Maximizing Benefits Of Oil And Water Discoveries In Turkana, Kenya – OpEd


By John O. Kakonge*

Turkana County, in the extreme north-west of Kenya, is a semi-arid area that suffers from low rainfall, high temperatures and frequent droughts. The Turkana people, who are traditionally pastoralists, face constant problems in finding sufficient water and grass for their cattle, especially during the dry season. To complicate their lives still further, they are locked in an interminable and longstanding conflict with their neighbours, the Pokot, for water and grass.

With the discovery of huge deposits of oil and a large aquifer of water within their land the Turkana’s fortunes should change for the better: the finds could transform the county economically, socially and politically. This brief paper will examine some of the challenges that the Turkana will have to address if they are to maximize the positive returns of their oil and water


Given that the county is semi-arid, climate change is one of its biggest challenges. The increase in temperatures since the 1960s has resulted in a decline in the amount of water in the Omo River and Lake Turkana, which has added fuel to the conflict between the Turkana and their neighbours (Powers, 2011). Fortunately, the discovery of a major aquifer means that there are good prospects for the removal of one source of this violent competition between neighbouring peoples, once the county and the national governments are able to provide and share sufficient water not only for livestock but also for irrigated agriculture and other uses. The availability of water should also encourage more of the Turkana people to take up mixed economy farming and, possibly, irrigated farming: the introduction of a modern livestock industry would build on the skills that most Turkana already have as pastoralists.

There is no doubt that Turkana will not benefit properly from either oil or water if the problem of guns is not solved. Currently, according to Powers (2011), every Turkana male over 17 years has an AK47 automatic rifle. The men claim that guns are essential for the protection of their livestock and their families against raids by the Pokot from the south, Ugandans from the west and Sudanese and Ethiopians from the north and east. Until these threats are countered disarmament will be strongly resisted. Turkana is the largest county in Kenya, has a low density of population, possesses few roads and, having been sidelined since colonial days, very little infrastructure. To establish effective government control over the area is a huge and expensive project with the problems compounded by the discovery of oil, uncertain borders and Islamic fundamentalists. The county government should work with the national government to disarm the Turkana and their neighbours but the county needs a military presence and a rapid-response police force to protect its borders.

Turkana has the lowest literacy rate of any county in Kenya: to build a competent labour force will take the county more than a little time. In this connection, the funds coming from oil and gas should enable the county to establish both vocational and technical colleges to serve students from Turkana and neighbouring counties. In addition, as in other countries, some students can be sent to other countries to train foinr specialized courses, especially for the upstream oil and gas industry. The planned training opportunities should include areas such as small and medium businesses with an emphasis on hospitality, logistics, distribution and marketing and the needs of the petro-chemical industry.

Another of the county’s priorities should be to make it more accessible and to link it to all the parts of the county by constructing modern roads and highways. Without proper infrastructure, the cost of exploiting the oil and water will be very expensive. Moreover, since the discovery of oil and water a number of meetings, workshops, seminars and research initiatives have been carried out and they all appear to agree on these key needs: good infrastructure to link Turkana to the rest of the country and good roads to link the villages which are scattered far apart. Fortunately, the local newspaper The Star reported on 11 September 2015 that the 960 kilometer Eldoret-Turkana-Juba road has now been launched and that major road link will promote the economies of West Pokot and Turkana and South Sudan.


The challenges of building the capacity required to implement government service delivery to all citizens are not limited to Turkana. Many other African countries have deprived regions with very low human development indicators and limited capacity. In Namibia, for example, with the support of UNDP, UNV, donors and the private sector, in 2002 the government developed a programme known as “UN Volunteers to Build Capacity in Namibia”. This programme aimed to recruit more than 1,000 UN Volunteers (national and international) for five years. The national volunteers were recruited from the local university and advanced colleges of education. The government itself invested extensively in the programme and also identified students for training from the deprived regions. Given that Turkana is one of the most deprived counties of Kenya and the comparable conditions, with a desert environment, sparse population and lack of roads, perhaps the Namibian experience can be instructive.

One expectation nursed by Turkana residents is an increase in the number of jobs for local people. Constrantas (2014) points out that, of the 1,772 employees employed by the Tullow Oil Company’s sub-contractor drilling in Turkana, half were locals and half came from outside the county. This percentage looks impressive until one is told most of the local recruits occupied unskilled or semi-skilled jobs: Kenyans from other regions occupied the skilled and managerial jobs while expatriates filled the specialized oil-industry jobs.

The Turkana County leaders must take a pragmatic approach to raising awareness among parents of the need to send their children to school irrespective of their gender. Currently the entire northern part of Kenya has a shortage of teachers, with those coming from elsewhere returning to their home areas after the Garissa University College terrorist massacre in April 2015. Turkana County will have somehow to attract professionals from other counties to not only come and teach in their schools and colleges but also work in other sectors including water.


