AN innovative initiative along Mara River is captivating villagers there to massively prioritize conservation of wetlands along the river on the Tanzanian side.
And now, these villagers are doing everything possible to stop human activities that were in the past threatening to wipe out the river and its wetlands.
The North Mara and South Mara Water Users Associations initiative has helped to empower villagers to live with Mara river water resources sustainably and conserve them for the future generations.
The associations have legal authority to manage and distribute water as well as conserve water sources, according to Tanzania’s Water Resources Management Act No 11 of 2009.
Water Users Associations The associations were formed in 2013 by the government of Tanzania through Lake Victoria Basin under the support of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
According to Kanuni Kanuni, the WWF Project Officer for Mara River Fresh Water Programme, “WWF supported formation of the water users associations through Lake Victoria Basin water body under the Ministry of Water and Irrigation.”
Later, WWF helped to build capacity for the water users associations in areas of advocacy, conservations of water resources, income and fundraising, something which has made them more efficient. Covering 13,750 square kilometers, the Mara river wetland is shared by Tanzania and Kenya.
The river originates from Mau forest in Kenya and runs through Maasai Mara and Serengeti National Park before flowing into Lake Victoria on the Tanzania side. It is estimated that Mara River basin supports livelihood of more than 1.1 population from the East African sister countries. The associations operate under close supervision of Lake Victoria Sub-basin water office based in Musoma.
“The water users associations operate in villages that lie within the Mara river basin and their responsibility is to manage, distribute water and conservation of water resources, “according to Mwita Mataro, a government official at the Lake Victoria sub-basin water office.
Mataro says formation of the water users associations shows positive outcome in protecting and conserving the Mara River wetlands.
Some of the resources believed to have disappeared from the wetlands due to reasons associated with human encroachment includes hippopotamus, crocodiles and natural vegetation.
But with the formation of water users associations, this could be reversed.
This is because, according to Ibrahimu Wambura, the Secretary of North Mara Water Users Association, water users associations , “ are providing education to the communities to understand the importance of preserving water sources and knowing conservation laws.”
The two water users associations have several villages occupied by thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on the wetland. Communities living around the wetland are livestock keepers, fishermen and small scale farmers.
Safeguarding Gold ( Mara River Wetlands) One of the measures taken by the water users associations is to prevent livestock keepers from turning the wetlands into farms.
Besides environmental degradation, traditional livestock keeping causes endless human/wildlife conflicts. Thus, the water users associations are working hard to ensure that livestock keepers do not have to continue having access into the Mara river wetlands.
And the associations do this by, “educating people on the importance of reducing the number of livestock, like cows and changing to modern livestock farming,” as narrated by Mairi Magabe, the chairperson of South Mara water users association.
Having a large number of cows is still seen as a sign of wealth among the communities living in Mara Region.
Dowry is paid in form of cows and some families still consider their girls as a source of getting cows instead of supporting them to achieve their educational dreams.
As a result Mara Region is rated high with cases of child marriage, according to the Ministry of Health Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children.
According to Mugabe, south Mara water users associations has eight villages with about 72,150 of livestock which include cows, goat and sheep. And these are the livestock that the water users associations want to keep off the wetlands and the river itself.
“Our main concern is to ensure that the wetlands and the buffer zone area which is 60 meters away from the river is free from livestock keepers,” maintains Magabe.
At the same time, North Mara water users association which also operates in eight villages is working to stop livestock keepers from continuing to graze inside the wetlands and the buffer zone areas.
Livestock keeping is now prohibited in, “villages with in north Mara wetland areas,” insists Ibrahimu Wambura, the Secretary of North Mara Water Users Association, further noting that, “we are telling the villagers that the wetland is a conservation area and not grazing area.”
He laments that cow dung has worked as fertilizer that is boosting increased water hyacinth in the wetland and the neighboring wetlands of Lake Victoria.
The water users associations have also gone an extra mile and halted farming activities in the wetlands as well as evicting people who had built residential houses inside the wetlands.
It is illegal to conduct human activities inside the wetlands or within the buffer zone areas in Tanzania and according to Mugabe, water users associations are making sure, “any farming activities inside the wetlands and on the buffer zone areas are stopped.”
Campaigning for more trees The Water Users Associations have also been engaging in afforestation campaign as part of their efforts to protect and promote sustainable of the Mara river wetlands.
The initiative involved planting of trees on the buffer zone areas and the neighbouring natural water sources. “We have been planting trees that are friendly to water and environment and we are happy that the response of citizens has been very positive,” recounts Wambura. However, charcoal burning is threatening these trees.
Environment experts here say burning of charcoal is leading to massive deforestation. This is further leading to soil erosion which is causing siltation in some parts of the wetland.
The person familiar with this problem is Martha Mahule, a government environmental management officer at Tarime District council. “People are cutting even natural trees inside the wetlands for charcoal burning,” she cries.
Mahule says the government of Tanzania is establishing demarcations that separate the buffer zone of the wetlands and the neighboring villages.
“Apart from the demarcations we have planted 500 trees and the exercise will be going on depending on the available resources to support the work,” notes Mahule.
She said government is working closely with other stakeholders including the National Environment Management Council (NEMC), Lake Victoria Basin and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to educate people on the importance of conserving and protecting the wetlands.
“We have been conducting frequent awareness campaigns on environment to protect Mara River wetlands and we are doing that in-collaboration with other stakeholders,” she points out.
Rewards of Conservation Good news is that people living near Mara River have now realized the importance of preserving the wetlands which play vital role to support their livelihood.
“People have been getting fish for food and business purposes. They now wish to see Mara river serving the present and the coming generations,” narrates Wambura.
Birdlife-International had also introduced a project in the area aimed at promoting sustainable management of the Mara rive wetlands Among other things, implementation of the project involved teaching local communities on how to use papyrus to make products like baskets, mats, hats and chairs.
The Mara River wetland is blessed with vast papyrus.
“The aim of the project was to enable us use papyrus in the wetlands to make the products that could give our people alternative source of income and help stop charcoal business“, Wambura said.
Efforts have also been underway to help the villagers living near Mara river establish beekeeping as another source of income with the support of WWF.
“We have been supporting conservation and income generating activities in the villages and the beekeeping activities help protect river banks “, Kanuni further said.
The Mara river wetlands also support sustainable conservation of Serengeti Masai Mara ecosystem and an incredible birdlife ecosystem of the wetland.
*This article was made possible thanks to support from InfoNile and Code for Africa