Stepping Up for a Healthier Mara River Basin

The use of technology has become a vital tool for protecting the Mara River 

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“If mankind dares to destroy the environment, the environment will easily destroy mankind. In that contest, life on earth will be threatened, and human beings will face the threat of extinction,” Samuel Kuntai Ole Tunai, a Kenyan count governor said.

Addressing semi-virtually held 9th Mara Day Celebrations, Narok County’s Governor Tunai said there is need to sustain efforts to conserve the Mara River Basin, which is a regional resource. Such initiatives, he said must include the use of technology that has become a vital tool for protecting the Mara River. Tools such as the Water Evaluation And Planning (WEAP) have made it easier for organizations to detect changes in the river’s water level and quality. It has also assisted them reverse or adapt to those changes. Tunai said collectively, basin residents’ shoulders are broad and strong enough to meet the challenges of the present moment, facing the entire basin ecosystem.

Mara Day coincides with the great migration of wildlife from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Maasai-Mara National Game Reserve Kenya. The Mara Basin is of highest significance, 65% of the basin lies in Kenya. Residents of the two countries have taken over conservation of the basin following a series of sensitisation initiatives. Existing framework between the two neighbouring states to manage the basin ecosystem is being implemented in what has elevated the issue from politics to a matter of life and death of wildlife, aquatic life and humans, whose lives are dependent on the basin.

Mara River basin 

Mara is home to traditional nomadic pastoralists and the last refuge of some of the most spectacular wildlife populations on earth. The basin should continue to be protected by all against major effects of climate change, human encroachment, human-wildlife conflict and depletion of forest cover.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Mara River hosts an endless array of vertebrate and invertebrate species. It also supports livelihoods of more than one million people. Sadly, unsustainable human activities are ailing the river.  

The Mara river rises in the Mau forests of Kenya, from where it flows across savanna grasslands. In Tanzania it forms a floodplain wetland before reaching its mouth in Lake Victoria. Around 65% of the river basin is located in Kenya, 35% in Tanzania. The region is home to the highest density of large grazing mammals on Earth. The area is famous for the annual wildebeest migration. 

The basin is under threat, mostly at the hands of humans. On average 3% of the Mara River freshwater species are considered to be threatened. Climate change, extreme weather events, deforestation and  poaching are compounding the damage. 

Conservation of forests

Tree-cover loss has accelerated, the river and wetlands have come under increasing pressure and are starting to show signs of stress. Conservation of the Mau forest complex has led to increased water levels in the Mara River. The Kenyan government started the rehabilitation of the Mau forest complex by evicting more than 60,000 settlers and planting trees. In the last nine years, Kenya has planted more trees to conserve various forests and increase the forest cover within the basin. 

Tunai said this has led to increased rainfall and water levels in the Mara River. “In the months ahead, we are going to step up efforts to protect water catchment areas to secure the river and rivulets that deliver their water into the Mara River.”

Bomet County governor, Dr. Hillary Barchok addressing the same event said there is a need for conservation upstream with planting of environmentally-friendly trees along rivers and springs so as to curb pressure on underground water.

“The conservation of the Mara ecosystem requires concerted efforts in the management of the Mara basin,” Barchok said. “To conserve and protect the Mara ecosystem, we have protected more than 100 springs, streams and Nyangores and Amalo Rivers that feed the Mara River.”

He added that as custodians of the ecosystems, we all need to embrace a culture of conservation through planting deep-rooted trees and nitrogen-fixing plants. 

Over the last two years, the county government of Bomet has planted over 2.7 million trees against a target of five million trees in various parts of the county.  

This is a continuous exercise aimed at increasing the forest cover from 15% to 17% by the year 2022. The county is also focusing on environmental conservation, sustainable land use, climate-smart agriculture, empowerment of farmers and drought-resistant crops.

WEAP tool

The basin is also using WEAP, a user-friendly software tool that takes an integrated approach to water resources planning. According to the Stockholm Environment Institute, an international research organization, freshwater management challenges within the Mara River basin are increasingly common.   

