Water, water, underground, but not a drop to drink

March 19th, 2014

You may not have heard yet, but our field staff in the remote Turkana region of Northern Kenya are reporting a growing humanitarian crisis.

Normally, the long rainy season would have been in full swing by now. But so far, not a drop of rain has fallen. Should the rains fail over the next three weeks, many thousands of people could face a slow and lingering death, unless there is action now.

A pastoralist girl holds on to one of their family's weak animals

A pastoralist girl holds on to one of their family’s weak animals

For almost 12 months now, the region has had no rain. Rivers are dry, water tables have fallen so dramatically that some boreholes can no longer reach it. Pastureland has dried up and the grass has disappeared. Pastoralists have been forced to migrate with their livestock into neighbouring Uganda.

The Turkana region is home to about a million people, many of whom are nomadic pastoralists, raising cattle and goats. Of these over 300,000 are in dire need of food and water and the number keep swelling by the day.

The great irony is that there are huge water supplies deep beneath the surface in Turkana. If this wasn’t enough last year oil was also discovered.

But the situation is expected to worsen and terrifyingly, there is a forecast of poor long rains. Malnutrition levels are high among women and children and many people will die unless action is taken. Goats are already dying and livestock is growing ever weaker.

Already, the situation in some parts of Turkana has now become so severe that I have heard reports that out of desperation people are eating tree roots and dogs.

Practical Action has installed solar-powered water pumps to access the huge underground reservoirs in Turkana, and where we have been working the situation is not so desperate, but we cannot reach everywhere.  In addition, we have been working with the Ugandan Government since 2009 to negotiate safe passage for pastoralists desperate to access good pasture land in times of crisis and I am pleased to say our efforts are now proving vital. Already, 30,000 pastoralists have migrated with their herds over the border, saving lives and livestock worth millions of pounds in the process. Practical Action staff are continuing to work in Uganda to facilitate this process.

This, of course, means that men of working age have been forced to leave their families and smaller livestock such as goats. In many communities in which we work only women and children remain, using the solar-powered water pumps we have installed as they battle desperately to survive as their goats die from starvation.

The Kenyan Government is providing affected populations with some food relief and humanitarian organisations are starting to mobilise, but aside from one short online report, there has been no international reporting of the situation outside the Kenyan media.

There shouldn’t be another famine in Turkana. The fact that one is looming should shame us all. We all need to take practical action there now.

8 responses to “Water, water, underground, but not a drop to drink”

  1. Dr Richard Blanchard Says:

    I was recently in Kenya, Nairobi area, as part of an ongoing DfID micro-grid project. We visited 2 existing photovoltaic installations. In both cases the systems were providing electricity for lighting, refrigeration for medicines at a clinic, entertainment and some small business activity. Speaking to the community leaders what they wanted was water pumping. There has been less rain than expected in this region in recent years. It is great to hear you have been able to install solar powered water pumps in the Turkana region.

  2. Robert Tucker Says:

    The solution to this crisis is World Wide condemnation on the Budgets of Space activities .Half of what is spent here could resolve the water shortage for these people instead of inflating the pockets of the USA’s already rich, We have our priorities all wrong.

  3. Albert Hall Says:

    Just look at the photos. The real; problem is not the people it is the regiona tribal custom of keeping far too many poor quality goats and cattles instead many fewr of good quality. Those poor quality animals end up eating the landscape and the community will rather let them starve to death than eat them. It is no secret that heree the menfolk put the lives of cattle and goats abovre those of their own families. Much as the Muslims in Sub Saharan S Africa and elsewhere put the posession of heavy weapons before food for their faimies, After all they do not seem short of RPG’s and ammunition for heavy machine guns, mortars and pistols do they?? The cost of an RPG would feed a family for a month and the cost of a single round of 12.7 mm would feed one for more a day and that bis not even considering the presence of every man and his mothers son haveing a handy AK47 at at least $100 a time or more. Why then should I be asked to contribute to all kinds of relief with images of starving children when the solution is in their own hands??

  4. Rob Says:

    Cant see what the problem is.
    They have just found oil in the region. Drilling for oil is not that far a process from drilling for water.

    Maybe the problem is that the oil is money is going to central government, never to be seen again

  5. Carlos Nunes Says:

    Having lived in Nairobi in my youth, I must say that most ethnic Kenyans have been peaceful and fun loving unlike their counterparts from the Northern neighbouring countries. Yes they did seek independence which every nation in the world would. Unfortunately it is we who have taught them corruption, and what they are now doing is mimicking us on how we then lived.
    But to do this, they have had to resort to violence, intimidation and unlawful activities. The same happens in every part of the world.
    What these people need besides the basics to go through the trials of the times is good education and leadership. Kenya by itself is a rich tourist country. We enjoy the country and it’s wealth of nature. Can we not give something back for that?
    Again it is not the Kenyans who are violent. It is their neighbours who influx into Kenya that are the roots of the violence. They claim to be Kenyans but are not.

  6. Chris Mesiku Says:

    I am a big fan of what practical action are doing and would not hesitate to work for and to support their effort in East Africa. However it seems to me there is something not right about the general communication style in most of the blogs on the Practical Action website. For example in this blog, the tone seems to be one of someone on a moral high ground telling the rest of the “consumerist west” how much shame they should feel. I might be misguided but I would think E.F. Schumacher was not advocating for that sort of communication. Rather if he was writing this blog, he would say something like: In response to a looming humanitarian crisis facing Turkana herdsmen, some of those men have devised a number of equipment for pumping water but the cost of operating those technologies have proved too high for them. Practical Action supported this locally produced solution by helping them install solar powered water pumps. Sadly for now, Practical Action can provide only few of these water pumps. Extra donations will help Practical Action continue to support this practical and local solution to a localised issue. The more solar powered water pumps the Turkana people can install, the less their cattle and families will die.

  7. Amanda Ross Says:

    Hi Chris,

    I do understand what you’re saying and agree that Schumacher would have been a lot more rigorous in his language than some of our bloggers. Would you like to submit a guest blog for us on this theme? It is a topic that needs more discussion internally and externally.


  8. Chris Mesiku Says:

    Hello Amanda,
    Thank you for your understanding. Regarding a guest blog, would a critique of your bloggers’ honesty to Schumacher’s aspirations be in line with Practical Action’s blog policy? Perhaps this theme could best be discussed via publications/online article?

    I would be happy to discuss further on email.

Leave a reply