Climate change driving oil-rich Turkana to the brink

Nasike Lopuricho, 70, slowly walks across the acacia dotted arid hills of Lokichar, Turkana County, tending to her goats. Once in a while, she stops to collect dry branches from the acacia for firewood, which she uses to cook at home. She also sells some of it at a local market for a little money.

Near the homestead where she lives with her family, less than 10km away, huge drilling machines are boring her community land for pricey crude oil which large trucks later haul to the Port of Mombasa for shipping to China.

In 2012, British oil explorer Tullow Oil discovered oil deposits estimated at 560 million barrels in Turkana. An early oil pilot scheme in the Lokichar Basin, one of the oil mining fields, began more than two months ago, producing between 400 and 600 barrels of oil daily.

The exploration of the fossil fuel nonetheless comes at the eleventh hour when the rest of the world is switching from fossil fuel to clean energy. And anti-fossil fuel and climate change crusaders agitating for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions have bitterly criticised the exploration as unnecessary, arguing that the world can no longer risk excavating new oil mines in an already warming planet.

Citing studies such as that published by Oil Change International in 2016 which found that carbon emissions from oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take the world beyond 2°C of warming sooner than later, the experts warn that digging new petroleum wells will push the world past the tipping point.

On the opposite side are those that allay such fears, stressing that oil discovery in Turkana will spur development in the marginalised region. Unfortunately, more than seven years after the exploration began, Turkana still struggles with the same problems: limited or no access to healthcare, poor roads and periodical deaths from hunger and starvation.

I have been left with less than 15 mature goats

Life, the residents here will tell you, has not improved one bit for them. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics household survey released in 2018 ranked Turkana the poorest in the country, with 79 in every 100 people in the county unable to afford a meal.

Travelling from Lodwar Town, the county’s capital, to Lokichar Town, some 85km away, is an uphill task, thanks to the poor state of the road, if the massive potholes can be called that. It took the DN2 team more than six hours on the rough road while driving across the two towns, a journey that should ordinarily take about an hour, after heavy flash floods blocked various sections of the road for several hours.

In May this year, residents like Lopuricho were lucky to survive a severe drought that claimed the lives of more than 10 people and hundreds of livestocks. Had well-wishers not donated food, Lopuricho might just not have survived.

Over the years, the 70-year-old Luporicho has witnessed several drought seasons come and go. But the impact and the intensity of the droughts, she observes, have been growing dire with every passing season.

She is right. In less than half a century for instance, the county has registered a spike in minimum and maximum air temperatures of between 2 and 3°Celcius between 1967 and 2012, which is twice higher than the global mean temperature, which is said to have increased by 0.8°Celsius in the last 50 -100 years, according to government data obtained by Human Rights Watch.

At the same time, rainfall patterns have become erratic and drought more frequent.
The worsening climatic conditions also mean that Lopuricho and her fellow nomads risk losing their livelihood to recurring drought and heatwaves, factors that are steadily scattering pastoralism.

“I have been left with less than 15 mature goats after over 80 of them died during the last drought. Again, there are no wild fruits which we used to eat and sell, so I burn charcoal and collect firewood which I sell for income,” explained Lopuricho, a mother of six.

Nasike Lopuricho. LEOPOLD OBI | NATION

Being nomads, the indigenous people of Turkana move with their livestock from one location to another in search of water and pasture. But experts warn that unless the locals are empowered to cope with the climatic burden, climate change could drive local communities to clashes over scarce pasture and water, among other crises.

In 2016, over 400 families from drought-stricken Samburu and Turkana communities reportedly fled their homes after the two communities clashed over grazing fields. Cattle rustling is also common here, and often tragic.

Asked whether Tullow Oil has helped them to access water or involved them in mitigating the impact of climate change, the locals in Lokichar say the company has done very little. Attempts by Nation to get response from Tullow Oil in regard to this were futile after the company failed to respond to emails.

