Before & After: Balancing Development and Conservation in the Mara River Basin

24 June 2018

Mara River originates at the Mau Water Tower of Kenya and flows to Lake Victoria in Tanzania. Mara is a modest sized river but essential to both the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem and nearly one million people struggling to improve their livelihoods.

Between 2014 and 2018 IHE Delft led the Mau Mara Serengeti (MaMaSe) Sustainable Water Initiative with the aim of improving water safety and security in the Mara River Basin, to support structural poverty reduction, sustainable economic growth and conservation of the basin’s ecosystems. The initiative was supported by the Netherlands Embassy in Kenya and included a number of Kenyan and Dutch partners.


The Netherlands Embassy recognised that improved water management was required to achieve socio-economic development and environmental sustainability in the Mara Basin. But unsustainable practices extending over decades were driving the basin in an unhealthy direction. Deforestation and poor agricultural practices in headwater areas had altered the water balance and promoted more rapid runoff, erosion, and increased sediment loads. Small-scale farmers, already struggling with low yields and low incomes, saw their situation worsen as top soils washed away and soil moisture became less reliable.

In downstream areas, water users and wildlife were experiencing more intense flood flows and lower dry season river flows. Poor rangeland management practices, such as over-grazing, were increasing runoff losses of valuable rainwater and degrading the productivity of grasslands. Pastoralist communities were experiencing more frequent losses of cattle, with severe impacts on their incomes. Downstream ecosystems were suffering as river habitats were modified, river dry season flows dropped and water quality declined. Meanwhile the basin’s water resource authority had little capacity to address the problems.


The MaMaSe Initiative did not reverse all negative trends in the Mara Basin, but it impacted the lives of thousands of basin residents, increased protection for aquatic ecosystems and the capacity of water and land conservation authorities. 1600 farmers improved soil and water conservation practices and 15 service providers were established and trained to continue agricultural extension services. More than 500 farmers were received water harvesting training to increase water security. Incomes were improved by introducing better agricultural crops and strengthening farm to market value chains.

Over thirty five thousand acres of rangeland were improved by implementing holistic rangeland management practices in community wildlife conservancies. Nearly 500 households were direct beneficiaries of the programme in this sparsely populated portion of the basin. Incomes of pastoral households were increased by enhancing livestock value chains, running successful livestock fattening programmes, linking to high end markets and increasing eco-tourism enterprises.

Aquatic ecosystems were protected by quantifying enforceable environmental flow requirements for the river, and the Water Resources Authority was strengthened to assess and manage the basin’s water resources better. Community level water resource users’ associations and forest associations were also strengthened.

The success of the MaMaSe Initiative has attracted additional international interest to the basin, and IHE Delft continues to support partners and sustainable actions in the basin with new funding sources.

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