World Bank-supported project restores Tanzania’s great river reduced to seasonal stream

The Great Ruaha Rriver has, year in year out, been losing its luster to environmental hustlers.

SUNDAY October 29, 2023

A World Bank-suppported project is restoring Tanzania’s key wetlands and river south of the country.

By Patty Magubira

Tranquility News Reporter, Tanzania

Experts and other players are working round the clock to make The Great Ruaha River in southern Tanzania great again.

The river has in recent years faced a challenge of the decline in flow of water and even of drying up.

The 45,000-square-kilometre Ruaha-Ruangwa ecosystem’s streams, whose precious liquid flows into the river through two vital wetlands, have not been spared either.

Electricity generation at Mtera, Kidatu and a newly built dam at Julius Nyerere Hydropower Project has been affected, leading power outage to become a norm in the East African country.

Equally distressed are the surrounding communities as well as fauna and flora in Ruaha River Basin and Ruaha National Park to which The Great Ruaha River is their lifeline.

Drying out of The Great Ruaha River fuels human-wildlife conflicts, as wildlife animals search for water outside Ruaha National Park, injuring and killing people and livestock. PHOTO | PATTY MAGUBIRA

Drying out of the river also fuels human-wildlife conflicts. Animals from the park and the surrounding game reserves destroy crops and injure, if not kill, community members and livestock as the wildlife search for water elsewhere.

Thanks to the multi-component Resilience Natural Resources Management for Tourism Growth (REGROW) project for embarking on various strategies for the river to flow throughout the year once again.

The strategies include discouraging human activities and settlements upstream and constructing weirs and digging charco dams and deep wells on the river bed.

The weirs to be built at Nyaluhanga Constriction, which separates eastern and western wetlands in Usangu Plains, are expected to raise water level upstream and regulate its flow downstream.

The charco dams will, in turn, harvest and reserve rain water and supply it to the 475-long river during dry spells, with the deep wells complimenting the dams.

The Great Ruaha River in southern Tanzania as captured during a dry season. PHOTO | PATTY MAGUBIRA

Technology is another strategy for rescuing the river in the World Bank supported project’s drive.

Aircraft, choppers, drones and camera traps are employed to detect farmers, headers, anglers, poachers and other criminals encroaching on the Ruaha National Park.

Once arrested, suspected criminals’ finger prints are taken along with identity cards from their local authorities and keyed in a database.

The suspects are then arraigned and, if found guilty, the court orders confiscation of whatever property impounded during the arrests in addition to the sentence.

The move aims at preventing the convicts from repeating the vice after paying fines as experienced in the past.

Tanzania National Parks Senior Assistant Conservation Commissioner and Commanding Officer of Ruaha National Park Godwell Meing’ataki says the park is embracing technology to crack down on criminals encroaching on it. PHOTO | EDMUND SALAHO

A header caught with a head of cattle, for instance, used to return to the park immediately after paying the $40.5 fine per cow.

“We have now resorted to legal measures,” says Ruaha National Park Commander Godwell Meing’ataki.

The Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) Senior Assistant Conservation Commissioner says officials equipped with investigative and prosecution skills were in place at the park.

The Great Ruaha River has actually been losing its luster to environmental hustlers in Usangu Plains in recent years.

The plains, also known as Usangu wetlands located in southwestern Tanzania consist of a 1,800-square-kilometre floodplain that stretches across several districts, including Mbarali, Makete, and Ileje.

The Usangu Plains are an essential water catchment area for The Great Ruaha River and are an important ecosystem that supports a wide range of wildlife and plant species.

A gang of buffaloes out of 20,000 available in Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania search for water. PHOTO| EDMUND SALAHO

According to Conservation Ranger from the tourism docket of Ruaha National Park Munga Mtahiko, the plains are home to both lesser and greater kudus, elephants, buffalo, lions, antelopes, reptiles, ostriches and various other bird species.

The plains are, however, facing environmental degradation, deforestation, and human activities and settlements that threaten its delicate balance.

Previous attempts to find lasting solutions for the decline in water flow and the drying up of the wetlands and the river proved futile.

Wild fire, farming, livestock grazing, macrophyte harvesting, handicrafts, sand mining and other economic activities taking place in the wetlands have been increasing each year instead.

Ruthless smallholder farmers have been clearing forests, diverting waterways upstream and erecting unregulated irrigation schemes in the wetlands.

Motorcycles impounded in Ruaha National Park during a crackdown on poachers and other criminals wait for a court order to auction them. Criminals use motorcycles for carrying bush meat and fish out of the park. PHOTO | PATTY MAGUBIRA

Pastoralists mostly from Mwanza, Shinyanga, Simiyu and Tabora regions, who drove over 300,000 heads of cattle into the wetlands compromised hydrological welfare of the water catchment.

As a result, The Great Ruaha River completely dried up for the first time in early 1990s, culminating into acute power shortage and rationing in 1995.

In 1998, the government declared most of the eastern wetland, also known as Ihefu Swamp, as Usangu Game Reserve, evicting most of the hustlers.

However, drought hitting the Usangu Plains between 2006 and 2008 led The Great Ruaha River to dry up yet again.

Concerned over the persistent drought, the government handed over 9,926 square kilometres out of 20,000 square kilometres of the Usangu Plains to TANAPA.

Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania is also home to 15,000 jumbos. PHOTO| EDMUND SALAHO

Despite TANAPA carrying out patrols regularly to restore the ecological balance, mitigate water scarcity, and protect the biodiversity of the area, headers continued encroaching on the wetlands.

Last year, Ruaha National Park, in collaboration with the Police Force and other state organs from Mbarali District, mounted a 10-day special operation using aircraft, choppers, drones and camera traps to drive over 5,000 heads of cattle out of the plains.

Also drove out were anglers who used to pump out water from the wetlands in their bid to pick fish.

“Ruaha National Park continues cooperating with members of the surrounding communities to arrest criminals encroaching on the park at night times,” says Commander Meing’ataki, adding:

“One living a stone’s throw away from the park doesn’t necessarily need to become a poacher.”

A pride of lions waylay other wildlife animals along the banks of The Great Ruaha River in Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania. The carnivorous found in big families in the park prefer big mammals such as giraffes, buffaloes and hippos. PHOTO| PATTY MAGUBIRA

The park management is educating communities in benefiting from the park through tourism.

“We are also training them in methods of protecting themselves from wildlife and in preventing destruction to their property, including crops,” he says.

The Commander warns that the hustlers’ actions are not only a setback to the State’s strategic power investments, but also a death sentence to mankind, fauna and floraΩ

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