Searching for solutions to Mara River pollution, Tanzania

Searching for solutions to Mara River pollution, Tanzania

By Mugini Jacob and Marycelina Masha 

As the sun sets in the remote village of Marasibora in Tarime District, Mara Region, cattle herders drive home their individual flocks, for women and children to take over the day’s task and start milking the cows. 

However, at Hosea Bwire’s homestead, the situation is different. He and his three neighbours have opted to join forces and herd their cattle together. Facing a scarcity of fertile grazing grounds, the group keeps their animals in water-rich wetlands for days, sometimes months, depending on the time of the year.

“During the dry season pastures are scarce, so we move the cattle into the wetlands closer to the river and we do not take them home until it begins to rain,’’ says Bwire, who has about 50 cows in his flock. 

Cows Mara River
Livestock keepers tend to their herds in Mara River wetlands 

To protect themselves from the sun and the elements, the herders have built themselves wooden shelters and thatched them with grass while a little fire burns aside most of the time to scare away wild animals.

Little did these livestock keepers know that they could be contributing to the massive pollution of River Mara, which killed fish, emitted foul smell and contaminated water, causing an uproar around the country in March this year.

The dirtied river was found to be a result of increasing livestock population in the wetlands, where cow dung played a significant part.

Villagers describe the incident as a health matter 

Mara River is a transboundary river which starts in the Mau forests on the Kenyan side and flows through the Masai Mara Game Reserves and Serengeti National Park before pouring into Lake Victoria in Tanzania.

Final Mara River Map Graphic scaled
Map showing the location of the Mara River

Besides supporting wildlife conservation in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, the river supports lives of more than 1.1 million people in both countries.

Mara River Basin covers a surface of 13,504 square kilometers of which about 65 percent is located in Kenya and 35 percent in Tanzania.

In March this year, the media were awash with reports of heavy pollution of Mara River which blackened the water and killed fish. A foul smell emitted from the river was felt across a number of villages.

The villages hit by the pollution include Marasibora, Kirumi, Kwibuse and Ryamisanga, all in Rorya and Butiama Districts, Mara Region.

“Women stopped going to the river to fetch water. We dug shallow wells and avoided buying fish,” said 58-year-old Nyamwicho Wambura, who resides in Marasibora village. Fish is the people’s staple, but after the pollution, it was no longer available in the market, she said.

“It is hard to convince people that water is safe after what we saw just recently. Everyone cares about their health. It’s our health that matters,’’ she emphasized, appealing to the authorities to address the problem once and for all.

Yohana Osunga, another herdsman, suggests that construction of a dam would be a lasting solution, because after the pollution saga, it is hard to convince the villagers that Mara River water is safe.

IMG 20220526 161000 603 scaled
Yusufu Akuti a herder in Marasibora village in Mara Region shows part of a contaminated swamp in the Mara wetlands.

“The water is still dark and smelly. We are concerned about ourselves and the cattle. Yet it is impossible to ask the people to look for alternative means of survival. That would amount to telling them they no longer have a life,” Osunga says.

Pollution triggered by cow dung, urine, invasive weeds and litter

On learning from media reports about the pollution, the government intervened immediately by banning residents of the affected villages from using Mara River water and halting all human activities including fishing. The regional water authorities were tasked to find alternative sources of water for domestic consumption.

The temporary ban was, however, lifted after an 11-member team of scientific experts formed by the Minister of State in the Vice President’s Office responsible for the environment, Selemani Jafo, and led by Professor Samwel Manyele of the University of Dar es Salaam, gave a much awaited report on the cause of the pollution. 

The report, titled ‘Report on the Investigation of Mara River Pollution,’ which was published on March 22, assured the public that water in the river was safe but cautioned it should be treated for the purpose of human consumption. Fish too, was safe, there was no cause for panic because no poison was detected in the cause of investigations.

The pollution was short lived just as was the rain that had triggered the huge sludge. However, the report insisted that the color of the water and the strong odor would persist for some time, though with no effect on humans or living organisms.  

According to the government report, the pollution and fish kills were triggered by a heavy rain that washed downstream a mud of decomposed vegetation, tons of cow dung, urine and litter. 

“Decomposed invasive weeds including water hyacinth and papyrus which multiply faster, led to a decrease in oxygen in the water, resulting in the deaths of fish.’’ Prof. Manyele said when releasing the findings.

The report also established that herders had turned Mara wetlands into a sanctuary for hundreds of cattle and human activities, including agriculture, thus escalating the piling up of livestock waste and litter. 

The report shows that Mara River wetlands are a grazing zone for about 300,000 cows. Extensive farming activities in the area covering 423 square kilometers also remain another challenge to environmental conservation.

Cows grazing at the shore of Mara River
Cows grazing at the shores of the Mara River

Among other things, the report recommended gazetting Mara River wetland as a protected area in order to strengthen enforcement of conservation legislations.

On invasive plants including papyrus, typha, and water hyacinth, the report tasked the government to find a means to eradicate them, as these plants have been thriving and expanding on a daily basis, covering Mara River water surfaces.

The report also called on the government to establish rangelands to accommodate the increasing number of livestock that present a threat to the wellbeing of wetlands and water sources throughout the country.

However, the herdsmen contended that it is their birthright to graze cattle anywhere and anyhow, saying their flocks can remain in the open grounds for months as long as they did not stray into people’s farms.

