Indigenous Turkana in Kenya excluded from oil benefits, other resources

Nearly 10 years after discovery of oil reserves, water in Turkana County, life remains arduous for deprived residents.

Indigenous Turkana in Kenya excluded from oil benefits, other resources

The Turkana Indigenous people in northwest Kenya are nomadic pastoralists whose main socioeconomic activity is herding livestock and moving in search of water and grazing lands for their animals.

The Turkana are among the most economically marginalized communities in Kenya. A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) report in 2020 noted that Turkana County is the poorest and most unequally devolved unit in Kenya.

“But we are rich, we have oil under our feet. Oil is one of the most precious commodities in this world. This we know. We are rich but I am in tattered clothes, my children are hungry, and we barely have water for drinking, let alone for our animals,” said 44-year-old Anguti Ekuwam.

Kenya discovered oil in 2012. It was found in Turkana’s ancestral lands by British oil prospecting company Tullow Oil that estimates there are around 600 million barrels of oil in wells that have been discovered.

As if the oil blessing was not enough, in 2013, Kenya discovered a large water aquifer in Turkana County, which remains one of Africa's driest, hottest, and poorest regions.

According to experts, the reserves could reportedly provide the country with water for 70 years and it is self-replenishing. Eight years down the line, though, the local community remains thirsty.

“We have all these resources but we are still suffering and poor. They came and they built roads that we have never seen. They are very good roads for them but not for us who sometimes walk barefoot. The boreholes that were opened after the discovery of the aquifers are still welded shut. We still have water problems,” said Ekuwam.

Asmi Kenyangole Lokaale is 47 and from the resource-rich region.

“There are some programs that the stakeholders have come up with to help us. Our children are in school, there is the provision for electricity, village water points, a hospital and good roads, but we still need more assistance. We expected the benefits to be more than we are seeing,” she said.

“These are projects we expected our government, both local and national, to do, not the oil companies. We expected to benefit as individuals from these villages. Most of us are not educated, so if we were helped in doing business we could sustain our lives and that of our children,” Kenyangole added.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta signed a petroleum law in 2019, under which only 5% of revenue from oil discovered in Turkana County will go to local communities, 75% to the central government, and 20% to the central government.

In June, the National Drought Management Authority issued an early warning for a severe drought, and since then, the counties of Turkana, Isiolo, Samburu, Marsabit, and Baringo have been hit by a drought that is worsening daily.

Echwa Jonah Acheni, a herder, told Anadolu Agency: “There has been very little rain. In most areas, the animals are dying. We need a permanent water solution. We trek for so long in search of water and pasture.”

The need for more access points was something that Achim Steiner, former executive director of the UN Environment Program, also stressed in a conversation with Anadolu Agency when the water aquifer was discovered.

“There are people who have lived there for hundreds of years. They are mostly pastoralists who have learned to manage water scarcity as part of their tradition,” he said in an interview in 2015.

“The government should not only put boreholes in the area and make them sedentary, but also enhance water points, both for animals and people, that will benefit the local communities.”

Many indigenous communities, such as the Turkana and their neighbors from Samburu County, are still waiting for better days and remain dependent on food aid from the government and other well-wishers.

​​​​​​​In Samburu, more than 100,000 people are in dire need of food and water, according to Daniel Lesaigor, chief officer for special programs in the county.​​​​​​​

Hüseyin Demir