NWNL Press

NWNL Press

The Mara River ends its journey amongst the water hyacinths of the Masurura Swamp on the shores of Lake Victoria. Photo © Alison M. Jones for NWNL.

Cry Me A River

By Cheryl Lyn Dybas for Africa Geographic, November, 2011

In northern Kenya, a small swamp with a long name is evaporating. It is just one symptom of a drying region, but the ripple effects are being felt as far afield as Lake Victoria, for it is here that the waters that feed the mighty Mara River – and all who depend on her – rise. Cheryl Lyn Dybas took a close look at why it is happening, and what’s being done to change it.

NWNL Director Alison Jones assisted the author in preparation of this article that closely follows the Mara River Basin issues NWNL documented during its 2009 Mara expedition in Kenya. Several of Alison’s photos, used in this article, are highlighted below with the text from the article.


Enapuiyapui, it’s called, this sunken enclave surrounded by reeds and a forest that’s a mere dot on a map of the “dark continent”. It is said of this small, 5.2-hectare swamp in northern Kenya that its inner reaches conceal the head of a snake, with the sinuous body hiding in the long shadows of cedar trees that line the water’s murky edge. The reptile’s tail emerges in a far-distant lake, believed to be Lake Victoria.

The Mau Forest is Kenya’s largest water catchment area, but extensive deforestation for agriculture is affecting the flow rates of the Mara and other rivers. Photo © Alison M. Jones for NWNL.

The tale belongs to two groups of people, the Ogiek and the Maasai, who have lived on the boundaries of the watery wilderness for a long time and have made their peace with its legendary serpent. For generations, the swamp’s Y-shaped arms have offered them shelter, water and pasture for livestock, thatching grass for huts and medicinal plants for the sick.

Now, say the elders, Enapuiyapui is herself falling ill. Outsiders, they claim, have wrought changes in the land, threatening the swamp and stirring the snake from its slumber. Their warnings encompass more than Enapuiyapui, though. They reach to three nations: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, two swamps, one of the world’s largest lakes and the 395-kilometre-long river that links them all.

Two rivulets emanate westwards from Enapuiyapui. They gather strength as they flow across the land, forming first the Nyangores River, then the Amala, to become the mighty Mara River that connects Kenya’s famed Masai Mara with Tanzania’s Serengeti plains, melding them into one ecosystem.

At its end, the Mara River is enfolded by Enapuiyapui’s sister swamp, the Masurura. Along the way, it brings critical drinking water to wildlife, livestock and people, first in the Mau Forest, then in the rangelands, through the Masai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park and finally to Lake Victoria, its waters lapping the shores of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Enapuiyapui has reason to weep: the drying Mara River has driven Maasai elders to suicide, felled children with typhoid, turned millions of fish bellyup and disrupted age-old animal migrations. The lifeblood of this savanna, the Mara River may soon need a transfusion – of water.


Enapuiyapui’s trail of tears begins in her thick indigenous forests. The trees have been harvested for timber, baring the swamp to the hot African sun. A changing climate and less dependable rainfall have further depleted its waters. The swamp is evaporating, the star grass and water lilies are drying up.

In 2007, WWF-East Africa conducted a survey of Enapuiyapui’s biodiversity. “[The swamp] is a micro-catchment area, collecting water mostly during heavy rains,” says WWF’s John Nyangena. “It is of ecological and socio-economic importance at national, regional and international levels, by itself and through its connection to the Mara River. Were Enapuiyapui to die, so would the Mara.”

The Mau Forest is the largest indigenous montane forest in East Africa. With Kenya’s highest rainfall, it is also the country’s largest water catchment area. Several rivers originate there: in addition to the Mara, the Ewaso Ng’iro, Sondu and Njoro spring from beneath the Mau’s trees. They feed Lake Victoria, Lake Nakuru and Lake Natron.

Enapuiyapui is surrounded by the Kiptunga portion of the Mau Forest. Without Enapuiyapui and Kiptunga, the Mara River would be a hardened riverbed. “In some seasons, it almost is,” says Brian Heath, director of the Mara Conservancy, a public–private partnership between land managers and the local Maasai community. Since 2000, the conservancy has been the steward of the north-western section of the 1,500-square-kilometre Masai Mara National Reserve. This remote edge, called the Mara Triangle, makes up onethird of the reserve.

Unlike many rivers in the Mara– Serengeti ecosystem, the Mara is perennial, or always-flowing. Seasonal rivers such as the Sand and sometimes the Talek run dry in months other than those between March and May, the time of the “long rains”, and between October and December, when the “short rains” fall. Or fell.

As a result of global climate change, “the rains are more and more unpredictable, starting late, ending early or never arriving at all,” says Heath. Droughts are more frequent. In some years, the Masai Mara resembles the US Midwestern dustbowl of the 1930s, when the land and the life that depended on it were parched.

In 2009, the “short rains” were late and in that long, dry season harvests failed and cattle starved. Photo © Alison M. Jones for NWNL.


