The Reality of Hydro-politics: Lake Turkana – Jinsu Elhance, Kenya

Ethiopia and Kenya’s Battle for Life

The northern border between Kenya and Ethiopia contains a lake of life-water. The water of Lake Turkana is currently the most crucial component contributing to the well being of the people living in the surrounding areas.
Lake Turkana is an alkaline lake (a lake with irregularly high salt levels) and is currently the lake with the highest concentration of salt amongst all large African lakes. This is because Lake Turkana has no outlet with which to expel its water, resulting in stagnation and accumulation of salt. It is through the influx of water into the Lake Turkana basin that the people of Lake Turkana can continue to survive. The communities around Lake Turkana include the Turkana people of Kenya and the Daasanach people of Ethiopia who are, and have been, in conflict over the limited resources they’re being forced to share. This dispute over the ever depleting essential resource for life has resulted in 9 large scale incidents and over 500 deaths and over 400 injuries (The Guardian). The political parties of both countries have vowed to take a stance to end the border conflict, yet it seems there have been no positive outcomes till date.

The common Ethiopian perspective is one of natural rights. The Daasanach people believe that their access to the water of Lake Turkana has been ever present and only with the incorporation of national borders have their people been deprived of their god given right.
The decreasing water levels of the lake due to constant desertification continues to present itself as a life threatening issue. The Daasanach people have had to resort to desperate measures after being denied access to the remaining water, which sits mainly within Kenyan borders. There have been multiple incidents where Daasanach people have crossed the border into Kenya and attacked villages and settled in their stead, leaving many displaced and upset (BBC). Upon attempting to enter Kenya, many thirsty Ethiopian people are being turned away or being beaten by the border patrol (Wikipedia). There are hardly any regulations placed upon the justice authorities by the Kenyan government so these issues are generally unheard of, until addressed and presented by the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian people are falling prey to massive conflicts with nature as well. As their lack of access to drinking water increases, the Ethiopians are resorting to using the salt water of the accessible part of Lake Turkana for everyday purposes. This unfortunate obstruction from what is assumedly a basic human right, is resulting in widespread malnutrition and diarrheal diseases, contributing to high child mortality rates in Turkana, as well as limb deformities such as bow legs or knock knees which are debilitating bone issues ( Frustrated and poor Ethiopians are struggling not only against the Kenyan control of the fresh water but also against the horrible side effects that come coupled with lack of clean, fresh water.


Fishermen and young children around their fish drying racks

Kenyans are also concerned about very similar issues that come hand in hand with the lack of access to water. A recent incident involving the deaths of 92 Kenyan citizens (The Star) on the lands of the Turkana River was an extremely unfortunate side effect. Bandits raided villages and in the process of stealing cattle and food and burning homes, they murdered 20 women and children, many of whom were sexually assaulted, and then proceeded to cause unrest leading to the deaths of many more ( The most distressing fact to be drawn from this incident is the fact that the bandits were also Kenyan and came from a nearby village. The water issue in Lake Turkana is resulting in violent deaths, not only in the conflict between Ethiopia and Kenya but also within the Kenyan communities. Because of poor security measures around the affected areas, the local Kenyans of Lake Turkana are feeling sorely neglected and turning towards political rebellion and demonstration. A seemingly endless and dangerous invasion of the Ethiopian people into the lands that the Turkana people believe to be rightfully theirs sparks outbreaks of violence along the northern border. The Turkana people see no reason to hold back while protecting their tribes and are proceeding to take action without permission from governmental authorities. Unrest is also being caused by the Turkana people concerning Ethiopia’s effect on the quality of the water of Lake Turkana. Because of the dam that the Ethiopian government constructed over the Omo River – a river which empties into Lake Turkana – there has been a noticeable change in Lake Turkana’s thermal, physical and chemical components. Large dams, such as the Omo River dam, that retain water within a reservoir can end up seriously deteriorating the quality of the water, leaving it stagnant while it accumulates chemicals that contribute to its toxicity which can be lethal to most life within the reservoir and in the river for tens of kilometers or more below the dam. (International Although the Kenyan people have greater access to the lake than their Ethiopian counterparts, the poor quality of the lake water and the need for clean drinking water are proving to lead to unfortunate consequences.

In one instance, the dehydrated ecosystem and the dehydrated people came together in a clash for water. A tanker had come to supply the desperate villagers with some water for drinking, and cooking. However, a troop of apes, driven by their thirst, lashed out and attacked the villagers, resulting in the injury of 10 villagers and the death of 8 apes (BBC). The constant battle with disease being spread due to the lack of fresh water is resulting in an unimaginable amount of loss of life. More than 1 million people die every year from preventable cases of diarrhea from inadequate drinking water, sanitation or hand hygiene (

Overall, the situation at Lake Turkana is quite mortifying for both parties involved. The people of Ethiopia are frustrated and thirsty, and the people of Kenya are thirsty and vulnerable. However, in any water crisis, the people involved are often the people who can make the least difference. In a situation like the Kenyan-Ethiopian conflict, the government seems to have little to no disposition towards solving the issue because of the massive economic disparity between them. This allows them to have constant access to fresh water and leaves no room for entertaining the prospect of assisting the affected parties. Both the Turkana tribe and the Daasanach tribe have suffered greatly from the fighting. While the water of Lake Turkana is limited, it is a basic human right to have access to clean drinking water. But as long as the water in Lake Turkana continues with its dynamic water levels, it is expected that the conflict amongst the Turkana people and the Daasanach people, as well as the conflict between people and nature, will never cease to threaten the lives of all parties involved, unless the governments do something about it.

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