Turkana County, once the poster child for destitution, could be an economic powerhouse. Hot on the heels of consequential oil discoveries, Turkana County now holds 17% of Kenya’s water resources. Major aquifers in Turkana County, Lotikipi, Lodwar, Gatome, Kachoda and Nakalae store 250 billion cubic meters of water with a recharge rate of 3.4 billion cubic meters per year.
This significant groundwater find by Radar Technologies International (RTI) is consistent with the first quantitative assessment of Africa’s groundwater published in April 2012 by Alan MacDonald of the British Geological society and colleagues from University College London. The assessment also revealed that Wajir and Mandera could have aquifer productivity of the same magnitude as Turkana. The volume of Africa’s ground water is estimated to be more than 100 times the annual renewable freshwater resources and 20 times the fresh water stored in Africa’s lakes.
The excitement around the Turkana aquifers is palpable. Hunger, drought and conflict over livestock, water and pasture have plagued Turkana and contiguous arid lands for many generations. The vast groundwater supplies in Turkana could be used as a source of irrigation for crops and pasture, or to provide water to livestock. More significantly, abundant water supplies could help bring peace and hopefully end violent conflict over resources.
The discovery of vast groundwater resources in Turkana County is exciting but it also presents numbing challenges, most of which we are least equipped to deal with. Additional site-specific assessment of groundwater resources is needed to inform investments in pumping, reticulation systems and sustainable utilization. Moreover, groundwater is neither infinite nor invulnerable to pollution or degradation hence we need to invest in and build capability for monitoring and regular reporting to achieve an optimal balance between management and sustainable exploitation. Unregulated large-scale irrigation could trigger massive land degradation, especially because the mildly sodic soils of this arid region are prone to salinization. Sodic soils are characterized by disproportionately high concentrations of sodium. Smart management of fertilizer application will be needed to avoid nitrate contamination of water resources.
Beyond the high level excitement in Nairobi about what these aquifers mean for Kenya’s economic development, what is in this for the local Turkana pastoralist? I postulate two scenarios.
In the first scenario Turkana County becomes a hot destination for huge commercial agricultural interests driven by big money, high technology and buoyed by huge demand for high value agricultural produce like flowers, vegetables, fruits, pulses, rice, sugarcane, beef and dairy. This is preceded by high demand for land, triggering speculation and unprecedented spikes in land prices, motivating local pastoral communities to sell land. County politicians engage in rent-seeking behavior. The shift to commercial agriculture invariably alters the local cultural and socio-economic landscape, with a majority of the local people abandoning traditional livelihood strategies and moving into urban areas or finding work as unskilled laborers in the commercial farms.
Large commercial farms attract investments for infrastructure, especially roads, a large airport and complex reticulation infrastructure to distribute water. There is an upsurge of agricultural processing, packaging and allied services. Given that illiteracy in the region is nearly 60 percent, more skilled people from outside Turkana County hold a majority of well-paying jobs. Although Turkana County is rapidly catapulted from periphery to the center the local Turkana communities are marginalized and are not at the heart of the agribusiness bonanza. The people of Turkana openly express their discontent and resentment for “outsiders” who now dominate the thriving city of Lodwar.
In the second scenario the local communities, with support of the county government and in collaboration with the central government deliberately engage and plan the utilization of land and water resources. With the support of the County government, pastoralist form co-operatives and enter into long-term lease agreements with large commercial farmers. A majority of these agreements explicitly require that the large commercial farmers build operate and transfer the farms to local co-operatives. These agreements include training for local communities. The County government invests in basic education and middle level colleges, including a university to support research and extension in irrigation agriculture, agribusiness and engineering. Thirty years later, large commercial profitable farms and allied businesses largely owned by the proud and pluralistic Turkana people.