Nairobi: The Kenyan government and UNESCO on Wednesday announced the discovery of a huge supply of underground water in the impoverished, drought-stricken extreme north of the country.
The find, made using advanced satellite exploration technology and backed up by UNESCO drilling, was hailed as a scientific breakthrough that could radically change the lives of the half-million people living in one of the world`s most arid regions.
Two aquifers -- underground layers of permeable rock or silt soaked in water -- were found in the Turkana region, the scene of a devastating drought two years ago that aid workers said pushed malnutrition rates up to 37 percent.
"The news about these water reserves comes at a time when reliable water supplies are highly needed," said Judi Wakhungu, cabinet secretary in the Kenyan ministry of environment, water and natural resources.
"This newly found wealth of water opens a door to a more prosperous future for the people of Turkana and the nation as a whole. We must now work to further explore these resources responsibly and safeguard them for future generations," Wakhungu said at the start of a water security conference in Nairobi.
The firm which carried out the survey, Radar Technologies International (RTI), said the area hosts a minimum reserve of 250 billion cubic meters of water, which is recharged at a rate of 3.4 billion cubic meters per year -- almost equivalent to annual water consumption in Austria.
"Hundreds of thousands of livestock die because of recurring droughts. This won`t happen anymore," RTI president Alain Gachet told AFP.
"We`ve just doubled the country`s drinking water reserves. The needs are huge, as women often have to walk 10 to 20 kilometres to get water."
RTI said the largest find -- the Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, located west of Lake Turkana -- was roughly the size of the US state of Rhode Island.
The smaller Lodwar Basin Aquifer, meanwhile, could feed the parched regional capital of Lodwar -- although UNESCO cautioned that water quality still needed to be assessed.
The hostile and desert-like Turkana region, near the northern border with Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, is the poorest in the country, and its mostly-nomadic people are among the most vulnerable in Africa.
Fighting between rival groups -- often armed with guns -- over grazing land for their livestock is common in the region.
Of Kenya`s 41 million strong population, 17 million lack access to safe water, and 28 million do not have adequate sanitation.
Kenya`s northern region already hosts Lake Turkana -- the world`s biggest desert lake stretching 250 kilometres (150 miles) long by 60 kilometres wide at its largest point -- but the famous jade-coloured waters are threatened by hydroelectric dams cutting off feeder streams in neighbouring Ethiopia.
But water is not the only resource under the ground, with exploratory oil drilling ongoing.