Water safety and security
The Mara is a modest sized river shared by Kenya and Tanzania. Water influences many aspects of socioeconomic development and environmental sustainability in the basin. It is both a key component of future growth and a limitation. Rains supporting the dry-season flow of the Mara River, on which people, cattle, and wildlife depend, are concentrated in only 10% of the basin lying in the Mau Highlands. Headwater forests have historically recycled water, enhanced rainwater infiltration, and stabilized erodible soils. However, decades of encroachment, deforestation and poor agricultural practices have diminished recycling, promoted rapid runoff of rainwater, and polluted rivers with eroded topsoil.
As a result, long-time farmers and tea estates report more erratic rains and increasing occurrence of drought, and small farmer incomes remain low and unreliable. Downstream users experience the changes as dwindling rivers in dry seasons, more extreme floods in wet seasons, death of cattle and wildlife, and sickness among people. Changing land practices in rangelands of lower portions of the basin are also affecting water security, as overgrazing and inappropriate agriculture lead to increased runoff of valuable rainwater, degraded water quality and diminishing incomes.
The region’s extraordinary biodiversity is suffering as well. Historically wildlife has coped with water scarcity by migrating; animals covered hundreds of kilometres in search of water in rivers and green pasture. Yet unsustainable encroachment of agriculture into migration pathways and fencing of once open savannah has closed dispersal routes and blocked animals from the water they require. Combined, these factors have set the Mara on a path of decline that is advancing faster every year as population, associated pollution and demands for land, water, and livelihoods increase.
If the MRB follows the model of other basins in East Africa and available water is allocated overwhelmingly to extractive uses, there will be catastrophic consequences for the Masai-Serengeti ecosystem, the wildebeest migration, and the lucrative tourism industry. Likewise, if inefficient and poorly regulated uses of water for agriculture and other forms of development continue there will be severe consequences for people in the form of degraded livelihoods, food insecurity, proliferation of disease, and likely forced migration. While the availability of water in the MRB will ultimately limit development, this process can be controlled and optimized through strategic planning, careful monitoring and regulation of the resource by water authorities, maximization of the productivity of water use, and protection of water quality and environmental water allocations. These actions form the core of the MaMaSe Sustainable Water Initiative.