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Newfound Aquifers Can Quench Drought-Prone Region's Thirst


Radar technology, which is used to find oil underground, has been modified to look for an even more precious resource: water. And yesterday, scientists announced their biggest find yet - an underground lake at least as large as Rhode Island, 1,000 feet below the Kenyan desert. NPR's Gregory Warner reports Kenyans are celebrating, cautiously.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: John Nyaoro was one of the first non-scientists to get the call. He's Kenya's director of water resources. We met at an international water conference today in Nairobi.

JOHN NYAORO: How I feel is like, my lifetime in working in the public service, this is my biggest achievement. (Laughter)

WARNER: This is the day. This is the big day.

NYAORO: This is the day. It was like, eureka. We have found it.

WARNER: What they'd found was five aquifers estimated to hold 250 billion cubic liters of water. To put that in context, all of Kenya had about 40 billion liters. So with one phone call, Kenya had six times as much water as it thought, in a country where more than one in three people lack access to safe water. But his excitement was tempered when he looked at a map. The place where the aquifers were found - Turkana, in the far northeast - is a remote, underdeveloped, in many places lawless, region sparsely populated by nomadic herders who frequently fight over access to land and water.

It would take enormous resources, he realized, to pipe the underground water out of the valley and into the rest of the country. You'd need lots of pumps and for that, a lot of power.

NYAORO: And, you know, power in this country is still very expensive. That is the biggest challenge.

WARNER: Nyaoro faced an African conundrum, according to Abou Amani, a senior hydrologist for UNESCO, the U.N. agency that helped fund the water mapping project. He says, though we think of lots of Africa as being water scarce...

ABOU AMANI: We have a lot of water in Africa.

WARNER: It's actually infrastructure scarce.

AMANI: You need to build dams, irrigation schemes, to drill bore holes, to have a storage tank, so there is an investment behind water resources.

WARNER: So Nyaoro, Kenya's director of water resources, recalibrated. If he could not get the water to Kenyans, then maybe Kenyans would go to the water. Oil and gas were also recently discovered in Turkana.

NYAORO: And I want to tell you, Kenyans are dynamic. We have discovered, also, oil there. You will see a lot of people streaming in terms of investment going to Turkana. It might be another Nairobi.

JAMES KINYANGI: At the face of it, we would expect that there would be a total transformation.

WARNER: James Kinyangi directs East African research at an international climate change and food security institute. In a way, he says, a blooming desert city in Turkana would be a kind of poetic justice for Kenya's poorest and driest county, an arid and at times, lunar landscape hard hit by climate change and periodic drought. But he says in order to use the water, the nomadic people of Turkana would have to settle down around wells, and start farming.

KINYANGI: Then any infrastructure we develop can supply water to these communities. That's a very difficult thing to do because it means people changing their entire way of life.

WARNER: And scientists still have questions about how fast all this water replenishes, and how much can be used sustainably. In the end, the biggest lesson of the Turkana discovery, scientists say, is that there's probably a lot more water underground in Africa, untouchable by climate change, far below the earth, and ready to be tapped when the money is there.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.