Oil and water: European donor and investor interests collide in Turkana

Children played in the canals running through a field of maize at the Kabulokor irrigation project in Loima Constituency, Turkana County. Nearby, their parents attended a community council meeting under a small thicket of trees.

In Turkana, accessing water for both human and animal use is an everyday challenge and women and children will often carry water long distances to back to their villages.

In Turkana, accessing water for both human and animal use is an everyday challenge and women and children will often carry water long distances to back to their villages.

The canals, maize and council meeting are all remarkable for Turkana– a vast stretch of desert in northwest Kenya plagued by cattle rustling and wedged against the unstable borders of Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda. Images of the small groups of semi-nomadic pastoralists who inhabit Turkana’s parched landscape, combined with the romance of the discovery of the first humans by the archeologists the Leakeys , have long drawn the sympathy and humanitarian aid funds from European donor countries.

There is little romance, however, in the statistics cited by the United States African Development Foundation 75% of Turkana’s population is dependent on food aid for survival. This small agriculture oasis in Loima Constituency is therefore a victory for the community of over 2,100 families, the county government and the non-profit organizations who have been working for decades to wean Turkana off aid.

And over the course of one year, it seemed that everything could change. The discovery of underground oil and water deposits in Lokichar Basin in the south of Turkana in 2012 could, potentially, fix poverty and drought for Turkana forever. Or, it could make everything worse.

The “oil (and water) curse”

The European Commission funds an Oxfam democracy and human rights program in Turkana. Its program manager John Ebenyo Ewesit, said that investors snuck in without the people realizing. “They erected blue and white tents and started clearing oil fields before anyone knew what was happening.”

The most precarious and neglected region of Kenya has caught the attention of multinational petroleum conglomerates, most notably British-owned Tullow Oil – a situation that has the potential to cast a spoke in the wheel of progress and tentative rule of law that donors have cultivated and set off the “oil curse.” Communities that now manage revenue from a borehole or earth dam to cover maintenance costs, are by all accounts not equal to the task of regulating the billions of Euros of oil revenue that lie beneath this land. The same goes for the giant water aquifers mapped out by UNESCO and Japanese funders for the Government of Kenya. And, the investors who have snatched up exploratory drilling contracts without having to make those contracts public, know it.

For the last five years, Samson Otira Emirica is the chairman of the Kabulokor irrigation project where the community meeting took place in the shade of the trees, has overseen the cultivation of maize, sorghum, onions and tomatoes to feed the community, since the national government built it under the Expanded National Irrigation Program. He has never heard of the Lotikipi Basin Aquifer – the deep underground reserve that is estimated to store 207 billion cubic meters of water according to the assessment carried out by the exploration firm Radar Technologies International and sponsored by UNESCO and the government of Japan. It is estimated that the aquifer will boost Kenya’s water reserves by 900 percent.

The announcement of the aquifer assessment in the newspapers surprised the local water administration, too. Both water engineer William Kilimu and Chrispinus Wafula of the Water Resource Management Authority, who manage the water projects in Turkana County, said they read about the assessment in the newspapers. Wafula explained that while Radar Technologies International requested data for the assessment, nobody ever sent him the final report, which is currently available on the RTI website. It is not available on the websites of the national or local government, nor that of the Rift Valley Water Management Authority, the entity that is managing the discovery from hundreds of kilometers away. RTI declined to give this reporter the data used to develop the report, referring to UNESCO and the Ministry of Water, who did not respond.

Emirica’s main concern is centered on expanding the current size of the irrigation scheme. He explained that as word of a successful harvest spread, friends and families began to show up. Parcels of land were sub-divided to the point that they became unsustainable. Even one bad harvest can lead to rising malnutrition.

Managing water

Community-based water projects like the Kabulokor irrigation scheme in Turkana are most often managed by groups including Oxfam, World Vision and the Spanish Nariokotome Mission. They have long received European funding; projects that are just as much about preparing the community for a modern system of government as they are about watering goats. The European Commission currently funds over €7 million of active water and governance projects in Turkana according to data provided by the Commission for this investigation.

Representatives of NGOs and the Catholic Church working with water issues maintain that the aquifers are hardly newsworthy. “The Lotikipi aquifer is not a discovery as there have been papers written about it since 1969,” explained Ikal Ang’elei , Director of the environmental group Friends of Lake Turkana. “The concern is how much is rechargeable.” , According to regional water experts, it is only now that investors and the government are talking about making the huge investment needed for extracting the water. Oxfam, which received over €3 million from the European Commission to improve water access, also provided data for the assessment, and said that it would be years before the project could be realized.

Infrastructure seems to be the biggest barrier. Many of the 700,000 Turkana County residents covering 77,000km2 would have access to water if there were adequate international donor or national government funds and infrastructure to dig boreholes and wells to access groundwater just meters deep and provide solar-powered generators to pump out the water. But with high dependency of emergency food aid, water infrastructure takes a back seat.

In Kakuma, a Turkana border town that is home to 110,000 refuges, a water distribution point for one of the Oxfam boreholes serves 1,700 livestock and 4,570 people. Thomas Kavua, the Oxfam Turkana County Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program coordinator explained the cost and work that goes into governing even a small-scale water project like this one. The generator and solar panels for water extraction average 5.6 million Kenyan Shillings (€48,000), a water kiosk costs about sh200,00 (€1,700) while a water tower stand runs about sh510,000 (€4,300).

