A colleague once remarked about northern Kenya as we flew over it en route to South Sudan, “I’ve been to many parts of the world, but I believe this is the most desolate place I have ever seen.” The recent discovery of an enormous supply of underground water in the area could transform that “most desolate place” in ways few could have envisioned.

Photo credits: EC/ECHO/Malini Morzaria

The people of northern Kenya currently face many daily hardships. Primarily pastoralists by livelihood, their cycle of life focuses on the basics – securing food and water for family and livestock, constructing shelter from the unforgiving sun, and finding sustenance when periodic droughts ravage the region. A 2011 drought affected millions of people, and tens of thousands of livestock died. Approximately 90 percent of the area’s population lives below the poverty line.

The physical hardship is made worse by a man-made blight of illiteracy and a lack of economic development. Marginalization – and sheer geographical distance –  from the central government in robi coupled with the unabated flow of small arms across porous borders means that frequent conflicts over water and grazing land often turn deadly.

The new discovery—using a combination of satellite data and traditional ground sensing – of multiple huge underground water reserves in Turkana constitutes a proverbial jackpot. The trifecta includes large supplies of water, new oil discoveries nearby, and an almost certain surge of economic development and attention from governments and businesses.

It also highlights the exciting potential for new technologies and new uses of existing methods to contribute solutions for some of the world’s most vexing challenges. Radar Technologies International’s WATEX system, which has been used to find water sources for international aid agencies and foreign governments, helped spot water deep underground and just beneath the surface, both of which have great value to relieve suffering.

Yet before the local tribesmen can benefit from this exciting discovery, it is important to consider how these resources can be developed without unintentionally spurring new conflict, as national and local authorities come to grips with the implications of the find.

The good news is that Kenya’s new constitution includes provisions for devolution to county-level governments that were intended to address the particular challenges of marginalization and physical and emotional distance from the nation’s center.

The bad news is that recent events, such as violent conflict in several north-eastern Kenyan counties, demonstrate that devolution alone, while necessary, is not sufficient for sustainable peace. Those counties can serve as learning labs (and warning signs) for Turkana-area counties. In fact, the complex web of tribal relationships now intertwined with county government further complicates the challenge of making wise choices to benefit all Kenyans.

Transparency and participation will be key to developing the resources in a responsible way.

“These aquifers, if used effectively and sustainably, could provide water to improve livelihoods and transform this region,” says Casey Walther, a water specialist working with UNESCO, in a video about the living conditions in Turkana and the implications of the aquifer discovery.

Some have already expressed fears the local communities are at risk of exploitation. Decisions will be made about who benefits from this resource, how the water will be used and distributed, and how it might impact local livelihoods. Some are calling for a huge surge in agriculture in the area, creating a ‘bread basket’ for Kenya. But the local populations mostly herd livestock such as camels and goats, and cannot be expected to change their livelihoods overnight.

Infrastructure such as roads and rail lines that currently do not exist will facilitate access to the area, yet these will also impact communities, whose residents should have a voice in these decisions. Public comment and an engaged civil society can ensure local citizens are not just knowledgeable about what is occurring, but they can play a role toward accountability to ensure budgets and revenues are clear and understood by all and that the benefit is distributed wisely.  

Transparency can also circumvent corruption. Oil companies in the Niger Delta have struggled over many years with how best to interact with communities. At first, oil company revenues went directly to traditional tribal chiefs or government officials, but when those revenues failed to trickle down to the communities and a rebellion ensued, things had to change. The presence of resources in some ways had become a curse, generating corruption and greed. Efforts at transparency and accountability after the fact struggled to overcome the vested interests in the status quo. Such players in Kenya may already be staking their ground, seeking ways to benefit from these resources.

Although resource scarcity is a driving factor behind the cyclical pastoralist violence, scarcity is not the only issue. Clearly security is required for sustainable development and protection of the resource. Northern Kenya and its neighbors – Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia – have experienced their share of conflict. Good governance for all Kenyans can be the most important solution.

Kenya’s Great Rift Valley is home to fascinating discoveries related to the birthplace of humans and our predecessors as well as home to a rich wildlife heritage. Let us hope this discovery of underground water can generate a process of discovery above the ground about what it takes to develop such a tremendous natural gift in a conflict-sensitive way.

USIP Senior Program Officer Jacqueline Wilson has lived, worked and traveled in many parts of Kenya.

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