Kenya: Irrigation Projects in Ruins as Turkana Faces Starvation

22 September 2021

Some 215 kilometres north of Lodwar stands the once vibrant Kaikor drip irrigation scheme that provided a glimmer of hope in the fight against perennial hunger in the semi-arid Turkana County.

The project, an initiative of the Kenya Red Cross Society and the Kenyans for Kenya Steering Committee, was commissioned in July 2013 and sought to build community resilience and enhance food security. It targeted three villages with a total population of over 15,000.

It collapsed a short time later, and six years since, the county has more than 600,000 people in dire need of relief food, according to the National Drought Management Authority. Ironically, Kaikor is among the worst-hit.

Locals are nostalgic about those days of plenty.

"The irrigation scheme provided plenty of food and income for three years. But since its collapse, we've reverted to our old life of food dependence. For us to eat, we entirely depend on relief food," said Nangole Lomuru from Nakinomet village.

"Life has been challenging since the scheme collapsed because we can't grow food crops, which also served as our source of income [when we sold] the surplus," he recollects.

'A drop in the ocean'

The Longolemwar, Loitanit, Nakinomet and Kangitulai irrigation schemes in Kaikor, which gobbled up millions of shillings, were established by the Kenyans for Kenya Drought Initiative of 2011.

When the project opened, then Kenya Red Cross secretary-general Abbas Gullet noted: "The project is a drop in the ocean because of the devastating perennial hunger in Turkana County.

Both the county and national governments should upscale the project and make it sustainable in order to permanently deal with food insecurity in the region," he said.

It's easy to see why Mr Gullet called it a drop in the ocean. Turkana is Kenya's largest county at 77,500 square kilometres.

"Due to the vast terrain and sparse population, implementing economically viable projects will require huge investments," the Red Cross said in a report. Besides size, the Red Cross also cited poor infrastructure and the area's pastoralist culture as exposing residents to vulnerabilities.

The Red Cross sunk 12 boreholes in Turkana North. In its plan, it wanted to produce tomatoes, spinach, kale, melon, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and maize in an open-field irrigation system targeting over 1,500 metric tonnes per year. The organisation had similar projects under the Kenyans for Kenya banner in Pokot East and Walda, Moyale.

Turkana Governor Josphat Nanok, who had accompanied Mr Gullet, said it was his administration's dream that one day Turkana communities would produce enough food to feed themselves and have a surplus to sell.

"Funds have been set aside to scale up the project because we want to change the hunger narrative to the land of plenty," he said then.

But now the fields are filled with ngitrai also known as mathenge (Prosopis juliflora) and shrubs, and the pipes and plastic tanks have all been ruined by the scorching sun. The metal bars and steel wires on greenhouses are rusting.

James Lomoru, another beneficiary, said the scheme had replaced pastoralism and life was enjoyable. "When the project was thriving, there was a significant transformation in our livelihoods but now it's just a memory," he said.

Bonface Lopem, another resident, said the initiative that was also part of the Turkana North Integrated Emergency Drought Programme, addressed the major challenge of poor water access. He expressed fear that a new irrigation project that the county government is establishing just a few metres from the stalled project will also be short-lived.

"The county government should have channelled the funds to reviving the old project," he said. "From time immemorial, we never thought our sun-baked soils would produce crops, but we reaped a lot because we had enough. But things have changed for the worse. Our children are malnourished due to insufficient food," said Lopusbo Ekalale.

The beneficiaries said they did not have financial literacy and a well-organised association to help them save money from the sales of their produce to make the project sustainable.

Revived the dreams

When Israel ambassador to Kenya Oded Joseph visited Turkana in August, he revived the dreams of a food-secure region through knowledge transfer.

Mr Joseph said Turkana is among 10 devolved units that the Israeli government was seeking to partner with to achieve food security.

"Turkana and Israel have several similarities, especially on climate, and it will be critical if the county adopts different approaches through technology to address water scarcity, including desalination and water harvesting for crop production," he said.

He promised to help form a joint technical team that will push for the inclusion of local graduates in an Israeli-funded sponsorship programme where they will undergo an 11-month specialised training in agricultural technologies.

"The trained graduates will then be required to work in Turkana, with the sole objective of increasing expertise in the field," he said.

Governor Nanok said, his administration was keen to replicate some of the successful Israeli innovations and programmes to tackle perennial food shortages in the county.

Turkana County's transformation to a breadbasket, he said, will require commitment from area residents the same way Israelis worked to build all aspects of its economy to global standards.

"The county is keen to tap into Israeli expertise in crop production, and innovation in dry-land farming, including transformational agro-technology," the county boss said.

He added that research and the success of model irrigation had proven that Turkana held the potential for agriculture.

Mr Nanok reiterated the county's determination to shift from subsistence farming to commercial production. He urged the ambassador to link Turkana to Israeli investors. The governor noted that with massive groundwater resources, finding the technology to make saline water suitable for domestic use will resolve water shortage.

He announced that the Israeli government and the United Nations Environment Programme will support the development of Turkana's laboratory capacity to test the quality and suitability of water. Test results will then guide interventions.

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