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By Frank Mutulu
NAIROBI, Kenya – In mid 2011, the government of Kenya declared the hunger situation – that threatened to claim the lives of 3.75 million citizens in the arid and semi-arid regions, including Turkana – a national disaster.
The United Nations announced that it was the worst drought to hit the Horn in over 60 years.
The media aptly underscored the gravity of the situation, taking to the homes of millions of Kenyans images of reed-thin, weak and malnourished fellow countrymen including the elderly, lactating and expectant mothers and children.
Kenya felt robbed of its dignity as images of the 3.75 million being of robbed of theirs, emerged. In response, the Media Owners Association and corporate Kenya launched a massive campaign dubbed “Kenyans for Kenya” to raise funds for emergency aid to reach the vulnerable.
According to audited reports, $11.2 million – in cash and kind – was raised by Kenyans at home and in the diaspora.
Recent developments are however changing how Kenya and the world view rainfall-deprived, aid-dependent and conflict-prone Turkana.
While water security is a concern in the world over, the Kenyan government and the U.N. joint announcement of discovery of five aquifers in Turkana could guarantee the East African state much coveted resource security.
According to Radar Technologies International (RTI), the French company that discovered the aquifers in Turkana County, Lotikipi area alone holds 900 percent more than Kenya’s current water reserves and could serve 600 million people for one year.
The deep-seated water system holds an estimated 250 billion cubic meters of water that could meet the needs of Kenya for 70 years.
RTI’s WATEX system which was developed in 2004 uses satellite imaging to identify areas with high chances of success for drilling. In addition to Lotikipi, UNESCO contracted RTI has discovered underground water sources in Lokichar, Gatome, Nkalale and Kachoda.
“What this means is that we can completely transform the livelihoods in the Turkana area. We are regarding this resource as a multipurpose one…for drinking, potentially for irrigation and industrial development,” said Judy Wakhungu, Kenya’s secretary for environment, water and natural resources.
Turkana residents’ wrinkled faces have for a long time been a symbol of hopelessness but as they drunk water directly from a drilled aquifer access point, their bright smiles suggested that with each gulp, they temporarily washed down the memory of hardship.
“We have been thirsting for many years. With the discovery of these water reserves we [Turkana community] want to benefit and use it for many years,” a Turkana resident told a local news channel.
As the government announced plans to drill test boreholes within 30 days, scientist and president of RTI, Dr. Alain Gachet called for prudent use of the water resource to avoid depletion.
“There is need to closely monitor them and ensure a balance between the reserves and the amount of water that is being recharged. It is just like your bank account – if you take out more money than you have then you will become bankrupt,” Dr. Gachet told Kenya’s Business Daily.
According to officials, Kenya uses three billion cubic meters of water annually. The Lotikipi aquifer, the largest ever discovered by RTI, is naturally replenished annually by 3.4 billion cubic meters. Essentially, the entire Kenyan populace could be served using the recharge, leaving the reservoir intact.
However, the fortunes of Turkana and by extension, Kenya, started changing in March 2012 when then-President Mwai Kibaki announced that the country had struck oil in the county’s Lokichar Basin.
“Tullow Oil, which has been prospecting for oil in block 10BB in Turkana County, discovered oil in Ngamia-1 well…This is the first time Kenya has made such a discovery and it is very good news for our country. It is however the beginning of a long journey to make our country an oil producer,” said President Kibaki (now retired).
The general population was euphoric over the President’s announcement of the first oil discovery in the country. Most had the misconception that the discovery would immediately make Kenya an economic giant, with hundreds of jobs to be created and cashing in foreign exchange.
In November 2012, several months after initial announcement, Tullow Oil made a discovery of more oil deposits in the Twiga South-1, Block 13T located 14 miles from Ngamia-1. The firm reported more than 30-meter deep deposits of the high-value light crude oil, raising optimism in the Lokichar Basin prospect.
Most industry players and economists alike are however maintaining healthy skepticism regarding the discoveries.
The IMF in May projected that Kenya will start commercial production in six to seven years. Tullow Oil has however through its spokesman George Cazenove downplayed these projections as “premature.”
“While the exploration so far has been very successful, we have only drilled three wells so any projections of when commercial oil might flow are premature.”
Oil exportation may be Kenya’s long-0sought solution to aid dependence and poverty that have dogged the country since independence. Just how much oil is underneath Turkana remains a mystery for now. To avoid the ‘resource curse,’ should black gold deposits be commercially viable as IMF predicts, precautionary measures need to be taken.
In the developing world, exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves has been referred to as a curse which results in conflicts, political instability, social and environmental degradation, coupled with corruption. Classic examples include Nigeria and Angola.
Turkana remains on the lips of investors in boardrooms.
Frank Mutulu is The Atlantic Post’s East Africa Correspondent, based in Nairobi, Kenya.