Another expectation of the Turkana people is that the government will eliminate insecurity in the area. According to Weru (2012), the people in Turkana are praying that an oil fund becomes real and provides the funds needed for this action. They fear that otherwise Pokot cattle rustlers will become a continuing source of instability and they fear that their enemies may try to claim ownership of the land near oil installations. Lastly, they fear that the explosion in the supply of small arms will turn their age-old conflicts over water and pasture into an existentialist crisis. They feel that the discovery of oil will bring different and complex problems.

As Twayigize (2013) reports, the nation was caught by surprise when Turkana residents took to the streets and stormed a UK oil exploration firm’s office demanding jobs: the company was forced to halt operations for a while. This reflects another form of insecurity in the county, namely its high poverty index. At 98 per cent it means that the county is the most marginalized and least developed of all. Unless the Turkana are made fully aware of the benefits that they will get from oil exploration, in particular employment opportunities, as Weru (2012) argues, conflict is likely to continue.

Another issue which can cause insecurity relates to what Greenspan (2014), quoting, I. Angelei of Friends of Lake Turkana, describes as “information trickling down very slowly and sometimes does not get to local communities, which creates an environment for conflict”. This is very important, particularly in a place where the communities have access to arms easily. In view of the above, Greenspan (2014) suggests the urgent need to create a space for the local engagement of county leaders, local leaders, women, youth and others on how to deal with te past marginalization and underdevelopment of the county. More important, it is vital to continue consolidating the existing conflict resolutions ( i.e. Lokiriama Peace Accord of 1973) among the leaders and elders of Turkana, West Pokot and Baringo to protect the borders and prevent any invasion, especially of Turkana. This is of critical importance, given the disclosures of government authorities that over 200,000 guns are in illegal hands in the region. Besides, Cordaid (2015) acknowledges that ‘this cannot be achieved overnight or through heavy-handed and costly security operations, but instead requires a more serious commitment to meaningful consultation and negotiation with affected communities’.


It is to be hoped that the discovery of oil deposits and a water aquifer will be a blessing for the Turkana, and that both national and county governments should address environmental issues forthwith to ensure that no pollution from oil spills affects the water aquifer. The ISS and HansSiedel Foundation 2012 seminar warned that soil and water pollution from oil spills can result in long-term degradation of the environment: the Niger Delta region of Nigeria is sadly instructive in this regard. Unfortunately, the environmental impact assessments (EIAs) carried out for blocks 13T and 10BB were not shared with the community (Constantaras, 2014). This was confirmed at the meeting held by the Chief of Lokichar location, community elders and the Tullow Kenya EIA Team. The community also raised concerns that Tullow had erected fences without the consent of the pastoralists who grazed their animals in the area and they queried possible contamination of water sources.

Several studies ( Weru 2012, Constantaras 2014 and others) confirm that the oil industry will create few jobs for the Turkana people but will disrupt their natural way of life and destroy their livelihoods, grazing lands and ancestral shrines, all in return for meagre compensation. In addition, the EIA prepared by the Earthview Geoconsultants Ltd. and commissioned in 2012 by Tullow Oil acknowledged that since 1970, 30 exploratory wells have been drilled and there have been no adverse impacts reported. Moreover, the measures proposed in the EIA report to mitigate the environmental and social impact indicated in the environmental management plan (EMP) are considered more than adequate and effective to safeguard any negative consequences. On the contrary, according to Mutch (2012), the challenge has been a clear lack of will to implement the EIAs and EMPs of major environmental oriented projects in East Africa and they sit on shelves, unread.

Critics argue that the Water Act of 2002 and EMCA of 1999 provide no significant policy framework for the management of underground water resources. Obiero (2013) points out that Kenya has no clear guidelines when it comes to the safety and contamination of water resources from oil drilling or even separations in the case of oil spills. In a report of 8 August 2014, however, the Daily Nation newspaper maintained that oil recovery can be safely achieved by ensuring that counter-measures are in place to prevent, detect and arrest any oil related disasters.


For Turkana to address its development challenges such as famine, poverty, poor infrastructure, impassable roads, high illiteracy among women, lack of schools and shortage of hospitals, its leaders need to exhibit a degree of political unity. For example, in an article carried by The Star dated 10 September 2015, Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga during his visit to Lodwar (the county headquarters of Turkana) praised the Governor for the work that he is doing to ensure the provision of basic services such as water, health care, and education. He urged the Turkana MPs to work together, to be objective and to avoid the cheap politics of dividing the people. But on 8 September 2015, the Turkana MPs criticized the Governor and his government for wasting resources on organizing a Turkana County Tourism and Cultural Festival on 27–30 August 2015.