The organisation added that the allocation of limited water resources between agricultural and environmental uses now requires the full integration of supply, demand, water quality and ecological considerations.  

WEAP aims to incorporate these issues into a practical yet robust tool for integrated water resources planning. This technology will enable the tracking of threats to the Mara River over a period of time. With this it is possible to identify whether these threats are caused by human activities or climate change. WEAP is a user-friendly software tool that combines data on rainfall runoff, how surface and groundwater interact and crop water requirements. WEAP operates in many capacities such as the water balance database. This provides a system for maintaining water demand and supply information. 

The second one is the scenario generation tool which simulates water demand, supply, runoff, stream flows, storage, pollution generation, treatment and discharge and instream water quality. The third and last one is a policy analysis tool which evaluates a full range of water development and management options, and takes account of multiple and competing uses of water systems. 

Other initiatives include Tanzania’s Conservation Investment Plan, Mau Mara Serengeti Sustainable Water Initiative for Kenya (MaMaSe) as well as local water user associations.

Mau Mara Serengeti Sustainable Water Initiative for Kenya (MaMaSe)

MaMaSe was employed to promote water-wise economic development that could lift people out of poverty and sets them on a sustainable path to improved wellbeing and self-reliance. It was implemented to improve water safety and floodplain management in the basin in support of poverty reduction, sustainable economic growth and ecosystem conservation. 

The initiative pursued a broad-based, basin-scale public-private partnership, focusing on improved water management in the main economic activities, agriculture, cattle ranching and wildlife-based tourism. It strengthened the knowledge base and provided a platform for engagement of new partners. According to Netherlands’ Wageningen University and Research the initiative also helped to strengthen the capacity of water authorities to strategize and plan.

It supported the protection and restoration of forest and rangeland ecosystems, as well as piloting new and more sustainable forms of economic development. This also has seen an increase and stabilization of financial resources for water management, and make knowledge available for wider application in the Mara Basin and across the region. 

Working together with the two governments, organisations embarked on ground breaking water partnerships through a holistic water stewardship strategy, working side by side and striving towards new standards for safeguarding one of Africa’s historical basins.

North Mara and South Mara Water Users

North Mara and South Mara Water Users have come up with innovative measures which are captivating villagers to massively prioritize conservation of wetlands along the river on the Tanzanian side. 

This locally-led, community driven project encouraged landowners to voluntarily adopt conservation practices and systems including: covering crops, nutrient management plans, grassed waterways, and residue and tillage management, in order to improve water quality and on-farm nutrient use efficiency.

The villages involved are doing everything possible to stop human activities that were in the past threatening to wipe out the river and its wetlands. It has helped to empower villagers to live with Mara River water resources sustainably and conserve them for the future generations. 

The formation of the water users associations shows positive outcomes in protecting and conserving the Mara River wetlands. Ibrahimu Wambura, the secretary of North Mara Water Users Association said water users associations are providing education to the communities to understand the importance of preserving water sources and knowing conservation laws.

“When we work strongly together, we shall surely overcome the challenges that face this ecosystem that we cherish,” Tunai said. “Nearly a decade has passed since we began the conservation efforts on the Mara Basin ecosystem, and so much has been achieved. This demonstrates that we are capable of achieving so much more when we work together.” 

Polycarp Ngoje, stakeholders engagement specialist with Sustainable Water Partnership (SWP) said actors within the Mara River Basin are key stakeholders in community engagement, catchment conservation interventions and prevention of water security risks in the basin.

Speaking during the same event, Ngoje urged different actors in the Mara River Basin to prioritize stakeholders engagement as one of the strategies for sustainability in the Mara region. 

“Such endeavour, should reduce or substitute top-down, one size fits all approach from state and non-state actors. Placing more responsibilities and resources in the hands of the Water Resources User Associations in Kenya and Water User Associations of Tanzania would not only create awareness of but enhance ownership,” Ngoje said.

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