The first few months of 2011 echo that dusty period. It’s early March and villagers wonder where the rains are. At the Purungat Bridge in the Mara Triangle, I peer over the edge. The Mara River below is more sandbar than waterway. At my side is Kenyan Tari Wako, the lead driverguide for Ker & Downey Safaris, the world’s first, and arguably best-known, safari company. We’re deciding whether rocks exposed by the low water level are in fact crocodiles. “It’d be better if they were rocks than crocs,” says Wako. “Rocks don’t need water.”

The river is so low even crocodiles are threatened. Their sinewy forms are usually well hidden beneath the water’s surface, the better to snap up unsuspecting animals drinking at the river. Now, the crocs are left high and dry, exposed to their would-be prey. A deep-water bend where more than 100 hippos usually wallow has been reduced to a pond. Today a lone hippo tosses excrement-filled water onto its back to cool off. It finally quits the spot, finding it too shallow, Wako believes, and lumbers up a trail that cuts into the river’s steep side.

Despite warnings that the rains would prevent passage from place to place, I’ve come to the Mara in March. Black cotton, as the region’s porous soils are termed, would swallow any Land Cruiser foolhardy enough to attempt a rainy season crossing of the savanna. But the roads – or tracks, as Wako calls them – are dry. Too dry.

Dust devils of grasses and sands whirl across the plains like the tumbleweeds of the American West. Lions, leopards and cheetahs, crouched in hunting mode, heed the direction of the scouring winds. Elephant backs, sand-blasted, seem a shade lighter than the rest of their bodies. Their trunks, and those of trees nearby, are covered in Masai Mara dust. Will the long rains come this year and, if so, when?

Wako points to the far horizon, across the border and into Tanzania. Clouds have gathered. Mixed with the sun’s rays, the merest shower falls from the thunderheads. A rainbow, the universal sign of hope, appears.

In East Africa, severe droughts occurred in 1949–52 and 1972–73. “If there were another such drought,” says Emmanuel Gereta, a retired ecologist from Tanzania National Parks, “the Mara River would disappear for months.” He studies the river through the lens of a scientific field called ecohydrology, a blend of ecology and the study of moving water, like that in rivers. It shows that a Mara River gone dry would lead to the collapse of the Masai Mara–Serengeti’s herbivore populations and, in turn, the predators that prey on them. “The Mara River is vital to this ecosystem, especially during droughts,” says Gereta, “but its flow rates during dry spells have decreased by more than 65 per cent since 1972.”

It all comes down to the deforestation of the Mau, says James Robertson, chief executive officer of Ker & Downey. “In tough times, a healthy Mau Forest would offset some of these effects.” Founder and board member of the Mara Conservancy, Robertson has spent decades visiting the Mara–Serengeti, sometimes for months at a stretch, and is a keen observer of the changes in the river. “When you extract water for the irrigation of wheat and maize crops downstream of the Mau Forest,” he says, “the problem only gets worse. By the time the river reaches the Masai Mara, it has sustained a lot of blows.”


Are the wounds mortal? Perhaps not to the river – yet. But to the humans and wildlife that depend on it, the answer is a sad yes. Scientists Christopher Dutton and Amanda Subalusky of Yale University in the US have witnessed the effects first-hand. For three years, they have journeyed to the Mara’s banks, measuring river levels and collecting water samples.

Before the short rains arrived in 2009 – late again – harvests of crops like wheat failed. But more died than grain fields. The Maasai, carrying nothing but weapons, blankets and gourds of milk, moved their starving livestock to any green pasture they could find. It didn’t help. The fields were “littered with the carcasses of cattle that had just dropped dead,” says Subalusky, “leaving no meat, not even enough for vultures to pick at.” In the wake of the drought, many Maasai elders committed suicide.

All through that hot, dry season, Subalusky and Dutton collected water samples from the Mara and its tributary, the Talek. “The Talek smelled of raw sewage,” remembers Dutton, “and the water was discolored and frothy.” More than 50 colonies of the microbe Escherichia coli, or E. coli, which is found in animal faeces, were growing in a one-millilitre sample of water from the Talek. The US Environmental Protection Agency standard for safe drinking water is less than one colony of E. coli per 100 millilitres of water. The Talek River had 5,000 colonies per 100 millilitres of water.

“There was no rain to wash faeces from ungulates on the nearby plains into the river,” says Dutton. “So where was it coming from?” He suspects that high numbers of tourists in lodges along the Talek may have contributed to the problem.

Months earlier, low river levels fostered a typhoid outbreak in districts along the Mara. As water levels dropped, sanitation, already a major problem in many small towns, grew worse. The bacterium Salmonella enterica, found in water contaminated with faeces, led to the disease. Healthy villagers walked five kilometres every day to alternative water sources at freshwater springs. Despite their efforts, several young children died of typhoid that year.