Beyond infrastructure, Oxfam helps set up water management committees and teaches the members how to develop a tariff structure to cover maintenance costs, and regulate distribution in the absence of any state presence. They cover topics such as governance, environmental impact, resilience, sanitation and agriculture with a focus on livelihoods.

At this facility, swarming with children, users are charged sh5 (€0.04) per 20 liters container. A man who only gave the name Josephat is the deputy secretary of the 12-member committee and said that often the revenue does not cover expenses and they provide children, the elderly and the disabled with free access. They have to appeal to the local government for funding when they can’t cover their own repairs.

At the Spanish Nariokotome Mission, near the discovery site of the most complete early human skeleton ever found, Father Antonio Aguirre explained that water access does not necessarily mean a shift towards agriculture for the pastoralist community. The Mission, equipped with heavy machinery, has built 186 dams, water catchments and other water collection structures around the county through funding from Spanish and other European donors. The network of Missions maintain thriving gardens with staples and more exotic items such as dates and papayas that feed 2,500 children daily through 28 infant feeding centers. Aguirre explained that few local communities have used the new sources of water for farming themselves and it is a mistake to assume that lifestyle shifts will come naturally.

A local elder watches as workers employed by the Spanish Nariokotome Mission in northern Turkana build a water catchment. The mission has constructed 186 water projects around Turkana through European and other funding.

A local elder watches as workers employed by the Spanish Nariokotome Mission in northern Turkana build a water catchment. The mission has constructed 186 water projects around Turkana through European and other funding.

Paul Ekutan, a water engineer for a local natural resource NGO Practical Action, said that exploiting the aquifers could herald the arrival of agro-industrialists that would endanger the pastoralist lifestyle. As with oil, foreign companies are leading exploration and much of the data and contracts are kept secret.

While the efforts of Practical Action to bridge the gap between local communities and local government in water management have met with some success so far, national government is another matter. Practical Action ensures that water supports food security not only by building facilities and local capacity, but also by holding forums with the local government. Each ward is given sh10 million (85,000 euros) from the county government for natural resource management. Practical Action works with 15-member water user associations to help them articulate their concerns as a unit and act as collective bargaining mechanism. These groups are recognized and licensed with the Ministry of Water.

The various groups and government actors involved in water management come together in the Water, Environmental, Sanitation Coordination Group to carry out participatory planning, needs assessments on the ground and communication to stakeholders. They also coordinate to avoid duplication and make best use of resources to ensure the most equitable access to water resources possible. This body reports to a District Steering Group which looks at education, water and other key services.

When water goes to oil

John Ebenyo Ewesit, the Oxfam human rights project manager witnessed the Tullow tents appear overnight. He said their local governance projects were of no use in mediating oil negotiations. The government called a placatory meeting to announce the arrival of Tullow after the fact, he explained. Now there are two parallel systems: national coordination with the county commissioners appointed by the national government, and county and ward level government who were all left out of the equation as the national ministries of energy and mining moved in. “It’s still total confusion from a governance perspective.”

Now, local government officials fly in and out of Turkana for free on Tullow-operated aircraft, while decisions are made in Nairobi. And all the while, the stakes have gotten higher.

Real concerns for the environment include the dumping of industrial and human waste that could poison grazing lands. Oil extraction requires large quantities of water,so new water discoveries could be diverted to either oil or agro-industry instead of the public. The oil drilling itself could contaminate water aquifers, which are found in the same geological structures but at different depths.Community advocacy could be silenced by the para-military protection pledged to Tullow by the Government of Kenya in a recent confidential Memorandum of Understanding to end recent protests that was leaked to the Land Quest team. Pastoralists displaced by fenced-off drilling sites have no where to go.

The Kenya Oil & Gas Working Group, a network of civil society organizations that form the Community Action for Nature Conservation seeks to level the playing field for community, government, private sector and CSOs, but they too, are stumped.Their grassroots approach of engaging local communities in the discussion does not work when all meetings and decisions are being help in Nairobi. Even the community forums convened in Turkana have little effect, as the county government is no longer calling the shots. As part of the Memorandum of Understanding, the Ministry of Energy has committed to stationing three officials in Turkana to directly address problems when they arise and referee conversations with the County government. The deadline of December 31, 2013 has passed and no officials have been publicly appointed.

Government donors have not yet responded to the new challenges that the water and oil discoveries have brought to Turkana. The World Bank is taking the lead in developing a $50 million credit for the government of Kenya that will finance the technical assistance program. However, as Lex Huurdeman, Senior Expert for Oil, Gas and Mining Policy at the World Bank pointed out, the World Bank can make recommendations, but cannot force the Government of Kenya to implement them.

Several NGOs have obtained private funds from the MacArthur Foundation for a Turkana County Natural Resource Governance Hub. It includes an advisory committee for oil that involves all sub-counties, although the committee is still in its launch phase.

“The donors are from the countries where the oil companies are from”, explained Director of the Oil and Gas Working Group Hadley Becha… there is something they can do because so much of the value is based on the stock exchange and we know they can influence the investors at the risk assessment stage to ensure that the companies are not using proxies and are on the ground to ensure that the risk assessment reflects reality.” explained Director of the Oil and Gas Working Group Hadley Becha.

Back in Kabulokor, the local residents have not heard of any oil or water discoveries. The biggest external threat to them is that camels or cows will break through the fence that protects their irrigation field and trample or eat the new crops.

But news of the oil discovery has reached the rest of the world. Already, the American oil exploratory companies Apache and ERHC Energy and the British Bowleven Oil & Gas have begun surveys in Turkana.

Major donor grants to prepare the Turkana for the next wave of oil investors have yet to be announced.

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