What, exactly, is poisoning the water in Marsabit County's Chalbi Desert?
This is a problem befuddling officials from the government and other organisations working in this arid region, more so following the unexplained deaths of more than 115 camels last week.
The animals died after drinking water from an abandoned well in El-Hadi village on the Kenya-Ethiopia border.
And a few days after the incident, another herd of 56 sheep and goats perished in similar circumstances, according to the Chief Officer in charge of livestock in Marsabit County, Wario Sori.
The deaths have now wrought an ironic twist to the oft-repeated phrase "water is life", and officials are racking their brains trying to solve the mystery.
Instructively, deaths of both people and livestock in Chalbi is not a new phenomenon.
In October 2009, the government through the Ministry of Environment was forced to constitute an inter-ministerial team to investigate cause of massive deaths of livestock in the desert.
But what prompted the investigations are media reports of people dying from different cancers believed to be caused by the contaminated waters.
It started in the year 2000 when a herd of 7,000 sheep and goats died after taking water from a borehole in Kargi, southern Chalbi.
Numerous other incidents of similar nature followed spreading to other parts of Maikona, Kalacha, Dukana and North Horr, which are in the northern and western parts of the desert.
In the latest incident, the herd of camels had been gathered together at Yaa Gara village when herders decided to take them to the shallow well in El-Hadi. The usual borehole herders use, Dr Sori explained, was faulty on that day.
“When the well is full the water is safe but when the levels of the same waters are down they become poisonous,” Dr Sori told Daily Nation.
Communities inhabiting the desert are nomadic pastoralists rearing sheep, goats and camels.
Cattle do not thrive well and only a few people, especially along the border with Ethiopia, keep them.
Following the huge deaths of livestock, people started contracting cancer — a disease the nomadic communities say was not known in the region before.
Today, deaths emanating from cancer in Marsabit have reached alarming levels. They have been spreading to other areas neighbouring the desert.
Locals attribute the deaths to toxic substances they say were buried in oil wells by an oil exploration company in the 1980s.
However, it is yet to be scientifically established if Amoco Kenya Limited — a subsidiary of Amoco Corporation that merged with BP Petroleum to form BP Amoco - left such poisonous chemicals. The government has disputed the claims.
In their draft report titled Inter-ministerial report on the persistent water poisoning cases in Marsabit District, the Ministry of Environment, which had incorporated other experts from different ministries in their investigations, recommended use of surface water by communities in the desert.
Most of the waters from boreholes and shallow wells, the report says, do not meet safety standards with respect to salinity, sulphates, nitrites and arsenic they contain.
The waters have high levels of nitrates that government officials have attributed to animal waste that finds its way into water sources when it rains.
High levels of nitrite in water is what causes the deaths of livestock. Consumption of the same toxic substance together with arsenic can also trigger cancer in human beings, the report says.
A study commissioned by the Marsabit Catholic Diocese in 2009 following complaints of deaths of several people after succumbing to cancer - especially in Kargi - also confirmed presence of the same chemicals cited in the report. Its findings were based on a water analysis done in Germany.
“Samples taken after heavy rainfall in 2009 show unacceptable and harmful mercury concentration,” the analysis conducted by Dr Graser and Prof D. Sitzmann says regarding the waters of Kargi.
But the two found that the relief food communities in the desert rely on was fit for human consumption.
Medics from Marsabit County had suspected the relief food to be one of the causes of cancer as well as miraa (khat) and tobacco, which most experts have ruled out.
There is still another report by a team from the Water Resources Authority, which also established that waters in the desert are not safe.
The agency recommended alternative sources, agreeing with the Environment ministry's suggestion for the National Water and Pipeline Corporation to consider pumping water to the desert on completion of Badasa Dam project.
The dam, which was to harvest surface water from Marsabit forest about 70 kilometres away, was at the time under construction but the contractor abandoned the project, which today is a white elephant.
With no reliable water supply, communities in Chalbi depend on the same poisonous waters.
Consequently, clusters of people have continued to die mainly from oesophagus cancer. And the killer disease has now spread to other parts of the county.
An area like Kargi has several abandoned boreholes and wells — some drilled by donors who are forced to give up on the project after the water is declared unfit for consumption.
The present issue gets more complicated since camels are the only animals that have proved their mettle by enduring the poisonous water. Residents are now a worried lot.
If camels can die what will be left? Samples of carcasses of the dead camels and water from the shallow well were taken to the University of Nairobi for analysis.
Camels are the main source of food for nomadic communities, according to Mr Patrick Katelo, a director with Pastoralist Community Initiative and Development Assistance (Pacida).
Pacida is a non-profit organisation whose goal is to eradicate poverty in Marsabit and other arid areas.
Camels are used for milk and transport. Mr Katelo says the 115 lactating camels from Yaa Gara village left all the 160 households who occupy it food insecure and desperate.
“The camels were loaded with water for the community as well as for their calves,” he said.
Without water, the calves may also not survive, Mr Katelo said. He said the sight of the villagers wailing plaintively on learning about the deaths of the camels was a disturbing one.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has since promised to compensate the herders by buying them 300 camels — a message that was delivered to the pastoralists by Labour Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yattani who visited the place.