Kenya’s Mara River – Under Threat Today

Written by NWNL Director Alison M Jones
Photos © Alison M Jones, May 2019 

This May, NWNL was again in Kenya investigating the impacts of proposed dams, drought and deforestation on Kenya’s Mara River.  Many scenes substantiated concern. On arrival in Kenya, conversations were a-buzz with comments on the extremely low levels of Mara River and its Talek River, more of a trickle than a tributary this year. The impacts are hitting Kenya’s World Heritage protected areas, its iconic wildlife, and millions of people in seven countries downstream.

Jones_190518_MS_7538.jpgA low Mara River entering the Masai Mara N. R.  Hippos can’t swim in this river!

The obvious culprits are climate-disruption droughts and degradation of the Mau Forest. This 675,000-acre (273,300-ha.) water tower used to cover 10% of Kenya, but now only about half of that. Rains don’t come when they used to.  And many other issues further exacerbate this decade’s lowered water supplies. If these record, low-water levels become a year-round condition, food supplies will suffer greatly; the famed wildebeest-zebra migration will halt if there’s no water; and the renowned wildlife that supports Kenya’s massive tourism income will be drastically reduced – both in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve and its Greater Ecosystem and in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

Jones_190521_K_3403.jpgThe Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem’s splendid panoply of biodiversity begs for conservation support.

Tanzania and other international entities in the region are insisting Kenya address these issues that affect downstream nations. NWNL thoughts below, garnered from our expedition interviews, are all shared with the belief that a unified political will could go a long way to solving these concerns. One hopes unity, not tribalism, will grow. Another hope is that there will be more Mau Forest stewards like our partner Jacob Mwanduka, Director of Watershed Ecosystem Conservation, who fosters tree-planting in the Mau Forest, especially through school programs.

Jones_190512_K_0781.jpgMau Forest streams are eroded, polluted and thick with sediment.

Despite Joseph’s efforts, a lack of action on Kenya’s part will impact over 300 million people downstream from the Mau Forest. Its degradation and forest loss directly hurts Tanzania via reduced Mara River flows into the Serengeti Ecosystem. Kenya’s inaction also impacts other Nile River Basin countries via reduced Mara River and Sondu River flows into Lake Victoria, source of the White Nile.  However, there are many ways Kenya can correct its current watershed crises.

A Disregard of 30-meter (100-yd) “No-Human-Activity” Zones, along the edge of rivers and streams occurs regularly in the Mau Forest, source of the Mara and Sondu Rivers. Patrolling riverbanks and prosecuting offenders could greatly reduce bank erosion and sedimentation of these upper rivers and their tributaries. Illegal waterside activities noted by NWNL this past month include quarrying along the banks, washing cars and motorcycles (called boda-boda’s in Kenya), and laundry.

Jones_190512_K_0801.jpgChipping rock right on river bank cliffs in the Mau Forest.

Reduction of Timbering.  Trees in the Mara River Basin’s upstream forests provide the same services all rivers need. Tree branches, trunks and roots retain excess water during the rainy season that is released later when the downstream basin becomes arid in the dry season.  These same branches, trunks and roots also filter pollution and sedimentation.

Water, clean air and a healthy biodiversity create a balanced watershed ecosystem; and trees are critical suppliers of water and habitat to a myriad of species that foster Kenya’s multi-million-dollar tourism industry.  The Kenya Forestry Working Group estimates that the loss of trees in the Mau Forest results in a $300 million annual loss in tourism, tea and energy revenues. [Global Corruption Report 2011: Climate Change, The plunder of Kenya’s forests.]

Jones_190512_K_0757.jpgMau Forest tree branches are cut off and used for cooking and warmth.

Better Farming Practices.  Increasingly-heavy withdrawals of water by small-scale farmers has had a large impact on the volume of the Mara River. Last year the Kenya Government made it illegal to use the rivers as a source for irrigation. But without enforcement, such bans are useless. In a separate effort to keep water in the Mara River, there are growing efforts by large-scale farmers to find alternatives to traditional tilling which dry the soil. Agventure is a Kenya company, formed in 2010, that fosters sustainable conservation agriculture to reduce water use via crop rotations, water conservation, seasonal cropping, and biological activity and diversity.

Jones_190512_K_0901.jpgMau Forest farming ranges from subsistence to massive commercial wheat and tea farms. All benefit from the Mau’s cool, rainy weather. But when dry, water is pumped from streams that cut through the forested hillsides.

Family Planning.  Such counseling used to exist in Kenya, and many adults still recall those services with appreciation. Yet, despite population growth in Kenya increasing by leaps and bounds, “The government is now silent on this,” according to a source who explained that tribal politicians encourage having more children so they’ll have more votes. The average numbers of children per family vary greatly from region to region in Kenya. Nationally the rate is 4 to 7 children per family; however, in the Mau Forest headwaters it is 8 to 11 children; and in the Greater Mara Region it is 12 children (due to the traditional 3 wives per family). All these children will need space, water and food, which won’t grow without water.

Jones_190512_K_1009.jpgAs families grow, Mau Forest towns, schools and health clinics grow crowded.

Careful Study of Proposed Dams. Currently, Kenya is proposing two hydro-dams on the Nyangores River, a major tributary to the Mara River.  The Norera Dam would be 10 meters high (near Bomet) and the Mungango Dam would be 30 meters high (south of Bomet).  Just a one-meter drop in the Mara River’s water level due to these dams would severely endanger wildlife dependent on sufficient flow through southwest Kenya and Tanzania.

Jones_190512_K_0928.jpg Itare Dam grading on Sondu River as it flows to L. Victoria.  Low water levels and engineers’ bankruptcy has halted construction.

The Mau Forest faces many other threats with complex and confounding solutions.  In the remaining forest, charcoal burning, its use and its sale must end. It must be replaced with cleaner energy. Solar, wind and geothermal projects can’t happen too fast! Small farms, only recently allowed in the Mau, must be returned to forest. However moving families out of the region is complicated – logistically and politically.  Fencing the forest to protect large ecosystems and to help rivers to continue to flow is perhaps a regrettable option, but seems to be a necessary one at this time.

Jones_190512_K_0768.jpgEach Mau Forest shop (duka) sells cans of charcoal right up front to local residents.

In the last two decades, Kenya has mad great strides in preserving its wildlife by establishing community-based, buffer-zone conservancies around its long-established national parks and reserves. Now Kenya needs equally-effective innovative concepts and political efforts to preserve Kenya’s rivers, wildlife and future opportunities for its own people – and for those downstream. One political appointee in Kenya told NWNL, “When the general population won’t regulate itself – whether out of a need for survival or out of greed – strong leaders are needed. Otherwise, in the next ten years, we’ll be without the Maasai Mara National Reserve. It will be dead.”

Jones_190521_K_3498.jpg

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