Safeguarding Water in the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

The Mara River supports huge wildlife populations in Masai Mara National Reserve. Photo credit: Michiel Terellen/USAID East Africa

Note: This blog originally appeared in ClimateLinks.

The Mara River winds for nearly 14 thousand kilometers from the Mau forest in Kenya to Lake Victoria in Tanzania. It supports huge wildlife populations in two key conservation areas (the Masai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park) described as “the eighth wonder of the world.” The Mara also provides water for drinking and irrigation for more than a million people and is of significant economic importance to the region. The Mau forest and the Mara wetlands also affect the well-being of the river and face crucial challenges in the face of climate change and natural resource use.

As part of the Sustainable Water Partnership's initiative to improve on-the-ground water security in the Mara River basin, the Adaptation Thought Leadership and Assessments (ATLAS) project is conducting a rigorous basin-wide climate vulnerability assessment. This work will assess physical, economic, and social vulnerabilities and inform decision making around water. To provide a detailed understanding of the climate-related vulnerability and adaptive capacity of communities and sectors, ATLAS conducted field work in two areas, the Nyangores catchment (including the Mau forest) in Kenya and the Mara wetlands in Tanzania.

The Mau forest complex is East Africa’s largest closed canopy forest and provides numerous vital functions to the Mara River, as well as for the people and wildlife that depend on it. Trees work as natural sponges, collecting and filtering the abundant rainfall of the Nyangores highlands, releasing it slowly into an arterial network of streams, providing vital water to both people and ecosystems downstream. Along the forest edges are farming communities where people live largely below national poverty standards, relying on rainfed agriculture with food security inexorably tied to the vagaries of climate, and forced by population growth to encroach on the forest in search of new agricultural lands and firewood. These farmers have likely never seen the great migrations that bring millions of people to Kenya and Tanzania each year, yet they acknowledge the need to protect the forest and its streams for benefits beyond their own.

Tea production dominates the landscape, but in recent years, the price of tea has fallen in tandem with rising production costs. As a result, farmers in the Community Forest Organization have begun to explore alternative crops—including passion fruit, avocado and tree tomato—to increase their incomes and produce more nutritious foods. Also, they have reduced pressure on the forest by planting woodlots and using alternative sources of fuel such as home-based biogas digesters, which digest organic waste to create flammable gas. Further downstream, springs once silted, contaminated, and nearly dry during critical months now flow freely thanks to restoration efforts by the Nyangores Water Users Association (WRUA). Restoration projects are designed and financed by the WRUA but implemented by local communities. They include the installation of sand filters, piping and access improvements, and replacing eucalyptus with water-friendly species such as bamboo.

Further downstream, before the Mara empties into Lake Victoria in Tanzania, lie the Mara wetlands—a huge swath of swampland that expands like a living organism with annual flooding. The wetlands provide habitat for more than 200 species of birds, as well as fish and animals such as hippopotamus and baboons. They are an important resource for local communities, as well. The wetlands play a crucial role in preserving the health of Lake Victoria by filtering out sediment and pollutants, both of which have become an increasing problem in recent years.

In the wetlands, members of the North Mara Water User Association detailed a history of climate shocks, including major flooding in the late 1990s as a result of a particularly intense El Niño that dramatically changed the course of the Mara River, and a recent severe drought from 2016-17 that saw crops fail, livestock die, and food prices sharply increase. In communities where more than 80 percent of the population relies on farming as their primary source of food and income, and virtually 100 percent of the crops are rainfed, these shocks hit particularly hard. However, the communities have adapted, tailoring their farming methods to an increasingly unpredictable climate by diversifying their crops (the community grows more than a dozen different crops), mixing crops with short and long growing seasons, stepping up their use of drought-tolerant crops such as cassava and sorghum, and rotating crops around their plots.

Whether these homegrown adaptation strategies can safeguard the communities and “the eighth wonder of the world” will depend on tailored packages that include technical support and investments aimed at scaling up these activities in a sustainable manner.

By Owen Scott and Fernanda Zermoglio


The Mara basin climate vulnerability assessment is part of a three-year activity in the Mara basin launched in 2018 by the Sustainable Water Partnership. The goal of the Mara basin project is to improve on-the-ground water security, develop a basin-wide plan for allocating water and provide the tools and science to improve decision-making around water. This blog draws on findings from field work conducted in September and October of 2018 by Adaptation Thought Leadership and Assessments (ATLAS) as part of case studies in the Nyangores catchment in Kenya and the Mara wetlands in Tanzania. To learn more about the Mara River Basin, click here