A recent find in Tanzania could well be the answer to the world’s depleting helium reserves, but our seasoned travel writer observes the discovery may be negatively impacting the Maasai Mara.
With their colorful costumes and tall stature, the Maasai people of the Great Rift Valley region of East Africa are perhaps the most photographed tribe in the world. Their fierce adherence to an ancient way of life is glorified in coffee table books and travel magazines the world over. The Maasai people of East Africa live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley on semi-arid and arid lands. The Maasai occupy a total land area of 160,000 square kilometers with a population of approximately 1.2 million people.
I visited the Maasai people of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in 2014. Whilst they live within the confines of the roles they play as glamorous tribals for visiting tourists, they are reportedly constantly battling government initiatives that erode their way of life and meager livelihoods.
Indigenous people such as the Maasai worldwide are between 300-500 million, embody and nurture 80% of the world’s cultural and biological diversity, and occupy 20% of the world’s land surface. Some indigenous people strive to preserve traditional ways of life, and at the same time seek greater participation in current state structures.
But all is reportedly not well for these pastoral farmers since the land they grace has been under threat by mining and wildlife concessions for nearly 50 years. Local indigenous councils have been battling with authorities during this entire period: it seems like both their luck and existence are running out.
An additional problem for the Maasai apparently is the discovery of vast quantities of helium in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley. The BBC News in June 2016 reported this find as a “game-changer”, especially as previously-known world supplies are running out.
A group of researchers from Oxford and Durham universities in the United Kingdom, working with the Norwegian helium exploration company Helium One, have discovered what they believe is a vast supply of the element in an unlikely place.
“Their research shows that volcanic activity provides the intense heat necessary to release the gas from ancient, helium-bearing rocks,” according to a statement from the University of Oxford.
“Within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, volcanoes have released helium from ancient deep rocks and have trapped this helium in shallower gas fields.”
Robert Richardson, Professor of Physics from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, won the 1996 Nobel Prize for his work on “super fluidity of helium”, and has issued a warning that supplies of helium are being used at an unprecedented rate and could be depleted within a generation.
Professor Richardson warned the gas is not cheap because the supply is inexhaustible, but because of the Helium Privatization Act passed in 1996 by the US Congress. The Act required the helium stores held underground near Amarillo in Texas be sold off at a fixed rate by 2015 regardless of the market value, to pay off the original cost of the reserve. The Amarillo Texas storage facility holds around half the earth’s stocks of helium – around a billion cubic meters of the gas. The US currently supplies around 80% of the world’s helium supplies.
Richardson said it has taken 4.7 billion years for Earth to accumulate the helium reserves; we will have exhausted them within about a hundred years of the US’s National Helium Reserve having been established in 1925.
Helium is used in hospitals in MRI scanners as well as in spacecraft, telescopes, nuclear research and radiation monitors. Until now, the precious gas has been discovered only in small quantities during oil and gas drilling. Using a new exploration approach, researchers found large quantities of helium within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley.
Prof Chris Ballentine of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, said: “This is a game-changer for the future security of society’s helium needs and similar finds in the future may not be far away.”
The discovery was reported in the US journal Popular Science.
“To put this discovery into perspective,” Prof Ballentine continued, “global consumption of helium is about 8 billion cubic feet per year and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world’s largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 billion cubic feet.”
The Tanzania find could reportedly thus be sufficient to meet global demand for nearly seven years, and may be more than twice as large as the US helium reserve.
This latest find, estimated at 54 billion cubic feet of helium ($3.8 billion), is a major shot in the arm to global helium reserves which have been running dangerously low, with prices rising by 500% in the last 15 years, according to Global Risk Insights (GRI), which provides expert political risk news and analysis on events affecting business, investment, and economic climates worldwide.
While this scientific find has excited scientists the world over, the other side of the equation is the possible land-use stress to the Maasai people under whose land this discovery has been made. But the Maasai are no strangers to land grabs since the time they moved into the Rift Valley from South Sudan during the 15th century.
During the 16th century, their presence ranged from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean and from the highlands near Nairobi to the Serengeti plains in Tanzania. There they peacefully co-existed with other tribes and often times came to the aid of their neighbors during Arab slave raids. The British, who arrived in the late 18th century, saw the Maasai as a nuisance and negotiated a 1904 treaty to move the Maasai to a piece of land in the Rift Valley.
In the 1950s, in a deal that was very similar to the previous dealings, the British successfully convinced the Maasai to move out of the Serengeti land to the Ngorongoro highlands where fellow Maasai already lived in order to create a better wildlife corridor. The Maasai lost the best dry-season rangeland in their area to the benefit of all the wildlife among which they had lived for so many years.
Realistically, the major priorities of the governments of Kenya and Tanzania are economic growth, and both have relied on tourism and other projects to obtain this.
“Modern society demands resources to maintain a standard of living commensurate with people’s expectations, and a suitable level of environmental quality is inherent to this standard. Trade-offs are inevitably made between the activities that provide energy, minerals, timber, and food and the need and desire to preserve ecosystem services. Such trade-offs are often highly controversial and politically volatile,” writes Lee Gerhard of Kansas Geological Survey, in a conference presentation entitled Meeting Societal Resource and Environmental Requirements into the Twenty-First Century.
The author, a chemical engineer by training, has investigated and determined that there is no chemical way of manufacturing helium, and that current supplies originated in the very slow radioactive alpha decay that occurs in rocks. Commercial helium is produced as a byproduct of natural gas processing. Most natural gas deposits also contain smaller quantities of nitrogen, water vapor, carbon dioxide, helium, and other non-combustible materials that must be removed via “upgrading” to produce natural gas with an acceptable level of heat energy.
Once the helium has been separated from the natural gas, it undergoes further refining to bring it to 99.99+% purity for commercial use. The question remains if the helium found in Tanzania would require large operations for upgrading it.
This author also believes that the environmental impact of recovering the helium gas can be reduced by newer drilling technologies such as lateral drilling and gas fracking without disturbing the land above. In my opinion, the Tanzanian government needs to actively seek the cooperation of the Maasai society while trying to create a formula for sharing royalties.
These profits I believe should be invested into the Maasai society through a structured program to prepare them for modern society through vocational education and other cottage industry enterprises. An international NGO should be used as a vehicle for this equitable transfer. I envisage that in doing so all aspects of the helium issue can be attacked: global scientific progress, GDP growth, and most importantly, allowing the Maasai to earn royalties while holding on to their culture, which is a heritage that belongs to all of us globally.
During my planned travels through Maasai lands and the Rift Valley areas in the near future, instead of capturing images of their enactments of various ceremonies popularized by travel magazines, I am planning on spending time inquiring about their progress with the government agencies regarding the helium issue. Watch this space for more.