Today nearly 800 million people from across the globe live without access to safe water and about 2.5bn people without access to basic sanitation. Kenya is no exception. One of the critical rivers in Kenya facing numerous challenges is the Mara River, despite its immense importance in the region.
The Mara River is one of five priority areas under the HSBC Water Programme where WWF is working to secure freshwater systems. It is the only reliable source of surface water in the Mara ecosystem, supports the livelihoods of around 1.2 million people in Kenya and Tanzania, supports economic activities in both countries, and sustains the world famous Mara-Serengeti ecosystem that is known for its rich wildlife resources. The consequences of the Mara River drying are unthinkable.
Studies have shown that if the river flow falls below 1 cubic meter per second, wildlife numbers in the ecosystem would crash irreversibly. We have had scares of the Mara River drying; the worst I remember was in February-March 2009 when the river was reduced to a trickle. During the past few decades the seasonal water variations in the Mara have changed significantly; there are now higher peaks and lower plateaus in the river flow. Catchment degradation and over abstraction (especially during the dry season) are the main culprits. Decreasing vegetation cover is causing a faster run-off of rainwater. The river is also getting clogged with sediment as a result of increased soil erosion. We have recorded sediment concentrations in the river three times the tolerable amounts. In the steep agricultural areas upstream, soil erosion levels have been recorded as high as 25 tonnes per hectare per year in erosion hotspots. Pollution from towns, trading centers, tourist facilities, and artisanal gold miners along its course is also affecting the quality of the river.
Reclaiming our rivers calls for a multi-disciplinary approach among stakeholders and innovative thinking. Under the ethos of the HSBC Water Programme: healthy rivers, healthy business and healthy communities, WWF is working with water users, local communities, water managers and decision makers to better manage the Mara River.
Through facilitating integrated water resources management (IWRM) in the basin, we work to achieve have a perennially flowing river, with sufficient, good quality water that ensures sustainable economic development and conservation of the natural resources in the unique and important Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.
Efforts to restore Mara River are on course. Key to this has been establishing and sustaining local water resources management platforms; most notably the Water Resources Users’ Associations (WRUAs), and Community Forest Associations (CFAs),. These institutions have been critical in ensuring community participation in natural resources management through participatory water and forest resources management respectively. They are increasingly taking up their important roles and mandates, ensuring that there is a win-win situation for the relevant government agencies and the communities where responsibilities and benefits in natural resources management are shared.
In order to ensure sustainability of catchment restoration initiatives, we’ve launched the very first Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) a scheme to link upstream farmers with private sector partners who depend on the Mara River for their operations. This scheme is a flexible incentive based mechanism where a user or beneficiary of an ecosystem service provides incentives to individuals or communities whose management decisions and practices influence the provision of ecosystem services; in this case water.
To tackle the pollution problem, we are also working with hotels and lodges in the Mara, as well as towns and trading centers to reduce pollution in the Mara River through wastewater management, with the aim of ensuring that effluent that is discharged into the River meets acceptable standards. We are also reaching out to artisanal gold miners in Tanzania to adopt appropriate technologies that reduce mercury pollution.
In the expansive rangelands of the landscape, where water resources are being degraded through unsustainable grazing practices, and unregulated water use leading to negative effects on the local livelihoods, wildlife, and businesses, we are working with land-owners and other key stakeholders to implement sustainable rangeland management initiatives through planned grazing, increasing cattle value through availing better genetics and husbandry, determining and improving the livestock value chain, and securing water resources both in the rivers and on land to maintain water supply with an emphasis on drought resilience.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals have an overarching aim to end poverty by 2030, with Goal 6 promising adequate, equitable access to water, sanitation and hygiene to everyone everywhere by 2030. These ambitious goals mean that a business as usual approach won’t work, requiring governments, NGOs and the private sector to go beyond traditional ways of working to achieve change.
The improvements that have taken root in the Mara with the support of the HSBC Water Programme over the last five years are a testament to what can be accomplished when NGOs, businesses and communities work together for transformational change.
By Kevin Gichangi, Programme Coordinator Mara River Basin.