Mara, eighth wonder of new world, is dying
Is it climate change or the effects of man’s plunder of Earth? Whatever the cause, this crucial ecosystem is crying for intervention
“The Mara River will be dead in three years.”
This was the chilling conclusion made by Mr George Natembeya, the Narok County Commissioner, when we spoke to him.
The once mighty river, known worldwide as the haven of ferocious crocodiles that timed and drowned wildebeest as they crossed, is now a shadow of its former glory.
At some spots, the dry river bed is what remains as evidence of human damage to the Mara ecosystem. The worst, we were told, is yet to come.
When the Nation toured the entire expanse of the Mara, new images and sights of wildebeest trotting along the dry river bed, where their ancestors had previously been mauled by giant crocodiles, became the first signs that the spectacular scenes — vividly captured by National Geographic and other wildlife channels — of wildebeests jumping in to the deep swollen river were nothing but history.
Our mission was to find out why the drying up of this internationally-important water body seems almost assured. From the extensive tour, interviews with many people and reference to documents, there are no doubts that sooner, rather than later, the chicken might finally come home to roost.
At the moment — the question is no longer whether — but how long that will take.
Although some gave a window of between five and 10 years, everyone was clear that the Mara River is dying: the biggest blow to Kenya’s tourism sector and a doom to the Masai Mara Game Reserve.
Accompanied by crew from NTV, we toured some of the tributaries that empty into the Mara River and saw the visible effects of over-concentration of tourist facilities in the ecosystem.
But we never anticipated what we saw at Kiptunga Swamp which is the source of the Mara River.
Joseph Kitkai, one of the herders we met there, informed us that some 20 years ago, anyone venturing into the swamp, animals included, “would be swallowed” into the ground.
“We lost 10 cows here,” he said indicating that the swamp had a sinkhole. But this is no more; animals can now graze inside the swamp while a private company, Timsales Ltd, was licensed by the Kenya Forest Service to be planting and harvesting exotic, water-guzzling tree species close by.
Apparently, the upper zone of the Mara River has minimal water extraction activities but in the middle and lower zones, there is direct collection by households, urban centres and irrigation schemes. Reports also show that the Nyangores River provides water to Tenwek hospital, Silibwet and Bomet Town.
Already, the loss of volumes along the river has affected the globally renown wildebeest migration which was declared one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in 2006. This is likely to severely cut the cumulated earnings at the Mara by the hotels which were estimated at Sh14.1 billion while gate collections stood at Sh867 million in 2011 — according to Lake Basin Commission.
And that is not all, the survival of hundreds of thousands of pastoralists, farmers and other people who rely on the river and its tributary will be jeopardised as the pressure for land and water sparks ethnic tensions.
When we visited the Mara, members of the Maasai and Kalenjin communities had clashed over land — which means that the loss of Mara River is now a national security issue.
Most of our respondents attributed the loss of volumes to over-abstraction by a big number of users. They pointed to the largescale flower farming by companies such as Mara Peas as well as maize and sorghum farming by Shimo Ltd which get water from Nyangores and Amala tributaries of the Mara.
Indeed, according to a study published by the Lake Victoria Basin Commission in 2011, the total water demand in the basin was estimated at 24 million cubic meters per year with large-scale irrigation accounting for 51 per cent, human domestic demand 20 per cent and livestock 17 per cent.
Others blamed the alleged lacklustre management of the reserve by the Narok County Government which is yet to come up with a management plan for the reserve and outlying ecosystem.
Local and national political leaderships were blamed for “marked indifference” and for failing to comprehensively address what is now termed as the Mau conundrum. Top government officials are accused of on-and-off, not-herenor-there, timid attempts at saving the Mau that are almost primed to be thwarted by politicians from the Kalenjin community who are always quick to convert the Mau issue into a political minefield.
But Francis ole Nkaku, formerly with the Water Towers Agency, disagrees: “If the move to reclaim riparian reserves in Nairobi is anything to go by, the government looks serious this time around about protecting the Mau.”
During our expansive tour, it was clear that Kenya is dealing with a mightily complex scenario that needs to be handled with the methodical sensitivity of a surgeon at the operating table. Everyone — invaders, politicians, farmers, pastoralists, environmental activists, community elite — appear justified to do whatever they have been up to and unless one (journalists included) engages in an elaborate fact-finding exercise, they are likely to be confused by the maze of claims and counter-claims.
