About six months ago Kenya was excited by news of the discovery of a huge aquifer in the arid northern Turkana region.
What was impressive about this was the size of the aquifer and its potential to transform the harsh, arid region. It is estimated to hold about 200 billion cubic metres of water, enough to sustain the whole country for the next 70 years at current consumption rates.
When the discovery was made, the national and county governments spoke of a plan to transform the region and especially to tackle the perennial food insecurity and hunger that plague local people.
Irrigation farming was identified as the major means of tackling the problem, along with development of pasture and watering points for herders. There were also hopes that the aquifer could be used to solve the conflicts between herders and farmers that erupt from time to time in northern Kenya.
A few weeks, ago the national government and the Turkana county government announced the start of drilling, and the town of Lodwar is expected to be the first beneficiary of water for domestic use.
While this is a very positive development, it seems that once again the most urgent issues are not being addressed – in particular, community participation, given that this is a region with a serious food security problem.
A case in point is the warning by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) that most of Kenya is on hunger alert more than half of the year, with areas such as northern Kenya (ironically, the site of the aquifer) sometimes teetering on the edge of famine.
Food shortages and high food prices are coming, and hunger is already starting to bite – as seen from the recent shocking story of a mother who had to slaughter a dog for her two kids because she had no food for them.
URBAN WATER, RURAL WATER
But the Turkana county government has made its first priority piping water to Lodwar, a town of about 48,000 people about 120 kilometers away from the aquifer, despite indicating earlier that tackling food security would be the top priority for water from the aquifer.
Pumping aquifer water tens or hundreds of kilometres to urban areas should not have been the top priority, not with the most vulnerable people directly on top of the aquifer, in a harsh, remote area. Setting the wrong priorities may create new problems and worsen old ones. The most logical step would have been to engage with local people and involve them – and put in place irrigation programmes with water from the aquifer as quickly as possible.
There is no need of mega irrigation projects to begin with, but rather small ones to help deal with the immediate danger. These could later be expanded. The best place to launch such projects would be in central Turkana, directly on top of the aquifer.
Because northern Kenya is predominantly a pastoralist area, some residents may not want to switch to crop farming so setting up watering points for animals is also important for them.
Separate grazing and farming areas should also be designated to avoid the type of conflict that took place in the Tana River area few months back between pastoralists and farmers, in which many people died. It’s also common to see pastoralists invading urban areas with their herds in search of any available grass and water and this can cause strife between town residents and pastoralists.
It would be shameful for the country to record deaths caused by hunger in the Turkana region in a few months, when there are fast-growing food crops, developed in Kenya, that could be farmed with water from the aquifer. These include fast-growing Katumani maize that takes just three months to mature.
So what is the major issue that has not been addressed since the aquifer was discovered? Community participation.
While people in Lodwar town were informed of the decision to pump water to the town, families living in remote areas have not been informed or consulted by the national or county government about the aquifer that lies under their feet. If consultations had been made, especially at the grassroots level, food security would be given top priority, along with tackling the causes of perennial conflict in the area.
With the new water on tap, questions of land ownership in the region also have to be addressed quickly.
In the immediate future, averting loss of life as a result of hunger should be the top concern. The majority of the population in northern Kenya is rural and these are the people most at risk. The county and national governments should quickly change tack and start engaging them on the aquifer – and on food security.
Ray Obiero is a physics graduate of Kenya’s Egerton University and blogs for AlertNet Climate on climate change issues.