Residents of Marsabit want the government to take responsibility for clusters of deaths resulting from cancer.
They have petitioned the High Court, through Kituo Cha Sheria, to compel the government to intervene quickly to avert further spread of the scourge to save the lives of both people and livestock.
It is the first time in Kenya that a community is suing the State seeking to have it compelled to provide a clean and healthy environment, which is a constitutional right.
The matter was filed before the deputy registrar of the Constitutional and Human Rights division at the High Court in Nairobi on Thursday by senior counsel John Khaminwa and Kituo Cha Sheria lawyer John Mwariri.
CLEAN, SAFE WATER
What the petitioners in this case are asking the government to do is ensure they have access to clean and safe water. The underground water the communities in the desert, who are pastoralists, use has been found to contain toxins.
Residents claim the poisonous substances were dumped in the desert by multinational corporations. First, there was Amoco Petroleum, which explored for oil in the 1980s and, after drilling oil wells in Kargi and Dukana locations, they abandoned the project but did not properly decommission the wells.
The chemicals they used in their activities were neither destroyed nor buried. They include toxic chemicals, general equipment and scrap metal.
The poisonous material was left on the ground and is suspected to be the cause of the numerous cancer deaths among residents. Livestock are also affected.
Kargi Location in southern Chalbi is worst hit by cancer, the third leading killer in Kenya.
Other areas affected include Dukana, Bubisa, Maikona, Kalacha and Noth Horr -- all the in the northern part of the desert. The disease has, however, spread to other parts of the county.
The petitioners are also blaming a cache of carcinogenic, hazardous waste they say was dumped in the desert around Kargi location in the 1980s by global companies.
To support their assertion, the petitioners cite a report in 2010 by Greenpeace, an environmental non-governmental organisation based in Netherlands.
In the report, the NGO revealed that nearly 10 million tonnes of toxic waste from Europe was shipped to Africa between 1988 and 1994. One of the key destinations for this cancer-causing waste, the report say, was the Somalia coast.
The petitioners, however, say the Greenpeace report is supported by Legambiente, an Italy-based environmental association that started out as anti-nuclear campaigner.
It confirmed that "vessels were sent to Somalia and other developing countries such as Kenya and Zaire (DR Congo) with toxic cargoes."
The nuclear waste is believed to have been buried in the Chalbi desert and other barren areas of north eastern Kenya.
Speculation about the dumping of nuclear waste has been rife in Kenya, and the issue was first raised in Parliament in the 1990s following complaints about incidents of strange deaths in Marsabit and in north eastern counties.
The government has always denied the claims, but in 2009 the Ministry of Environment investigated to establish the cause of the deaths of people and livestock in Kargi location in Marsabit, assisted by other ministries and government agencies.
In a report, Persistent Water Poisoning in Marsabit District, the government notes that Western multinational companies are known to have dumped hazardous waste in third world countries. It goes further to say that allegations that such waste might have been discarded in Kenya should not be dismissed.
Residents of Kargi witnessed the dumping of the toxic waste. It took place at the same time with the oil exploration by Amoco Petroleum. What took place after the two undertakings is what led people to suspect that poisonous substances were dumped in the desert.
One of the most memorable is the deaths of 7,000 livestock -- cattle, sheep and goats -- in January 2000. The animals had consumed water from a borehole in Kargi. Near the borehole, a deep hole, residents say, had been drilled by unknown foreigners and several white substances buried and covered.
Earlier in the 1990s, a similar incident had taken place in Balesa, near Dukana in northern Chalbi, when a flock of sheep and goats died after consuming water from a borehole drilled next to an abandoned oil well. The well was drilled by Amoco Kenya Petroleum Company.
After the livestock deaths, several cancer cases were detected among residents of Chalbi desert -- a majority of them from Kargi, Bubisa, Maikona, Kalacha and North Horr. Death became so common in these areas that people stopped seeking medical treatment after being diagnosed with cancer.
Apart from Kituo Cha Sheria, the community is also suing through Asunnta Galgitele, David Kiwambile and Mark Bulo -- the second third and fourth petitioners. They are all from Kargi location and conversant with the matter.
Ms Galgitele was a long-serving nurse at Kargi Dispensary, the establishment that kept records of cancer cases.
After committing to follow up with patients diagnosed with the disease, the community rewarded her by electing her a member of the county assembly, becoming the first woman in the Rendile community to hold an elective post.
She now chairs the Health Committee in the Marsabit County Assembly.
Kiwambile served as a chief in Kargi while Bulo is a herder who has witnessed the deaths of both people and livestock.
The health Cabinet secretary is listed as the first respondent in the case.
Other respondents include the Cabinet secretaries for Environment and Forestry and Water Sanitation and Irrigation; Kenya Medical Research Institute; National Environment Management Authority; National Oil Corporation of Kenya; Water Resources Authority; Marsabit County government; and Attorney-General.