With an area of nearly 77,000 sq km, Turkana is the largest county in Kenya. It is within the boundaries of the former Rift Valley province. The Turkana are the second largest group of pastoralists in Kenya, 680,000 people, according to the 2009 census. 70% are nomads, with little social structure to tie them down, frequently on the move in search of water and pasture.
The climate is hot and dry for most of the year. Average rainfall is about 300-400 mm, falling to less than 150 in the arid central parts. Rainfall is erratic and unreliable and famine is a constant threat.
Last September, UNESCO announced that large reserves of groundwater had been discovered in Turkana County. The water was discovered using satellite exploration technology and confirmed by drilling.
“Water is precious and needs to be used properly,” said Monsignor Dominic Kimengich, Bishop of Lodwar, the diocese of Lake Turkana, the world’s largest alkaline basin, a light blue eye surrounded by dark sand and nomad communities who are cyclically hit by drought and famine. Southworld Magazine talked with the bishop, beginning the conversation with the discovery of the immense water aquifer in the region of Lake Turkana. According to scientists of Radar Technologies International, who conducted tests with satellite equipment and radars, the aquifer can meet the water demands of Kenya for the next 70 years.
Monsignor, it appears that under the territory of your diocese there are 250 billion cubic meters of groundwater…
“It is good water, which could be used to irrigate the fields. Our land is arid, but also flat and therefore adapt for crops. If the water is really there, the desert could become fertile and produce a lot. There is a problem however…”
“Water must be used properly. Efficient irrigation systems must be created and we must prepare for inevitable changes. Around 70% of the inhabitants of my diocese are nomad herders, who move around in search of grazing land and water. If the aquifer can be used, they could stop and begin farming and sending their children to school. The women wouldn’t have to walk long distances to fill their water buckets and would have more time for their families and work. Another important and positive change regards health. The absence of water is the root cause of various diseases. These include trachoma, a bacterial infection of the cornea, which affects those who are unable to wash themselves frequently, often resulting in blindness.”
Oil deposits were also discovered in the Lake Turkana region. Is this good news, too?
“Oil can be a blessing, but also – as Africa has shown – a curse. Let’s hope that the wells don’t exacerbate conflicts among the communities and instead attract investment, to build more infrastructure and guarantee jobs. So far the Turkana and other populations of the region have been ignored by the political scene.”
Are you positive about the changes?
“There have already been some small novelties. Tullow Oil, a small British-Irish company that has already obtained some concessions, offered scholarships and hired youths as guards at the oil plants. On water supplies and schools, services that are part of the so-called ‘social responsibility of the firms’, negotiations are underway with tribal leaders. It is however fundamental that the oil proceeds are invested in economic and social development. As also that oil exploration is carried out in respect of the environment, with the necessary precautions to avoid pollution and ecological disasters often linked to extraction activities.”
What are the Church’s priorities on a pastoral level?
“The main priority is fighting poverty, because the people simply have nothing. We have launched programs for food security, which also foresee the distribution of basic necessities. Another crucial aspect is education. Herders’ children don’t go to school and this is a challenge. We recently opened two schools, for them and for all vulnerable children. The third aim of our pastoral work regards health. Many people die from treatable diseases, because there are no clinics or medical centres. One of our commitments that is having success is that of mobile hospitals, which are the only ones that can reach the more remote areas.”
Do the shortage of water and extreme dependence on herding remain a root cause of conflict among the communities?
“The situation is difficult because there are weapons everywhere. Along the borders with Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia, cattle raids and consequential violence are frequent. The Church, in collaboration with the nearby dioceses and vicariates of Torit, Sodo, Gimma Bonga, and Moroto, has launched an awareness campaign, called Peace and Cross-border Evangelization that foresees a joint effort in the demarcation of the disputed border areas. Among the priorities is the so-called Ilemi Triangle, an area of 14,000 sq km disputed by South Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia. I have come to Rome to ask for support also in this regard.” (V.G.)