The Limited Promise of Kenya’s Aquifer Discoveries

Courtesy of STRATFOR (subscription required), analysis of  Kenya’s recent discovery of several new aquifers:

The recent discovery of several new aquifers in northern Kenya is welcome news for a region where much of the population does not have reliable access to drinking water and where resource scarcity has hampered economic growth. However, initial claims that the aquifers could supply Kenya with water for the next 70 years do not take into account the constraints Nairobi will face in developing the resource. While the increased availability of groundwater could support local growth, Nairobi must use the resource in a controlled manner for it to be sustainable. Kenya will likely struggle to develop the physical infrastructure needed to efficiently utilize the aquifers, and effective resource management will prove difficult as multiple sectors compete for the new, but still limited, groundwater reserves.


In September, France-based Radar Technologies International, in collaboration with the Kenyan government and the United Nations and with funding from Japan, used satellite technology to pinpoint several aquifers. The most notable discovery during this survey was the Lotikipi aquifer in the northwestern part of the Rift Valley. The aquifer holds an estimated 207 billion cubic meters of water and an annual recharge rate estimated at 1.2 bcm. In total, some 250 bcm were discovered, with an expected annual recharge rate of 3.4 bcm — an amount roughly equal to 15 percent of the 21 bcm of water currently available to Kenya each year.

New Aquifer Discoveries in Kenya
 The Lotikipi aquifer is located beneath the Turkana desert, near the borders with Uganda and South Sudan. Among the poorest areas in Kenya and often plagued by drought, the region supports a primarily nomadic population. Many inhabitants lack regular access to drinking water and rely heavily on food aid. By comparison, the economic core of the country is located near the Lake Victoria and Athi basins, where roughly 60 percent of Kenya’s previously known water resources sit. The sparse populations along the coast and in the north have historically been less important to the government. However, oil discoveries in Turkana in 2012 raise the prospect of some level of possible resource-based economic growth. The ready availability of significant water resources may now entice Nairobi to focus more on protecting and developing the region.

Possibilities for Regional Growth

Kenya is a water-scarce nation, with only 738 cubic meters of water per person available each year before the recent discoveries — a level below the “water poverty line” of 1,000 cubic meters per person that is believed to constrain economic growth. Meanwhile, the country’s growing population has already surpassed 41 million people, making it likely that still more water will be needed to support continued population and economic growth.

Competition for the new reserves can be expected. Currently, agriculture dominates water usage, accounting for roughly 80 percent of Kenya’s water consumption, but oil and manufacturing will likely vie for the resource. Kenya, like some of its East African neighbors, is poised for economic growth in low-end manufacturing — particularly in textiles, where investment has increased in recent years. The textile industry is somewhat water-intensive, with up to 200 cubic meters needed to produce a ton of goods. Overall, the scale of low-end manufacturing growth will likely be small compared to other activities in the region. Given the current lack of adequate infrastructure, the new aquifers will probably not contribute significantly to Kenyan manufacturing growth in the near future — especially since they are located far from the economic hubs of Nairobi and Mombasa.

Infrastructure and Management Challenges

Effective and sustainable utilization of the water — defined as using less water per year than the recharge rate — will be essential if the newly found reserves are to aid regional growth. Sustainability will require improvements in both infrastructure and resource management, neither of which will come easy. Kenya recently received $155 million in aid from the World Bank to improve its water-related infrastructure, including irrigation systems, and the government has relied heavily on outside investment to push projects forward. However, still more outside help, both fiscal and technical, will be needed to fully utilize the new aquifers, since existing infrastructure is minimal. Even if use of the new aquifer is limited to the immediate region, tens of millions of dollars or more in capital investments could be needed.

Overuse of water resources by agricultural, municipal or oil sectors would further limit the region’s potential for long-term growth. The Kenyan government only recently established its Water Resources Management Authority, the body responsible for issuing usage permits and allocating water resources, and regulations and procedures have not been rigorously enforced in the past.

This problem is not unique to Kenya. Many countries, including developed ones such as the United States, have been beset with conflicts over the proper management and allocation of water resources — particularly groundwater resources, which are especially difficult to gauge and monitor. Further complicating the issue of allocation, part of the Lotikipi aquifer lies close to international borders, raising the possibility of cross-border conflicts over water rights in the future.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 17th, 2013 at 4:39 am and is filed under Kenya.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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