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Huge water reserves underground in parched turkana

Wednesday, May 30, 2012 - 00:00 -- BY JOHN MUCHANGI
Drought
Visitors to tour Kakong’ water pan in Kainuk Turkana County which has already dried up due to the harsh weather conditions in the region. Photo/ George Murage
Water in Turkana
Water treatment plant at Ngamia 1 oil rig in Turkana,the oil drilling area has found huge water underneath Photo Joseph Kariuki
Combating drought
Director of Water Resources, Ministry of Water John Rao during the launch of a project 'Strengthening capacity to combat drought and famine in the horn of Africa'. Photo/Monicah Mwangi
Water in Turkana
Recycled water at Ngamia 1 oil rig in Turkana amidst dry land Photo Joseph Kariuki

To Turkana’s newly-found oil deposits, you can now add millions of litres of underground water. The Ministry of Water says some of Kenya's largest underground water reserves, mainly flowing from Ethiopian highlands, have been found here. Head of water resources in Kenya John Rao Nyaoro says they now simply need to find exactly where that water is seated and its depth. The move comes after drilling company Tullow confirmed hitting huge wells of crude oil underground in Turkana.“The survey of the groundwater in the drought affected Turkana County using Radar technologies will go a long way in enhancing our understanding of ground water in this area,” Nyaoro said.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) is leading the exploration through a Sh131 million project launched in Nairobi last week. Ethiopia and Somalia are also involved in the project, financed by the Japanese government. This marks the first time the three countries have embarked on large-scale mining of ground water. The project will benefit thousands of drought-hit pastoralists who currently walk for many kilometres looking for water.

Turkana is among the driest areas in Kenya, according to the meteorological department. The Ministry of Northern Kenya Development says pasture is both poor and inadequate and the distance to water sources is at least 3.8 kilometres. Officials from the three countries last week promised in Nairobi the water will be utilised sustainably.

Ethiopia and Somalia are involved because most ground water straddles between different countries. Somalia's representative Yassin Ali said his country, for instance, relies largely on Ethiopia for its ground water. He said: “If drought strikes in Ethiopia, the drought in Somalia will be more severe because Ethiopia is upstream. All the water in Somalia originated from the Ethiopian highlands.”

Nyaoro said past satellite surveys showed Kenya has 60 billion cubic metres of renewable underground water compared to 20 billion cubic metres of surface water. “We have enough water and if we utilise it properly this country should not classified as water stressed,” he said. Kenya is categorised as “water stressed” because more than 80 per cent of people have no access to clean water, according to the World Water Organisation, a body affiliated to the United Nations. Nyaoro said Unesco had partnered with engineering firm Radar Technologies International to use remote sensing and map out water wells in Turkana. This will help reduce cost of drilling, he said.

Director of groundwater in Ethiopia, Tadesse Tesfaye, said the country has at least 40 billion cubic meters of underground water or more. The country has poor technology and may not abstract that water without foreign assistance. Director of Unesco in Nairobi Prof Joseph Massaquoi said the project, dubbed “Strengthening Capacity to Combat Drought and Famine in the Horn of Africa”, is expected to provide water to nine million people in Eastern Africa.

This will be in areas devastated by last year's drought – billed by the UN as the worst in 60 years. “Nine months following the onset of the 2011 drought and famine crisis in the region, some nine million people still face food and water shortages in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia,” he said. Prof Massaquoi said the Turkana project will produce maps to guide experts who can drill the water at a lesser cost. “Taking advantage of recent advances in exploration technologies, the initiative aims to identify and strengthen groundwater resources in the region as a viable option during water scarce periods,” he said.

But scientists are worried that large-scale borehole developments could rapidly deplete the resource because many aquifers are not being filled due to a lack of rain. “Some of these water aquifers are more than 100 years old so any development should focus on sustaining the water,” said Dr Saud Amer, a US geological survey expert who attended the launch. The move comes a month after researchers from the British Geological Survey and University College London reported that Africa has 100 times more ground water than its surface water.

The report, published in UK-based Institute of Physics (IOP) journal, says some of the largest water deposits on the continent are in the Sahara desert. Kenya has among the highest reserves in Africa, it says. “The volume of groundwater is estimated to be more than 100 times the annual renewable freshwater resources, and 20 times the freshwater stored in African lakes,” the report says. The scientists said ground water provides an important buffer to climate variability and change on the continent.

They however warned groundwater may not solve all water shortages because some deposits are inaccessible. But Nyaoro yesterday said the country has the necessary expertise to drill the ground but where necessary, foreign experts will be engage. The scientists also raised concerns over quality of water and noted water from the volcanic rocks of the East African Rift Valley have high concentrations of fluoride. “The accessibility of the groundwater resources is as important as overall groundwater storage in determining how far groundwater can support nations and communities,” says the report. Nyaoro said the Ministry of Water has already prepared a policy on how ground water should be exploited.

The Turkana water will only be used as a viable option during water scarce periods, he said. The United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi gave a cautious welcome to groundwater news. “The discovery of substantial water reserves under parts of Africa may well be good news for the continent but it may prove hard to access in the near term and, if not sustainably managed, could have unforeseen impacts,” spokesman Nick Nuttall, told Reuters when the British Geological Survey was made public. Nuttall said over-abstraction of groundwater in Mexico City, for example, is threatening the foundations of buildings. “The fact is that there is already a tremendous amount of water available for Africa but it is rarely collected,” he said.