by Malee Oot September 21, 2013
Aquifers discovered in the drought-stricken Turkana district of northwestern Kenya may bring much needed relief to an area heavily affected by climate change. The findings were announced at the outset of a water security conference in the Kenyan capital Nairobi last week and were the result of the Groundwater Resources Investigation for Drought Mitigation in Africa Programme (GRIDMAP), a project led by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in partnership with the Kenyan government and with funding from the Japanese government.
A total of five aquifers were identified in the Turkana region, two of which were discovered using advanced satellite exploration technology and confirmed by UNESCO led drilling operations. According to Radar Technologies International (RTI), the natural resources exploration firm engaged for the research, Turkana has at least 250 billion cubic meters of water stored underground, which is recharged annually by rainfall in the Kenyan and Ugandan highlands.
The Turkana region has long had a unique feature - a lake, or large river has existed in the area for the past 7 million years, spanning the entire evolution of the human race, and creating a process of sedimentation ideal for fossilization. Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake on earth provides a historical insight into climactic shifts in the area, naturally keeping a record of the disappearance of the region’s most vital resource, water.
Water comes at a premium in the Turkana district, and life revolves around the lake. The semi-arid climate in Turkana is harsh, but has supported the Turkana people since the mid-nineteenth century, when the group migrated to Kenya from Uganda. The Turkana are the second largest pastoral group in Kenya, and the region’s harsh climate is not conducive to agriculture, making livestock and fishing critical to supporting human life in the Turkana district.
In the last decade, life has become even harder in Turkana. In 1960, water levels in the lake were as much as 18 meters higher than today. Temperatures have been rising while precipitation has become scarcer. The Turkana region was historically prone to droughts every decade or so, but droughts have started happening every 2-3 years. The last one, in 2011, saw much of the region’s population forced onto food aid.
The lake itself has changed drastically in the last generation, many areas covered by water 30 years ago are now sand and gravel, and in a few decades scientists believe the lake could all but disappear.
The increasingly inhospitable climate has also fueled ethnic conflict in the Turkana district and along the Ethiopian border. The Turkana have historically clashed with the Merille (or Daasanach), a semi-nomadic pastoral people living in southern Ethiopia along the Omo River, which supplies nearly 90% of the water for Lake Turkana. Documented incidences of conflict between the Turkana and the Merille date back to the 1950s, but recent data demonstrates an increase in trans-boundary cattle raiding and violent conflict between the groups during times of drought.
Water is precious in much of Kenya. Almost 43% of the country’s 41 million people lack access to safe water. The recent groundwater find could increase Kenya’s share of available water significantly, at least for a few decades.