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Looking at reasons why lake Manyara is drying up

AFTER walking for 10 minutes from the vibrant Mto wa Mbu tourist town, towards the shore of Lake Manyara, the once Tanzania’s second-most prominent saltwater lake, a local religious leader stepped off the road, pushed his hands deep into his pockets, and silently wandered the fortress floods submerging houses and farms in the neighbourhoods.

Just an hour earlier, during high seasons, the leader, Naseeb Idd Naseeb, had recalled how as recently as a decade ago, groups of tourists trekked the villages to the Lake Manyara to explore tree-climbing lions, wildebeests, flocks of migrating flamingos among other natural wonders.

Now, the vast expanse of the one-time holiday haven has been transformed into stretches of debris so solid that during dry season trucks can drive over.

When it rains, the water overflows into villages located a mile away from the protected lake. Official data from the Ministry of Natural Resource and Tourism and the National Assembly details that the lake at some point around the 1950s was 20 meters deep.


Over the last two decades, it shrunk by over 90 per cent, despite the UN heralding it as a biosphere reserve in 1981. The ministry says the lake has been drying up at an annual average of 5 per cent and its depth currently stands at around 20 centimetres. Naseeb, like many local people and government, blames the imbalance between wildlife conservation and human activities, which is leading to an abrupt shrink in water levels for the key tourist attraction.

Lake Manyara was famously known for its essential part as the UN agency’s BRAAF (Biosphere Reserves for Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development in Anglophone Africa) project. The project was designed to promote income-generating activities such as bee-keeping to ensure the long-term conservation of biodiversity.

Today none of such activities is being embraced, says the area’s outgoing Member of Parliament, Jitu Soni. “The only income-generating activities are agriculture, fishing, livestock keeping, and a collapsing tourism... it is collapsing since the main arm of the industry—the lake is diminishing at an alarming rate,” he said.

Studies show the alkaline water had been home to hippopotamus, pink flamingos, and more than 400 species of birds, mainly waterfowl. Locals and tourism industry observers say April and May used to be the best time for bird watching in the woodland and around the lake.

These months now experience high floods that not only affect migratory colonies of pink flamingos, pelicans and cormorants to assemble at the food-rich lake but cut across the entire tourism value chain. African Mecca Safaris and Mto wa Mbu Cultural Tourism Programme say the lake has been crucial to flocks of hundreds of thousands of tiny red-billed quelea.

It provides significant food-chain biomass for herons, hornbills, and other colourful rollers and kingfishers. “What we all must understand is that this is a corridor for migrating wildlife animals and birds from Lake Manyara National Park to Tarangire National Park. They assemble here for food and breeding.

However, any disturbance in the lake due to human activities affects the livelihoods of these creatures,” said George Daniel, a conservationist at the Mto wa Mbu Cultural Tourism Programme. Anastasia Mustapha, a macro-biologist, explains that the threatened lesser flamingos, for instance, feed on cyanobacteria that can only increase with an increase in water salinity.

It is estimated that more than 2.5 million lesser flamingos preferred to breed at Lake Manyara and nest at the nearby Lake Natron. The unconfirmed figure suggests that less than 500,000 birds now reach the lake.

“This species usually feeds on spirulina, some blue-green algae with red pigments... it’s found along saline lakes, but floods in lakes such as Manyara disturb the breeding area, not to mention their nests,” she said. No scientific data points to Lake Manyara’s salinity level, but experts say it had dropped significantly.

According to a study “Soda Lakes of East Africa” published by Springer International in 2016, said the establishment of authorities such as national parks had not guaranteed protection of the lake.

Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) acknowledges that wildlife species in the area are “generally under threat” following the blockage of corridors due to increased anthropogenic activities and conflicting land uses such as agriculture, livestock keeping, settlement, mining, and fishing.

Over 70 per cent of maize, rice, and plantain farmers from the surrounding villages have set tributaries on main rivers that divert its flows into their farms. Extension officers and conservationists agree that the branches have also been a source of transporting debris into the rivers and, subsequently, the lake.


Lake Manyara has no outflows and is fed by underground springs and several permanent rivers. It was formed as a result of depression in the rift valley system. Residents suggest the lake was a hotspot for sport hunting around the 1920s before becoming part of the national park in 1974. Anna Matayo is a beneficiary of the lake.

She says the effect of human activities on the lake is now vivid. Ms Matayo, whose house was among tens of structures at Jangwani Ziwani that were submerged by the recent torrential storm, blames farmers for the crisis. “The depth of the lake can no longer hold rainwater, and as a result, it pushes back to the point of floating houses in the neighbouring villages,” said Naseeb.

Dr Noelia Myinga, Senior Assistant Conservation Commissioner at the Lake Manyara National Park, acknowledges that siltation and frequent dry outs of the Lake Manyara is from deviation of water for agricultural and human uses. This is in addition to unsustainable farming practices in the catchment areas.

“The other factors include an influx of population around the park, deforestation in the highland forest, and global warming,” he said. Deviation of water is a criminal offence according to the Water Management Act of 2009 and its regulations. It is punishable up to 500,000/- or six-month imprisonment.

Karatu District Executive Director Waziri Moses said local authorities in the area have been working with other stakeholders; unfortunately, the measures haven’t helped solve the problem. The director said the authority has been working to create awareness to livestock keepers and farmers of the impact of deviating river waters and blocking wildlife corridors.

“I would say we haven’t been successful, but work is going on, and we hope we can save the lake,” he said. The form of irrigation has not only affected Lake Manyara. Similar effects have been reported on Lake Rukwa in Sumbawanga. Grace Shio of the Kaegesa Environment Conservation Society suggests effective fishing and farming methods that seek to support sustainable development as the best approach in preserving the dying lake.

Experts say drip irrigation technology is the only solution for Karatu, Mbulu, Babati, and Monduli districts where there is a high water deviation level. Dr Mnyinga and other conservationists propose a motivation package for the surrounding communities to adopt reasonable land-use practices, including cut-off drains, contour farming, strip cropping, and terracing.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, there are only 39 irrigation schemes on 16,710 hectares that have adopted drip irrigation systems in Tanzania.

The National Assembly enacted a national irrigation law last year to protect farmers from the whims of extreme weather and climate change and improve food security and reduce poverty. The law also paves the way for the formation of an Irrigation Development Fund to help irrigation schemes, many of whom are stalled in financial woes.

@ This InfoNile story was published with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation.

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