The MPs felt that the Turkana county government did not have its priorities right (Wamalwa, 8 September 2015). Because the standard of living in Turkana is regrettably low with extremely difficult conditions, the unity of Turkana politicians and local leaders, irrespective of their political affiliation, is critical in addressing these challenges. Thus, taking into account the limited local capacity of the county, politicians and the local leaders should ensure that county priority programmes and the externally funded ones are well coordinated and implemented. Besides, the continuing conversation on oil and water should involve women and young people, to break out from the society’s patriarchal mindset.

For example, a study carried out by AfDB (2009), it was observed that societies in Turkana are so male-dominated that, among the Gabbro for instance, the opinion of a four-year-old boy has the same weight as that of a 25-year-old woman. This should change. Moreover, strong political partnership by Turkana leadership will place pressure on the central government to ensure that an appropriate level of resources is invested in the county to avoid any perception of marginalization.


Another significant challenge that the county of Turkana will face is the need for revenue-sharing and the application of an allocation formula once oil and gas production goes commercial. There are good and bad examples of revenue allocation and distribution from which the Turkana government could draw lessons. Among bad examples are Nigeria, Venezuela and Angola; good examples include Malaysia, Qatar and Indonesia. Having oil or gas can reduce the incentive to develop other sectors –resulting in what is sometimes termed the “Dutch Disease”. Successful oil-producing countries ensure diversification of their economies. The good news is that with the discovery of water Turkana County can diversify into irrigated agriculture that will increase food production and create employment opportunities.

Strong institutions have helped some countries make steady progress in the oil and gas sector (Paltseva and Roine, 2011). In this case, it will be a national oil company that will be in charge of oil and that will work closely with the county government to ensure transparency and accountability and thereby avoid the dreaded “resource curse”. A good example in this respect is Petronas in Malaysia, which is a parastatal but which the government has left to operate as a private company. The profits from Petronas operations are put into the development of various regions of the country. Generally speaking, the more successful countries are those that have been transparent with the revenue that they earn and have made this information easily available to citizens: the population can thus hold their government accountable for effective use of the money. According to Transparency ONE (2011) only 11 countries worldwide have satisfactory transparency standards in oil, gas and mining, and none of those are in Africa. Those countries include the United States, some countries of the European Union and Canada.

An open and fair sharing mechanism between Turkana county and the rest of the country is possible even though there is no perfect mechanism for sharing oil and gas revenues in developing countries. Perhaps, as Fengler and Schulze (2012) suggest, the example of Indonesia where oil is extracted from the remote province of Papua, which has a large land mass but few people, is relevant to Turkana. Papua province has been receiving more revenue than other areas of Indonesia, proportionally speaking.

Again, whatever works in one country or place may not necessarily work in another. It is up to the national government and Turkana county government to arrive at a practical, equitable and transparent mechanism to share the anticipated oil and gas revenues.


Turkana is fortunate in that it can learn from the experiences of other countries that have performed well in comparable situations. Examples that come to mind include Israel (for water), Namibia (as outlined above), and Botswana (for diamonds). Insecurity is a complex issue because it touches on many elements, but the most important means of tackling the problem is to improve the human development indicators (which are directly or indirectly sources of insecurity) namely, education, health, environmental, employment, and poverty. There must, however, be a general awareness that the issue of security is the responsibility of every individual citizen both of Turkana and of its neighbouring counties.

The government must devise an inclusive mechanism that will disarm the whole of North Kenya. In addition, as in the case of Liberia, Diaz (2003) acknowledges that– properly empowered women can play an important role directly or indirectly in establishing and maintaining sustainable peace in the area.

Turkana has a very high illiteracy rate that will take years to address but implementing projects to benefit the Turkana will first and foremost depend on the availability of qualified local people. The suggestion by Ng’asike (2015), that perhaps both the national and county governments should consider introducing so-called “barefoot colleges”, is interesting and recognizes the lack of infrastructure and other related problems.

What is most needed here is a high level of transparency in sharing oil revenue resources, data on oil and water discoveries and the recruitment procedures for both local and national personnel, and awards of oil and water procurement contracts. The Turkana people have suffered for years in their arid and semi-arid environment and it is their right in the near future not only to maximize the revenues coming from oil but also from water. That said, however, as an industry oil – unlike water – has a reputation that is far from salubrious. If it is not handled with the utmost care, it can have disastrous consequences for an economy and inflict irreparable damage on the environment.

* Dr. John O Kakoge is Kenya’s former ambassador to UN Office in Geneva and other International Organizations.

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