Straining the Mara River

A NextGen Blog by Jacqueline Jobin, University of Minnesota.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG post. Since 2007, NWNL has fostered watershed education with internships and blog opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series hosts student essays; sponsors a forum for its high school senior, college and grad contributors; and invites proposals from new students to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Jacqueline Jobin is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota studying Environmental Science, Policy, and Management with a minor in Corporate Environmental Management. Read her earlier NWNL Blog posts Menaces of the Mau Forest and The Plastic Watershed.

Over 250 global bodies of water stretch far beyond country borders.[mfn]United Nations[/mfn] In those cases, upstream water use inevitably effects downstream users in varying capacities. Since water is essential for all life, availability of this most sought-after natural resource has strained international relations throughout human history. For example, East Africa’s Mara River has caused major transboundary issues, water entity, and diplomatic tensions between Kenya and Tanzania.  

The Mara River is formed by the southwestern Kenyan convergence of the Nyangores and Amala Rivers as they emanate from the Mau Forest. The waters of the river stretch from the Mau Forest headwaters to the Maasai Mara National Reserve; eventually run over the border into Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park; and then finishing their journey in Lake Victoria at Musoma. Thus, the Mara River is shared by Kenya and Tanzania, with 65% of this river winding throughout Kenya and 35% through Tanzania, draining a total area of 13,504 square kilometers.

Aerial of Mara National Reserve’s ribbon of life in arid land during drought

In 2014, the Kenya Water Resources Management Authority created a Water Allocation Plan for the Mara River. The plan described a two-dam system to control flooding during wet seasons and ensure constant water flow throughout dry seasons. The first dam in Kenya (“Norera”) would be 32 feet {10 m] high and the other in Tanzania (“Borenga”) would be 98.4 feet [30m] high. The Kenyan government insists that both dams are needed to ensure there are no prolonged water shortages for irrigation or community needs along the basin. However, critics in Tanzania worry that if Kenya puts dams in place there will not be enough water left for Tanzanian downstream communities – and specifically the wildlife of the Serengeti National Park which produces critical tourism income. These concerns go Tanzanian authorities are backed up by several prominent studies suggesting that if both dams are built, the river, its communities and associated ecosystems along its route will suffer.[mfn]Nation[/mfn]

Wildlife at Risk

Serengeti National Park, zebras drinking from river

The Mara River is renowned as a major water destination and crossing point for the annual wildebeest migration, an annual event designated a Natural Wonder of the World. During this yearly event, over 1.5 million wildebeests along with zebras, elands, Grant gazelles and impalas courageously stampede into the river’s fast-flowing waters – facing wily crocodiles and followed by fierce predators such as lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and leopards. However, due to potential dam storage, this famous natural occurrence is now under grave threat .

Maasai Mara National Reserve, migration of wildebeests ,

Studies show that if a dam is built where the Mara River normally crosses into Serengeti National Park, critical riverbeds and water resources will dry out. Kenya’s Water Cabinet Secretary, Simon Chelugui, said, “The dams will lead to an adverse impact on the Serengeti ecosystem, including the loss of some species due to lack of water in the Mara River during the dry season.”[mfn]The East African[/mfn] It is estimated that 80% of the wildebeests that migrate each year could not survive without the Mara River.

Communities at Risk

A Mau Forest Evictee in temporary “Transit Camp”

Not only does damning the Mara River threaten wildlife, it also endangers communities living along the waterway. More than 50% of Mara River Basin communities depend on the river and its tributaries as their main source of water and income. In most communities, flood and drought events are due to become more common, leading to displacement of thousands, including several indigenous tribes from the Ogiek to the Maasai. Now, the proposed damming of the river has the potential to significantly decrease the river’s flow in various regions, creating scarce access to water resources necessary to many communities’ survival. Decreased water levels could also increase human-wildlife conflicts as both humans and animals begin fighting for this scarce, but essential, natural resource.

Maasai pastoralists unable to find grazing opportunities for their drought-diminished herd of starving cattle, 2009

Organizations Taking Action

Although the Mara River faces many threats, there are several prominent organizations working for the continued protection of the river. The Global Water for Sustainability Program (a Florida International University coalition and No Water No Life Partner), World Wildlife Fund, CARE, World Vision International and Nile Basin Initiative are among those working in the Mara River Basin to ensure the river continues to benefit both wildlife and human communities. Their work in the Mara watershed includes a commitment to creating transboundary agreements meant to ensure sustainable water flow in the region, promote biodiversity and increase community access to safe drinking water and sanitation.[mfn]Global Water For Sustainability Programs[/mfn] In a 2009 NWNL Voices of the River interview, Joseph Terer, Nile Basin Initiative [NBI] Project Manager, outlined NBI’s Mara River Transboundary Integrated Water Resources Management Program. Another prominent organization spearheading conservation efforts within the Mara River Basin is Watersheds Ecosystem Conservation (WEC), a NWNL Partner working in the Mau Forest. WEC, founded by Jacob Mwanduka, helps organizations plant trees and establish forest projects in the Mara River’s Mau Forest headwaters to help downstream communities and wildlife.[mfn]No Water No Life[/mfn]

In 2018, NWNL Tanzanian Partner Meyasi Mollel (Serengeti Preservation Foundation Director) and NWNL Director Alison Jones attended a meeting on proposed dams in Nairobi hosted by East African Wildlife Society for over 20 Kenyan and Tanzanian organization representatives. It was immediately apparent that the dam proposals presented a political monitoring challenge if these regions were to ensure water availability for nature, as well as people’s thirst and livelihoods. As well, it was agreed that a decision-making agenda should be holistic, crossing over several sectors including Agriculture, Health, Tourism, Forestry and Infrastructure, for water supplies to be effectively protected or augmented. Solutions discussed included promotion of no-till and drought-tolerant crops, storm-water capture, and recycling of “grey water.” Consensus proposals were set forth for further research, synthesis and modeling – all to be shared with both countries’ counties, state actors, ministries and Water Resource Management Agencies (WRMA’s).

Meyasi Mollel at meeting in Nairobi

No construction on either dam has begun, as both countries are still in the midst of negotiations. However, it is clear that low levels in the Mara River could hurt both Kenyan and Tanzanian communities, wildlife, tourism and diplomatic relations.[mfn]The East African[/mfn] The Mara River is a source of water not only for the health of its ecosystems and iconic wildlife, but also for millions of people who rely on it as a source of survival. With increased political pressure, education and conservation efforts, the transboundary Mara River – along with its ecosystems and people who rely on it – can continue to thrive at healthy levels.[mfn]Mnaya, Bakari[/mfn]

Serengeti National Park, balanites tree in rainy season


Damming the Mara, Damning Mamase. Nation, November 27, 2017. Accessed September 6, 2020, by JJ.

Kenya, Tanzania clash over planned dams on the Mara. The East African, May 4, 2019.  Accessed September 6, 2020, by JJ.

Mnaya, Bakari. The Serengeti will die if Kenya dams the Mara River. CambridgeCore, October 2017. Accessed September 6, 2020, by JJ.

Program Overview. Global Water For Sustainability Programs. Accessed October 29, 2020, by JJ.,Tanzania)

Tanzania in talks with Kenya over proposed dam on Mara River. The East African, April 30, 2019. Accessed September 6, 2020, by JJ.

The Value of Trees in the Mau Forest. No Water No Life, January 24, 2012. Accessed October 29, 2020, by JJ.

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