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Water and oil in Turkana: How will they play out?

By: Peter Knox

Turkana is a remote, arid region of Kenya bordered by South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda.  The present Turkana inhabitants are descendants of Kenyans who were forcibly relocated into this barren area under the British colonial policy of ethnic isolation.  As the tenth largest ethnic group in racially-aware Kenya, they are mainly nomadic pastoralists, who bring their herds of cattle to wherever water can be found.  The competition for grazing land and access to water regularly leads to outbreaks of communal violence, which is exacerbated by the instability of neighbouring South Sudan. 

We read in the newspapers this week that the county is entering another period of severe drought, accounting for a disproportionate fraction of the 1.7 million people threatened by dire food shortages countrywide.  This seems barely credible since just last year it was announced that UNESCO has discovered an extensive aquifer beneath the Turkana desert estimated to hold about 250 billion cubic meters, sufficient for 70 years of judicious use.  The temptation would be to pump it to the surface as fast as possible to meet immediate perceived needs and commercial interests.  This is what happened in Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s, and in two decades the aquifer was depleted.  The sandy soil cannot retain the water, which will then seep away or evaporate in the intense heat.  Another temptation is to use the water to boost the horticultural market, for flowers for Europe.  The benefits derived by the local population would be minimal.  It would be wisest to use the water sparingly on drought-resistant crops. And most importantly, the local Turkana should be consulted every step of the way as they think about the use of this windfall. 

And if one blessing is not enough, in 2012 oil was discovered beneath the Turkana desert.  Estimates this week put the reserves at one billion barrels – so definitely an exploitable deposit.  Local residents of the county have already protested that they are not securing enough of the unskilled jobs associated with the infant oil industry.  Of great concern, is that the two companies that have secured commercial licences for the exploitation of the oil are the Canadian “Africa Oil” and Tullow, based in London.  The chances are slim that many Turkana are going to derive great benefit from the exploitation of this mineral.  More likely is that their already hostile environment will become even less accommodating as trucks, pipelines, rigs, roads and work-camps start mushrooming around their county.  Some enterprising women have already started a commercial venture in supplying vegetables to the drilling companies.  This will inevitably imply abandoning the nomadic pastoralist lifestyle, and many Turkana already speak of their ambition to own a permanent home. 

Oil and water are said to be immiscible.  However, the discovery of both within such a short time means that the population will have to learn to deal with both.  They will have to keep the two apart, if the oil is not to pollute the water, rendering it impotable and unusable for agriculture.  Will the oil industry tread lightly in its exploitation?  

Following the principle of the universal destination of goods, these two liquid windfalls should benefit the wider Kenyan public and not only limited commercial interests – many of which are associated with the Kenyatta name.  At the very least, the local Turkana, who have suffered for decades in this hostile quarter, should derive great advantage from the water and oil.  They have to find a trajectory for their ‘development’ that will respect their communal values and culture.