Sunday, July 20, 2008

Journey Down the Mara

We recently completed the most amazing journey-- for the first two months of our stay here, we have been travelig with two graduate student colleagues, sampling water quality and documenting land use change along the length of the Mara River Basin. Our travels took us from the headwaters of the Mara River in the highlands of Kenya to the mouth of the river in Lake Victoria in Tanzania. It was such a remarkable experience to follow a river along her entire course, to watch her change and develop, and to watch the different ways people and animals depend on her, so I thought I would give you all a photo-summary of the experience.

This is a map of the Mara River Basin, 65% of which lies in Kenya and 35% in Tanzania. All of gold stars are locations where we took samples for water quality analysis (results pending completion of Beth's thesis!).

The Mara River originates in the Napuiyapui Swamp in the Mau Escarpment, nearly 3,000 m above sea level.
The seeps and springs of this swamp form the two main tributaries of the Mara-- the Amala and the Nyangores Rivers-- which flow through the mountains of the southwestern Mau Forest. Kenya's largest and most important water catchment area, and also its largest piece of remaining forest, the Mau Forest has been a topic of much conflict over the last 5-10 years. Politicians have been accused of illegally selling off the protected land in exchange for votes, and the legal and political arms of the government have argued over eviction and resettlement. In the meantime, people have continued to settle on the land, clearing the forest for small-scale cultivation, a trend only exacerbated by the huge spike in internal refugees following this year's post-election violence.

Destruction of this critical water catchment is having severe effects on the region's rivers, the Mara and her headwaters in particular, as deforestation bypasses the natural water cycle. Instead, heavy rains rush down bare slopes, leading to erosion and flooding, and periods of drought no longer supplemented by the slow seepage of water through the soil and vegetation into the water table lead to reduced flows in the rivers. But although protection of this critical catchment is necessary to sustain the livelihoods of many downstream, it means the loss of livelihoods to others who must be evicted, making the Mau Forest a somewhat contentious area to visit. We were accompanied on our visit by a group of armed police officers.

Below the Mau Forest, small-scale agriculture and cattle rearing dominate the landscape. Here is a view of the the Amala at Kapkimolwa Village.
Due to naturally lower levels of rainfall and a higher percentage of deforested land in its catchment, the Amala River seems to be hit hardest, with increasingly lower flows in the dry season. Here is a view of the Nysiet River, just before she joins the Amala.

And just downstream, the Amala where she runs through the little town of Mulot.
The Nyangores River flows northwest of the Amala, shown here where she crosses through the small town of Bomet (about 30 minutes drive from Mulot).
At the base of the Mau Escarpment, the Amala and the Nyangores meet to form the Mara River which flows on a more gentle gradient through wooded grasslands. In this region, the river is used to irrigate large-scale agriculture as well as to provide for domestic uses and livestock.

Just north of the Masai Mara National Game Reserve, the Mara flows through ranchland owned by the Maasai people.
After the river flows into the Masai Mara Game Reserve, it is joined by the Talek River, which was nearly dry when we sampled it.
Here is an impressive view of the Mara just before a storm, taken from the New Mara Bridge, just near the border of Kenya and Tanzania.
Just below this point, the Mara is joined by another main tributary, the Sand River, which flows out of the Loita Hills. Again, you can see how low the water levels are.
Our journey into Tanzania was marked by spectacular scenery. Here is a view from above the basin. You can see the Mara River down below, with some traditional huts in the foreground.
As the Mara crosses from Kenya into Tanzania, she also crosses from the Masai Mara into the Serengeti.
The section of the Serengeti we passed through was more wooded than the Masai Mara, and it was completely full of wildlife. As the migration was just beginning, there were thousands of wildebeest lined up along the river banks, ready for their journey north.
Here they are, crossing the Bologonja River, just before her confluence with the Mara.
Downstream of most of her main tributaries, the Mara is much broader, shown here as she crosses from Serengeti District into Tarime District.

But there are a few more rivers winding their way to join her, including the Tobora...

...and the Somonche. This lovely view of the Mara just before sunset was taken at her confluence with the Somonche.
The Mara continues to support people, agriculture, livestock and industry as she winds through Tanzania. The picture below was taken at Mara Mines, a site near an active gold mine. You can also see people bathing in the river and maize cultivation in this photo. Land is valuable and people tend to plant right up to the edge of the bank, but this leads to bank destailization and subsequent erosion.

As the Mara nears the end of her journey at Lake Victoria, she swells into a large swamp, her banks lined with reeds and papyrus.

Fishing is a major economic activity here, and you can see here the traditional dhows they use.

Changes in the water quantity and quality entering Lake Victoria are already perceived to be impacting the swamp, threatening the livelihood of the many who depend on it.

We traveled by boat to the point where the Mara River flows into Lake Victoria, completing her 365 km journey, and our own as well. Her character changed so much from the swampy highlands where she was born through the mountain streams that formed her main tributaries through the broad majestic river sustaining million-strong herds of wildlife and back to swampy lowlands where she pours into the lake. Following her on this journey was an incomparable introduction to an amazing river.

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