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Kenya's new water reserves to boost drought-stricken Turkana region if managed properly

Vast water reserves have been discovered under the Turkana desert - changing the game for Kenya's water-scarce region. But how can this newfound water wealth be tapped to ensure resources aren't overexploited?

People celebrated when the first water streamed out of a pipe at a drilling site in the Kenyan desert. The water came from two newly discovered aquifers in the Turkana region - an area that had been hit by frequent droughts.

Since 2012, UNESCO had been working with the governments of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia to find underground water via radar and satellite technology in order to alleviate the impact of drought on the Horn of Africa.

The pilot project in Kenya's Turkana desert was successful indeed: The reserve is estimated to contain 250 billon cubic meters (almost 203 million acre feet) of water. The water could open the door to a more prosperous future, said Judi Wakhungu, Kenya's environment secretary - not only for the people of Turkana, but for Kenya as a whole.

But experts warn that this all depends on how wisely this newfound water wealth will be managed.

Learning from past mistakes

Woman observed water flowing from pipe into pool (Photo: UNESCO)

Turkana residents have seen previous development projects fail

Henk Hobbelink - director of GRAIN, an international organization that works to support small-scale farmers - warned against repeating past mistakes.

A large amount of water was located under the desert in the 1980s in Saudi Arabia, he said, and was pumped to the surface to irrigate wheat fields. "In a period of two decades all the water was gone, and now Saudi Arabia must find food elsewhere on the world market or in Africa."

According to Hobbelink, the Saudi example can be avoided. The underground lake should be tapped slowly, and be given the opportunity to be replenished. One important step to prevent overexploitation would be to involve the local communities directly in all decisions, he added.

That view is echoed by Janek Hermann-Friede, project coordinator with the Water Integrity Network, an organization fighting corruption in the water sector. It would be crucial to involve local groups such as water users associations to represent local people in decision making processes, he said.

Tapping for development

But temptation is high for the Kenyan government to vigorously boost the national economy, experts warn. The water could, for example, be used for export-oriented agriculture, said Francisco Mari, an expert in agricultural trade and fisheries from the German aid organization Bread for the World. Kenya's big horticulture industry in particular is thirsty for more water.

Compared to other African countries, small-scale farmers are particularly important in Kenya. Local investors have substantial experience producing cash crops like beans and flowers, which need a great deal of water. "The export-oriented sector will be the first choice of the government or investors," Mari said.

Community gathered at drilling equipment in Turkana (Photo: UNESCO)

Experts agree that the local community should be consulted on how to use the water

Mari echoed the notion that the local Turkana community must not be ignored in the decision making process.

A number of development projects have already been attempted around Turkana Sea, Mari said. "Norwegians, Germans, everybody was already there," he added. Such fishery and agriculture projects largely failed, he said, "So you need to convince the people."

So far, the Kenyan government has not made a final decision on how to use the water. Wakhungu said it should be regarded as a multipurpose resource for drinking, but potentially also be used for irrigation as well as for industrial development. One thing does seem to be certain: big challenges are lying ahead for everybody involved and the consequences for Kenya will be far-reaching.

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