February 27, 2015 / 3:45 PM / 5 years ago

First test shows Kenya's huge water find too salty to drink

NAIROBI/ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tests on a vast aquifer found in Kenya’s drought-wracked Turkana region show the water is too salty to drink, a government official said on Friday.

The 2013 discovery of underground lakes the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, according to satellite imagery, was hailed as a chance for the arid northern region to finally feed its people.

At the time of the discovery, Kenya’s water minister said the “newly found wealth of water opens the door to a more prosperous future for the people of Turkana and the nation as a whole”.

But the first test results from Lotikipi, the largest aquifer which is close to Kenya’s border with South Sudan, have been disappointing.

“The water is not fit for human consumption,” said Japheth Mutai, chief executive officer of the government-owned Rift Valley Water Services Board, which is responsible for providing water in the region.

The underground water would have to be desalinated — an expensive and energy intensive process — before it could be used for human consumption, livestock or irrigation, Mutai said.

The test well, drilled 350 meters underground, showed salt levels seven times higher than the safe limit allowed by the World Health Organization (WHO), he said.

“The numbers don’t look good,” Mutai told Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday. “It is causing a lot of anxiety.”

More than a third of Kenya’s 41 million people have no access to clean water.

The country’s north is particularly poor as droughts regularly decimate livestock which traditional nomadic herders depend on for survival.

Currently one in four people in Turkana — 135,500 people —require food assistance due to repeated poor rains and conflict, the World Food Programme’s spokeswoman Challiss McDonough said. Malnutrition rates are above the emergency level of 15 percent.

A stable water supply from the 250 billion cubic meters of water thought to be in Turkana’s underground lakes could help mitigate these recurring hunger crises.

The government is “still holding out hope” that other wells in Lotikipi will find cleaner water, Mutai said, and more drilling is underway.

The U.N.’s scientific and cultural agency, UNESCO, which backed the initial satellite imaging that led to the discovery of the water, is seeking funds for a national groundwater mapping program.

“What we did is only a small part in Turkana and the government would like to expand the mapping for the whole country,” said Abou Amani UNESCO’s regional hydrologist.

Reporting by Katy Migiro, Editing by Emma Batha

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