The ride was bumpy to say the least.
I had spent the whole night anxious about the journey to Kenya’s north east.
Wajir town is where I had been posted by my employer.
It was going to be my home for the next one and a half years…at least.
The journey towards Garissa was all smooth and had nothing out of the ordinary…
About 10 kms after Garissa, the tarmac seemed to end without a warning.
Right next was a police roadblock with a huge sign towering over our heads reading:
The good thing was these were the safer days…
Years before Kenya made that interesting incursion into Somalia that precipitated all kinds of security scares everywhere.
These were the days, we could walk into a shopping mall or a church without being frisked.
However, still in many ways, the former North Eastern province was a tough place to live especially for a non local.
A foreigner would be mistaken to think of this region as being autonomous from the rest of the country…
Covering over 20% of Kenya’s land mass, the former North Eastern province is a rugged land associated with all sorts of hazards if you ask the average Nairobian…
A place devoid of meaningful development save for the few urban roads tarmacked using devolution funds after the advent of the new constitution.
So as our bus neared Wajir town, my exhausted eyes could see some sign of activity…
One that defined the presence of a sizeable urban centre fairly larger than the stopovers we had made along the way.
So as the bus vroomed along the main street, I could see the offices of the organization that had sent me there for work.
I knew the place I would be the next day and was ready for it.
I alighted the bus exhausted but relieved that we had come to the end of our journey.
But as my feet hit the ground, nothing prepared me for the cushion like reception they received from the warm sand as it radiated the heat it had accomodated the whole day.
Definitely the temperatures were above the ‘normal’ range I was used to.
But being a ghetto guy from Mombasa, I could handle it.
As I bade farewell to my seat neighbour, he directed me to a nearby hotel for the night before waking up to face another day.
I was fortunate to have travelled to a place not appreciated by many Kenyans.
Perhaps, I now had a chance to find something good to talk about the rugged north east…
And I had nearly two years to do that.
Indeed, a lot would work to my favor:
A cheaper house…
Good working colleagues…
Good meat…especially goat meat…
Friendly and opinionated people…
But nothing prepared me for the water problem.
THE WATER PROBLEM
One of my friends who was familiar with the place whispered a ‘secret’ to me before I departed.
‘There are no toilets there…’ he said.
This was all because of the high water table in the area.
Of course that’s a problem being tackled by the County government as we speak.
But that wasn’t the only issue.
The borehiole water also was very salty.
My first sip of this drink made me appreciate the free bottled water our organization provided for it’s staff…
A five litre bottle of mineral water every week (if memory serves me right)…
But these benefits we enjoyed of course didn’t filter down to the local community.
Being a region inhabited by pastoralists, it was not necessarily inundated with water pans and boreholes but wherever they were, they were crucial in sustaining lives and livelihoods.
To the locals, salty water is part of life (as it has always been).
This reality came to the fore during drought seasons when most water pans and wells ran dry.
Infact on one occassion, the famine was so severe that pastoralists had to dispose off their sickly livestock to avoid losses.
Grim images of half dead cattle being loaded onto transport lorries were the order of the day.
But this water problem is not just a confine of Kenya’s north east.
Turkana county also located in a semi arid region grapples with this reality day in day out.
A drive through it’s rugged terrain announces the struggles the locals go through with regard to accessibility to clean drinking water.
This reality was about to be relegated to a thing of the past by the discovery of a vast quantity of subterranian water in an area called Lotikipi.
Though this water ‘discovery’ seemed to surprise us all, it was known all along by the locals.
Lotikipi is a word stemming from the Turkana word for water: ‘Akipi’…
But it didn’t take long for our expectations to be deflated when geologists and engineers cited that the amount of salts in the water was way above the expected threshhold and would require a large investment to purify it.
I was surprised by their findings but more startled by their finality.
Underground water in northern Kenya comes with it’s fair share of troubles and tribulations…
to elevated calcium and magnesium levels in Wajir…
Parched lands usually have highly saline water world over…
A phenomenon brought about by high evaporation and the presence of soluble salts in the water table.
But for a region that has simply been left to lag behind in development, such a resource (however polluted) could be put to good use only if there is a will to purify and utilize it.
Isn’t it a wonder that beneath a region that lacks the most basic commodity: water, vast reserves exist…
Isn’t it a wonder that in a parched region like Wajir, the water table is so elevated making it imposible to construct toilets normally yet it’s still a region that is hardest hit by drought and famine…
Isn’t it ironical that livestock perish due to lack of water during drought in Turkana when beneath its surface lie vast reserves of stored water capable of meeting the regional needs for over 70 years?
If middle eastern nations have managed to use sophisticated methods to make seawater drinkable, what prevents our chemists, water engineers and innovators from coming up with such solutions?
At times what stands between ourselves and solutions to our real problems is the energy to push ourselves a little further.
No water pollutant is so complex that it cannot be removed.
And this should be our call even as we address water issues around us.
Its a forgone conclusion thay water is life.
But as a scientific community we don’t seem convinced enough to make our academic papers count on the ground.
It might not be urgent for us.
But it is for the people living up north.