Further, Kenya’s inability to deal conclusively with the destruction of the Mau has geopolitical implications. As a transboundary resource, the Mara is shared between Kenya and Tanzania’s most important wildlife area, the Serengeti.
Kenya knows that soon, Tanzania will complain about the Mara.
“We usually hold ad hoc meetings with our Tanzanian counterparts and we expect them to complain if the destruction of the source of the Mara River goes on,” said Mr Natembeya. The Mara is a shared water resource that flows though Lake Natron and Musoma area of Tanzania before emptying into Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile.
Most significantly, the destruction of the Mau has greatly affected the ‘silent’ users of the Mara and Serengeti. These include the millions of wildebeest and zebras that make the annual epic journey between Serengeti (where they breed in the Ntutu area) to the Maasai Mara from July to October before going back.
For some reason, the vast herds were late in coming to the Mara this year and when they did, fewer than usual came only to cross through a near-empty river. Besides, there are many other species that use the two wildlife areas — lions, elephants, Topi, giraffes, elands, leopards, cheetahs, gazelles, a diversity of birds, snakes and other reptiles as well as species that inhabit the river.
During the tour, it became apparent too that the security and ecological situations being experienced now — as evidenced by severe loss of water along the Mara — is the culmination of intricately interwoven historical, political, negative changes in the culture of forest dwellers, corruption, misuse of power and greed that were left to degenerate over the last 40 years. The national government is losing the plot by refusing to address how these issues might end up derailing its effort to halt the senseless destruction of the 400,000-acre Mau Complex and especially the Maasai Mau Forest.
There were respondents who saw what is happening to the Mara River in terms of climate change. They told the Nation that the changing climate has resulted to a rise in, and worsening of extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding. Lately, much of Kenya, Narok included, has been experiencing a minor drought after every two years and a major one each decade. Usually, the droughts hit hard, leaving massive deaths of livestock and wildlife in their wake.
“The destruction of the Mau, has exacerbated the vulnerability of the Mara ecosystem to droughts,” asserted Violet Matiru, a Nairobi-based Ecologist and former Kenya Wildlife Service staff member. Indeed, the Lake Basin Commission’s report says that pastoralists based in the Mara River Basin lost 35 per cent of their livestock due to drought.
Matiru, who is behind a community initiative to protect the indigenous section of Thogoto Forest in Kiambu County, says that the destruction of the Mau has severely disrupted the natural water cycle from which the Mara River and its tributaries owe their survival. She explained that indigenous forests have many layers — top canopy, undergrowth and fallen leaves — which enable them to retain water whenever it rains.
“An indigenous forest acts as a sponge that absorbs and releases water gradually.” Matiru further explains that the sun ‘grabs’ water from a forest through the processes of transpiration and evaporation and that forests help to retain moisture in the air.
“When moisture-laden winds flow over areas with forests, it is easy for clouds to be formed and for such areas to experience frequent rains. But when we destroy a forest, rain drops hit the ground very hard, the water does not sink into the ground; rather it flows away as runoff causing floods and therefore does not help to recharge the water table. Consequently, the streams and rivers that used to get water from the water table end up with little or no water.” Matiru’s assertion corrects Paul Sang, a former Health minister who publicly claimed forests have nothing to do with the rain as it comes from the sky.
While it is not clear whether Sang was serious or said this in jest, the Mau issue is so serious that it now threatens national security. Indeed, during our tour, we were chillingly informed by some members of the Maasai community that should the government fail to conclusively deal with the issues pertaining to the invasion of Maasai Mau Forest, then morans would do so under their own terms and in ways that will lead to what someone called “a massacre.” Indeed, while the Nation toured the area, clashes between the Kalenjin and Maasai erupted once again leading to the killing of three people; 10 being injured while 58 homes were torched.
Such clashes have recurred over the last eight years — although the border dispute between the two communities goes back to the colonial period.
Tomorrow: The political manipulation of Mara boundaries
A local tourist looks at a buffalo standing on the drying Mara River bed in February. An ecological crisis and death of the river is looming as evidenced by low volumes of water and frequent drying.