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‘We Need Water Before Oil’: Kenyan Communities Scarred by Chinese Oil Exploration

‘We Need Water Before Oil’: Kenyan Communities Scarred by Chinese Oil Exploration

A herder walks a Merti road

The repeated honking of a speeding Tawakul shuttle announces the return of travellers to Merti from distant towns at dusk. It also marks the close of another searing and slow day in this part of northern Kenya.

Idling villagers’ faces are suddenly lit by the prospect of seeing their families as they rush to meet the late arrivals, stirring this sleepy shopping centre into activity.

Wako Ade, a local motorbike taxi rider nods towards a reunited couple as the dusty vehicle empties its passengers at the bus terminal and says with frustration: “We are tired of this life. The bus is our only connection with Kenya through Isiolo town. I think the rest of the country forgot us.”

It wasn’t always like this.

About a decade ago, all eyes were on this weather-beaten and marginalized part of the country. Ade remembers seeing visitors from as far as the capital city, Nairobi, flocking to the town, positioning themselves for prospective business. For good reason: Merti was about to strike oil.

But it never materialised.

Destruction

In 2008, the China Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) announced it had identified 15 wells which showed strong signs of holding oil and gas deposits. But by January 2011, CNOOC had left, leaving the community with damaged land and $2 million worth of shattered hopes.

“There was excitement everywhere. We began preparing for an economic turnaround that has eluded us since Kenya gained independence,” recalled 75-year-old Dika Bidu from Dadach Basa village, which sits 12km away from CNOOC’s Bhogal rig.

As a village decision maker, the government told Bidu of the new health facilities, schools, piped water and tarmac roads that would be built to improve the lives of the people there.

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