Kenya’s Oil and the Turkana People

Tullow Oil discovered oil in Turkana county in Kenya this March. In early May, Tullow announced that its Kenyan project had so far contained “more than double [the oil] encountered in any of our East African exploration wells to date.” The Kenyan government has greeted the discovery enthusiastically, but a new report from IRIN highlights the complex ramifications of the project for people in Turkana. According to IRIN, many residents barely consider themselves Kenyan. Most are desperately poor, and cycles of drought and conflict have damaged the livelihoods of pastoralists. Reactions to the prospect of an oil boom are mixed:

“We are happy with the oil find,” Lokichar resident Lokapel Katilu told IRIN. “We pray that the find is real. We are just idle, there is no work. We just walk around. Before, we would rely on grazing, but the herds have been stolen.”
[...]
But according to oil industry analyst Antony Goldman, no major jobs bonanza is on the horizon.
“Typically oil is capital- rather than labour-intensive: unlike mining, it does not yield many unskilled or semi-skilled jobs,” he told IRIN.
[...]
Katilu said that to date he knew of only a few people who had found oil-related work, “to control traffic and to prevent people from accessing the rig site”.
Lokichar resident Kamaro said there was a widespread fear that lack of local skills would “lead to people from Kenya coming in” to the area.
People here “are afraid of an influx of foreigners, that there will be congestion, that the foreigners will bring diseases, that their culture will be polluted,” said Kamaro.

If an oil boom comes but does not employ many local people, there could be a political backlash that would create problems for Tullow and the Kenyan government.

More hopeful for the Turkana people could be a recent discovery of water:

Turkana county in which oil deposits were recently discovered, has huge amounts of underground water. To tap the resource, the government has launched a Sh131 million water survey in the area. “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,” said director of waters resources in Kenya John Rao Nyaoro.

The project, launched in Nairobi yesterday, is supported by Unesco and financed by the Japanese government. Nyaoro said past satellite surveys have shown that Kenya has 60 billion cubic metres of renewable underground water compared to 20 billion cubic metres of surface water. This is the first time the government has embarked on large-scale mining of ground water. Nyaoro said a satellite technology called Watex System will map water wells in Turkana to help drillers reduce cost.

The project will benefit thousands of drought-hit pastoralists, who currently walk for many kilometres looking for water. Somalia and Ethiopia are also involved in the project because most ground water straddles between different countries. Director of Unesco in Nairobi Joseph Massaquoi said the water will be exploited in a sustainable way. “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.

For more on the Turkana people and the problems pastoralists face, see here.