“Livestock keeping is our major economic activity.  It is customary to keep many cattle and families take it seriously. We inherited it and must pass it to our children,” said Yusufu Akuti, a villager in Marasibora.

He objected to any suggestion of changing this activity or reducing the size of his flock, noting that the pride of any herdsman is to see the number of his animals increasing, not decreasing.

“The cows are everything to us. We normally say amongst ourselves if you have no cows, you have no life. We use them to plough on the farms, they give us meat, milk and manure,” Akuti, a father of 10 stresses.

Akuti said he could not go for zero grazing, in which a herder cuts grass and brings it home for the cattle in the shed. 

“We don’t have any other place to rear our animals.  In fact, we are not only keeping cows for economic purposes, we are also fulfilling a traditional norm,” the 64-year-old says as he whistles to draw the attention of his cows grazing in the grassland.

Also Read; North Mara Goldmine goes Green

Villagers, stakeholders react to experts’ findings

Despite the assurance by the government that Mara River water is safe, the villagers are still worried and questioning the results of the investigatory team.

According to Majura Maingu, chairman of Lake Victoria Farmers and Fishermen Organisation (VIFAFIO), it is true that during the time of pasture scarcity, there is overcrowding of flocks as cattle are brought into the wetlands from various parts of  Mara Region and sometimes as far as the neighbouring Simiyu Region. Some of the host villages include Kembwi and Surubu lying to the north of River Mara in Tarime District. However, he was not ready to buy the ‘cow dung theory’ of the pollution.

“The government is taking too long to unveil the truth. We need to know why at some points River Mara water has lost its quality.  The cow dung and decomposition of vegetation theory sounds too good to be true. The water is unsafe because if you dip your hands in the river, they become itchy,’’ says Maingu, stressing that according to him, there has been no major change of livestock keeping pattern over the years. 

There were few people in the past but they owned large flocks, while today the number of people is large, but they have fewer animals, he said.

“A single herder would own up to 1,000 head of cattle. Today, the number is down to 50 at most. Why would anyone believe that cow dung can pollute River Mara now and not 40 years ago?’’

Majura Maingu, chairman of Lake Victoria Farmers and Fishermen Organisation (VIFAFIO)

Ziproza Charles, Chairperson of North Mara Water Users Association, defends the livestock keepers community, saying the mystery is yet to be solved.

“We completely disagree with the experts’ findings because we have a long history of our place.  As long as I can remember, Mara River wetlands have been home to massive populations of cows. In the past, the flocks were larger than today’s,” says Charles, who again tasked the government to take the matter in its own hands and come up with a convincing answer.

Mara River wetlands during the pollution
Mara River Wetlands during the pollution

However, in a sharp contrast with the villagers’ claims, it has been reported that livestock keeping in Mara wetlands has increased over the years, resulting in over-grazing and land degradation.

According to a report titled Vulnerability Profile Mara Wetlands of May 2019, the cattle population has increased dramatically in the wetlands, around 9 percent per year, up almost 1 million head from the official 1.1 million in 2003.

The Tanzania Parliament also rejected the experts’ report on the grounds that it did not meet the expectations of both scientists and laymen, suggesting that an independent committee should be formed to conduct another investigation.

Tanzania’s policy and law protect environmental flows

In a 2015 report titled Management of Environmental Flows in the Nile River Basin: Practices and Experiences, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) has commended  Tanzania as one of few countries in the Nile Basin which has enacted laws and policies to protect environmental flows. 

The provisions of the National Water Policy of 2002 place emphasis on environmental water management, including provisions for environmental flows and maintenance of water quality. 

Environmental flow is the quality and quantity of water needed to sustain the ecology and biodiversity including animals and human beings in a particular area.

Assessing the impact of water quality in Mara River, the NBI report however points to a concern raised by Global Water for Sustainability (GLOWS 2007), saying increasing demand for water in the upper catchment in combination with contamination sources are seriously threatening environmental flows required to sustain wildlife in Maasai (Kenya), Serengeti National Park and the Mara wetlands.

The report cites growing population, agriculture, deforestation, water abstractions and untreated water releases as being threats to supply of clean water in the Nile Basin.

The NBI report also cautions that policies may be necessary instruments but are not sufficient to establish and implement environmental flows. ‘’Effective policies have both incentive and punitive measures and countries should learn from those which have successful implementations,’’ the report states. 

The report also recommends occasional review of policies to suit different circumstances.

In the light of River Mara pollution, an effective monitoring mechanism to ensure water users and those that have a stake in it abide by the law would be more than a necessity.  

Commenting on the NBI report, Donald Kasongi, the General Secretary of the Nile Basin Discourse Forum, says effective management of water resources requires daily supervision of policy and law.

“Tanzania’s National Water Policy (2002) is now 20 years old. It may not meet the requirements of today’s water management needs,” he says.

 “If overgrazing contributed to the recent Mara River pollution, the government, stakeholders and the public have a lesson to learn. The management programme of Lake Victoria Basin on Mara River side should be reviewed in view of the recent incidents and appropriate measures against human activities should be taken,”  Mr Kasongi stresses.

This story was produced in June 2022, supported by InfoNile and Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) in collaboration with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and with support from the Deutche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, commissioned by the European Union and Federal German Government.

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