The discovery of water changes lives in Kenya | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 04.04.2014
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The discovery of water changes lives in Kenya

The discovery of vast water reserves in Kenya's dry north could change the lives of people across the country. But even as locals celebrate, some worry that corruption will deny thirsty communities their right to water.

Four women walk through a dry, barren landscape. There isn't a single cloud in the sky and the heat is unbearable. This dusty road connects their village to a precious new resource, a fresh water pump in the town of Turkana, in northern Kenya.

The women join a crowded line at the new water facility. Turkana's massive water reserve is right beneath their feet. The women hold plastic containers, pots and even scraped out calabash shells to carry their water home.

Ekai Amase watches on in disbelief. "We had a huge problem with water in this area before," she explains, adding that she once traveled miles to get this precious commodity.

"When we set out to look for water, sometimes it took three days just to find it," Amase says. "On the walk back we often lost a few animals which died of thirst."

Right place, right time

Turkana is one of the hottest regions in Africa. The mainly nomadic pastoralists in the area have struggled with a poor water supply for generations.

Locals gather at a water facility in Turkana, Kenya

Locals gather to inspect a new water facility being drilled in Turkana, Kenya

But everything changed here last year when the government, in conjunction with UNESCO and the company Radar Technologies International, discovered a huge reservoir of groundwater buried deep beneath Turkana. The reserve is estimated to contain 250 billion cubic meters (almost 203 million acre feet) of water.

The lack of clean water here causes many people to get sick over and over again. People without access to clean sources drink from holes they dig in the countryside. This is where they pick up diseases like cholera. The newly discovered water tables could improve community health here, allowing people to work, attend school, take care of their families and tend their farms.

The water may also resolve political tension in this region. Water shortages often force roaming farmers to cross the border into other countries, looking to feed their cattle. This puts them into competition with residents of neighboring countries and can even trigger border conflicts.

Aiming for sustainability

But the discovery of so much fresh water here raises questions about who will control it. When oil was discovered in the region two years ago, locals expected jobs and profits but an overseas company, responsible for the mining, did little to help they say.

Kenya's environment minister Judy Wakhungu

Kenya's Environment Minister Judy Wakhungu says the water can also be used for irrigation

"The first priority of course is to supply water to the people of the area who have always been water insecure," says Judy Wakhungu, Kenya's environment minister, in interview with DW.

"This places Turkana in a completely different light, when it comes to government policy and also natural resource development."

Wakhungu says Kenya consumes about 3 billion cubic meters of water each year. The reserve at Turkana contains more than 200 billion cubic meters, enough to serve the entire country for the next 70 years. The water may last even longer, if it is well managed, she says. Locally it can be used to develop irrigation methods and industry too.

An endless resource?

Local engineers say that the groundwater source will replenish itself each year. That means improved strategic management of the facility could turn Kenya into a water stable nation for good.

But critics warn that there are major challenges ahead. According to Kenya-based risk analyst Andrea Bohnstedt, natural resource finds can actually hurt industry if governments are not careful.

"It really depends on the quality of the institutions," Bohnstedt says, adding that corruption continues to remain a problem in Kenya.

A fisherman in Turkana holds an AK47 gun in his hands

Fisherman with an AK47: Conflicts have been known to break out in Turkana due to scarce water resources

She also warns that when an abundance of natural resources are suddenly discovered in a country, it can artificially increase the value of the country's currency. That, in turn, makes it difficult for exporters to sell their goods at competitive prices on the international market.

For now though, the people of Turkana are still celebrating the fact that they can get easy access to clean drinking water in their area. Jane Loyar, a local resident, sees it as a big chance for everyone.

"Before all these discoveries were made, we were suffering. We would have died long ago," she told DW. "But since the discovery of water here, I have seen so many changes."

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