A massive aquifer located under the Horn of Africa is changing the geopolitical conversation in the wider region.
The Horn of Africa is dying. After two seasons of no rainfall, the region — which includes Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Somalia and Uganda — is finding itself victim of the worst drought in over 60 years. Over 11 million people in the region now find themselves in dire need of relief. The latest round of droughts follows the 2010-2011 droughts, which according to the United Nations Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit, brought as many as 750,000 to the brink of death from famine and drought-related dangers.
“I have asked myself many times whether anything good can come out of this godforsaken land,” said Zakayo Ekeno, as reported by Al Jazeera. “Every year our livestock die from lack of water and pasture. We also live in fear of cattle rustlers who steal our animals to replace what they lost.”
In Turkana, one of the hardest-hit Kenyan regions, relief may be underfoot — literally. Radar Technologies International, a natural resources firm, has conducted a United Nations-sponsored groundwater survey that found two major aquifer systems in northern and central Turkana. The RTI study reveals that the aquifer systems hold a minimum of around 66 trillion gallons, with rainfall from the Kenyan and Ugandan highlands recharging the aquifers at a rate of about 898 billion gallons per year.
The largest of the two aquifers, the Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, is roughly the size of Rhode Island. According to RTI’s blog, there is reason to suspect that the aquifer could be part of the “Land of Marvels,” the ancient source of the Nile reportedly explored by Ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut some 3,500 years ago. The smaller aquifer, the Lodwar Basin Aquifer, is situated near Turkana’s oil reserves. Drilling has confirmed the existence of the two; although, three other unconfirmed formations — Gatome, Kachoda and Nakalale — could be proven to have an additional 8 trillion gallons of water.
In addition to the deep reserves, RTI has discovered around 528 billion gallons of sub-surface water less than a few meters under the ground. This presents the possibility of agriculture without the need for deep drilling.
A call for caution
Until this discovery was announced, the U.N. recognized Kenya as a “chronically water-scarce” country. Kenya currently uses more than 790 billion gallons per year, meaning that from the recharge rate of the aquifers alone, Kenya now has access to enough water to double its consumption. However, many environmentalists feel that the nation currently has no legal framework or infrastructural capacity to manage this discovery sustainably.
“We have the Water Act of 2002 and the Environment Management and Coordination Act of 1999. But they provide no significant policy framework in regard to the management of underground water,” said environmental scientist Judith Gicharu to Al Jazeera. Gicharu pointed out that protections exist in broader policy definitions, but they are not specific enough to effectively protect the aquifers.
“But even where groundwater provisions exist, they are rarely acted upon. Implementation of whatever provisions exist has been compromised by an overlap of duties amongst various government agencies dealing with water and the environment,” Gicharu continued.
The need for strong groundwater protections is of additional relevance due to the fact that Turkana is oil-rich, a discovery made only last year. As the oil companies prepare to drill, many have noticed more of a directed interest in the oil and less attention toward ensuring the vitality of the people or the environmental health of the land.
“It’s still early in the day and yet the Turkana are missing from the water dialogue. The government is already talking about supplying the entire country with the ‘new’ water, but how much of it will go to the Turkana people?” asked Ikal Ang’elei of Friends of Lake Turkana, a regional environmental group. “We cannot take the same direction that the oil dialogue has taken. Since the oil in Turkana was discovered, investors have only been interested in finding out when the oil will start flowing. They are not talking about the benefits to the community.”
“[The] Turkana people will get water in the next two weeks,” said an official of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. Under Kenyan law, all water resources on Kenyan lands belong to the national government. “We are also engaging the private sector for partnerships that are economically viable to the community.”
It is felt that the aquifers, however, will mean little to the national water situation. “The discovery of a large aquifer in the Turkana region is unlikely to make much difference outside the immediate area – it is just too remote, although it might help to support greater development for the handful of people in the region,” said Mike Mueller, the former director-general of South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs. “In general, there are always resources of groundwater (stronger or weaker) even in apparently arid areas. In Botswana, for instance, there was talk of taking water from the Okavango River delta to support mining until it was realised that it could be much more economically taken from local groundwater. The challenge is cost and operational sustainability, which is why people in those areas don’t have good domestic water supplies.”
Researchers are doubtful that the discovery of groundwater — which could be in excess of 100 times the surface water in the continent’s lakes and rivers — could trigger a “Green Revolution,” or a reversal of the permanent famine state that plague much of Africa toward being capable of hosting a healthy agricultural ecosystem. The demands of irrigation would exceed the refill rate.
The perpetual drought
The Horn of Africa droughts are growing worse in intensity and duration with each consecutive year. While typically, the Horn goes through regular wet and dry periods on a cyclical pattern, the effects of global warming have made the ramifications of the drought periods more protracted. Changes in sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean, for example, have mitigated the effect El Niño has on the drought cycle. However, the exact effects of the climate change are not known and are the subject of current investigation.
“We still don’t understand exactly what causes the changes in sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean and the relationship between those changes and global changes in climate, like the cooling that occurred during the Little Ice Age or the global warming that is occurring now,” said Jessica Tierney, a geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “We’ll need to do some more experiments with climate models to understand that better.”
What is known is that the rate of drought in the Horn will only worsen, which makes the aquifer discovery potentially cantankerous in this war-battered part of the world. In 2010, for example, two sub-clans — the Sa’ad and the Seleeban — fought over grazing pasture and water in Somalia, leaving 20 dead and thousands displaced. “In my own town of Galinsor, about 1,300 families [7,800 people] have been displaced, out of a total population of 5,500 families,” Osman Abdi, an elder, told IRIN. “Many of the families have fled to surrounding villages and are living in the open or sheltering under trees.”
In this part of the world, water is the most precious of commodities. While the local militia has intervened to control clan feuds over water rights, fights still explode over old arguments and over access to water for livestock.
During a spat of clan violence on the Ethiopia-Kenya border last month, at least two dozen died in what is assumed to be revenge attacks from a July clash. The fighting left more than 38,000 displaced. “This is a political problem. Neither Kenya’s entire military nor police can contain or end this problem. Arrest the politicians, involve all communities in the political process and share resources fairly,” said one Moyale resident, who preferred anonymity, to IRIN.
Turkana sits in the Ilemi Triangle, a contested region that is held currently by Kenya but claimed historically by South Sudan. As conflicts in South Sudan continue, some fear that a grab for Turkana’s oil and water resources may be in the works. More pointedly, however, is the realization that — despite the magnitude of the aquifer discovery — all of this may mean little toward relieving the region or ending the famine.
However, for one community and one county, right now, this discovery means hope, and a possible end to the suffering.