Joseph Ekiru, the coordinator of Achukule Agroforestry Farmers, a help group located in Turkana County, says that while the oil company has built a health facility and a school nearby, the larger community has not been empowered towards climate change mitigation such as mass tree planting, climate-smart farming and livestock keeping, which projects like Turkana’s oil exploration will make more necessary.

Those in the rural parts of Turkana depend on some evergreen wild trees which coincidentally fruit during drought seasons. The trees, whose leaves are also livestock fodder, bear fruits which the locals gather for food and sell for little income. Recently however, most of these trees have either been cut down for charcoal or dried up due to severe drought, while the remaining few no longer fruit, the locals say.


“Moving from nomadic life to crop farming isn't easy, but the community needs an alternative source of livelihood since pasture for goats is a big challenge,” said Ekiru, who, together with other 80 farmers, grow vegetables through irrigation on a five-acre piece of land.

Mohamed Adow, a climate change expert, points out that as climate change becomes severe in marginal counties such as Turkana, Marsabit, Mandera, Garissa, Samburu and Baringo, the more the areas become uninhabitable for the local communities. As a result, conflict for communal resources such as water and pasture could escalate in the future.

Mr Adow noted that companies across the world dealing in fossil fuel are altogether responsible for 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore should be on the frontline of helping to fight climate change.

“The truth of the matter is that we simply can’t afford to burn lots of new oil, gas and coal, while keeping warming to below 1.5°C. The world made a commitment under the Paris Agreement to limit the global average temperature rise to below 2°C. To meet this commitment, all countries, including Kenya, need to stop new fossil fuel extraction,” he explained.

Nasike Lopuricho herds her goats in Turkana. LEOPOLD OBI | NATION

But after how long can we begin to witness the climatic impact of the oil mining activity?

According to Mr Adow, cumulative carbon dioxide emissions over time are the key determinant of how much global warming occurs. To avoid the worst impact of climate change, at least 80 per cent of these known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground, he explains.

Mithika Mwenda, executive director of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance, points out that whereas both the national and county governments have very progressive laws and policies on environmental conservation, like the Climate Change Act 2016 which seeks a 20 per cent reduction in carbon emission by 2030, the environment is continually destroyed due to lack of enforcement.

Lamack Oyath, the executive director of Lartech Africa, a consulting firm on environment and renewable energy, says that areas within the oilfields should be heavily supported by the oil drillers and the government in fighting climate change. “There should be, for instance, massive tree planting drives in the oil-mining region since trees act as carbon sinks,” he says, explaining that allowing the community to enjoy the benefits of a project makes them want to see the project succeed, hence they will support it.

The expert explains that implementation of projects usually requires a free prior informed consent to help people evaluate the impact of the project, and how the project will benefit them.

“If they are losing their land and being restricted on where to graze their livestock, they need to negotiate how much they are getting out of the project, an initiative that should be ongoing, not a one-off compensation,” he says.


Recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta accented to the Energy and Petroleum bill, which experts say that if well implemented, will help regions like Turkana reap benefits from oil mining.

The new Petroleum Act indicates that the profit derived from the upstream petroleum operation should be shared by the contractor and the national government in accordance with the mining agreement.

“The national government share of profit derived from petroleum operation shall be apportioned between the national government, the county government and the local community” reads part of the act.

The new law points out that from the government oil revenue share, 25 per cent will go to the county government while 5 per cent will be forwarded to the local community on a yearly basis as long as the project is still ongoing.

While it is fine for the government to say that there will be some short-term economic benefits from the oil drilling project, the concern is that the gains cannot outweigh the enduring consequences of climate change.

Stephen Cheboi, a climate change crusader at the Kenya Platform for Climate Governance, says that financial benefits are insignificant especially when they interfere with the future.

He also pointed out that Kenya is not doing to mitigate against climate change.

“Usually, the government evaluates a project’s financial gains but not its impact on the environment,” said Mr Cheboi, adding, “When a full-blown oil drilling begins, there will be serious environmental challenges and initiatives should be laid right now to deal with such issues as soon as they arise.”