable monsoons and growing concerns around water security around the world, the announcement by the UNESCO and Kenyan officials at the recent International Water Security Conference in Nairobi was anything but gloomy. The finding of potentially huge groundwater resources in northwestern Kenya is indeed a blessing, not only for the herding communities of drought-prone Turkana, but also for the region as a whole.

Until very recently the region was best known to the global water community both for the lack of access to water that mark the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities that live there, and for their efforts to save Turkana Lake, the largest permanent desert lake in the world according to International Rivers.

But a recent survey by RTI, a company hired by U.N., found groundwater systems with a potential of storing about 250 billion cubic meters (or about 66 trillion gallons) in the Kachoda, Gatome, Nkalale and Lockichar areas, with the largest aquifer being located in the Lokitipi Basin—all of them in Turkana county, one of the 47 counties in Kenya.  Of these, the three smaller aquifers combined are estimated to store about 30 billion cubic meters of water, once confirmed by drilling.

But the Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, the largest of them—it has already been confirmed—is likely to store about 207 billion cubic meters, and has a recharge rate of 1.2 billion cubic meters or about 317 billion gallons a year, equivalent to 40 percent of the current annual water use in Kenya. Kenyan water resource planners, with their ability to estimate the recharge rate, are in a better position today to plan and keep the water withdrawal below this rate. The Kenyan government, which has ushered in policy reforms in several sectors, might be in a position to ensure this environmental cap.

Yet, some of the issues I raised in an earlier blog come to mind. Referring to a Guardian report on a study that looked at rising sea levels from a new angle, we urged caution. That study found that efforts to meet increasing freshwater demand by harnessing “fossil” groundwater [which cannot be replenished for millennia under current climate conditions] contributes more to rising sea levels than melting glaciers. The authors were particularly concerned about deep tube-well drilling—a technology adapted from the oil industry—which has contributed to a number of problems associated with irrigated agriculture.  New initiatives in groundwater development could learn from past lessons (India, China and the United States to list a few), and in view of these experiences the temptation to promote groundwater development in Kenya needs to be tempered with caution.

This is especially important in the Kenyan context. Along with the new ground water resources, RTI has also located some oil reserves in the region. As far as the Kenyan government is concerned, the temptation to exploit oil will be high, as will the temptation to extract water to ensure food security. As far as international investors and international institutions are concerned, the temptation to appropriate the newfound wealth for global good will be high.

Turkana is also the poorest county in the country, ranking 47th in poverty rate (94.3 percent, while the national average is 47.2 percent as per the Kenya Household and Budget Survey). Most people who live there, especially in the rural areas, belong to herding/ fishing communities which have a different relation with natural resources as well as with cash economy. As the state and private sector begin investing in the region, it is up to democratic institutions in Kenya to ensure that marginalized groups amongst the Turkana inhabitants have a say in the development of these water resources.