02 May 2015

Shifting Geography: New Discoveries in the Upper Nile basin Mara River sub basin

I have shifted focus with my current work to include a study in the Mara River basin, a sub-basin of the Nile River basin. This work has brought me to Tanzania, the most southern point of the Nile River basin.

Tanzania includes the Lake Victoria watershed. Mara River is a transboundary river with headwaters originating in Kenya. Both Kenya and Tanzania use the river for a variety of purposes that include:

Cattle/animal herding
National Parks
Subsistence Farming
Drinking Water
and soon to be...electricity generation.

The Mara is an iconic river. Even if you've never heard of it, I guarantee you've seen it. The Mara is part of the great migration of wildebeest and zebra across the Serengeti. Crocodiles and hippos call it home year round - the water flow in the river is the only year-round source of water for the Maasai Mara and Serengeti National Parks! This makes maintaining and securing this shared resource crucial - for ecosystems, human systems, local economies, national economies, global treasures. This also makes the Mara a potentially heated political issue.

There is currently no official agreement on sharing the water resources between Kenya and Tanzania, though one has been on the table in draft form for years. This is an area that could create possibilities for agreements on other contentious situations, such as the tourism industry conflicts that occur due to border crossings of tour companies between the two countries. (1 and 2 recent news examples.)

Outside pressure is even more alarming. I just received word that the World Bank, which is again increasing its dam building portfolio in response to Chinese hydropower investment competition) has done some assessment and feasibility study to build 3 new dams on this wild river. Two are planned for Kenya, one for Tanzania.

Unfortunately, I cannot get this in writing (yet) and think of the Tanzanian proverb - "where there are clouds, there is rain". Why keep this development scheme a secret????

There is talk of storage, flow regulation, and of course, electricity generation. The Bank is already in the tender phase. The importance of keeping this river wild is crucial for the delicate ecosystem of the Serengeti and I'd think that the tradeoff of money generated from electricity would not be comparable to the money that both countries receive in revenues from tourists who come to witness the natural wonders here. I believe there must be more to this story.

My project, SELVA, is looking to research and understand the physical, biological, chemical, and social dynamics of the Mara: water security. We are installing flow monitoring devices, collaborating with other scientists, and building a virtual database, that will be publicly accessible, of information already collected on the Mara River. From this research we hope to paint a clearer picture of the dynamics surrounding the water resources and how to make sustainable decisions for inevitable development.