These are far from the only deaths caused by low flows in the Mara. In February 2011, the lifeless bodies of silvery fish lined the banks. It wasn’t the first time fish had died in the Mara or its tributaries, but it was one of the worst, with more than five million found at the confluence of the Mara and the seasonal Moyan River. It’s whispered that a sudden change in the weather resulted in a heavy mist that covered the water’s surface, smothering the fish. To scientists, the explanation is a low amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. The most common cause is a huge “bloom” of tiny floating plant plankton. The bloom, usually a result of excess fertiliser washed into the stream, uses up most of the oxygen.

Conservationists, however, suspect the deaths were attributable to agro-chemicals such as carbofuran, a toxic pesticide, flowing into the river. Agricultural land use in the Mara River watershed has increased by 200 per cent over the past three decades, with recent figures showing that more than 62 per cent of the households are smallholder farms.

As of writing, the reasons for the fish kill remain unknown, or unreported, although the Kenya Wildlife Service is conducting an investigation. Ultimately, it’s the Mara’s water level that is behind the catastrophe, and it has dropped to what may be an all-time low.

Brian Heath and some colleagues took photos of the river at the New Mara Bridge near the Kenya–Tanzania border, and compared them with images snapped at the same spot by Dutton and Subalusky in February 2009. “By comparing them,” says Subalusky, “we can deduce that the river is even lower than it was in the drought of 2009.”

Low water flow or not, zebras and other species come to the river this March – in droves – because the situation elsewhere is even worse. On an orange-tinged morning, Heath suggests finding a spot along the river and simply waiting. “There’s virtually no water on the Serengeti side in Tanzania,” he says, “so everything is crossing into the Masai Mara in search of it. Usually we wouldn’t see zebras in these numbers at this time of year, they’d still be over in the Serengeti.”

Dawn spills across the Mara as we hear the first hoofbeats. Stripes cloud our vision: first tens, then hundreds, then thousands upon thousands of zebras thunder their way to the river. They dip their heads and drink Enapuiyapui’s lifegiving waters.


The news is not all bad, though. Organisations and individuals – and, apparently, species – on all sides of the Mara are coming together to try to save it. Last November, as thousands of wildebeest crossed the river on their annual migration between the plains of the Serengeti and the Masai Mara, a calf was caught in the undertow. Crocodiles circled. Throngs of tourists watched as the calf struggled to the river’s far edge. “To everyone’s amazement,” says Heath, “a hippo came to its rescue, gently pushing it to the riverbank – and safety.”

But the hippo’s dedication didn’t stop there. Within 10 minutes it spotted a tiny zebra crossing the same stretch. The zebra, too, was fighting to stay above the torrent. Once again, the Good Samaritan hippo, as it became known, guided the youngster out of the water.

“Like the wildebeest and the zebra, the Mara doesn’t have a minute to lose,” says Jackson Looseyia, a Maasai who owns a tented camp called Rekero on the banks of the Talek River, not far from its confluence with the Mara. The camp has joined forces with Dutton and Subalusky, offering the scientists a 24-hour-a-day water sampling site that’s “safe for river access even in the middle of the night,” says Subalusky.

But once the long rains arrive and the tourist season ends, Rekero Tented Camp virtually disappears. “We pack everything up,” says Looseyia, “because it’s all temporary. We leave behind little but the site on which the camp is perched.” Dutton applauds Rekero’s approach. “If all tourism facilities in the Mara took such care, we wouldn’t have to worry about human impacts from inside the protected area.” Other Masai Mara properties are working towards the same goal, among them the Mara Serena Safari Lodge. (Read about the lodge’s project in the Mau Forest in the sidebar above).

Helping both tourist properties and riverside villages is the award-winning Mara River Water User’s Association (MRWUA), a community-based water resources management organisation. With WWF involvement, MRWUA staff members teach environmental education, maintain tree nurseries and offer instruction in water and soil conservation best practices. Among their most successful projects is the planting of riverbank-stabilizing fruit trees.

The way to a healthy Mara River may ultimately lie in two reports published last year: “Biodiversity strategy and action plan for sustainable management of the Mara River basin” and “Assessing reserve flows for the Mara River”. Joint efforts of the Lake Victoria Basin Commission (LVBC) of the East African Community, WWF and the US Agency for International Development’s Global Water for Sustainability Program, the reports light the way to cooperative management of the river.

Tom Okurut, former executive secretary of the LVBC, spent long hours working on the documents. “The secret to the Mara’s success,” he states, “is that the citizens of Kenya and Tanzania, and of nations near and far, need to see themselves as custodians of the river on local, regional, national and international scales. Only then will the Mara River survive, and thrive.”

In September, the first steps toward greater cooperation were taken when, following training sessions sponsored by the LVBC, eight local councils from Kenya and Tanzania agreed to work together to promote best practices with regard to the management of the Mara River basin.

Like the heroic hippo, we need to be Good Samaritans for the entire waterway, otherwise its fate may mirror that of the Great Ruaha River in Tanzania, which ceased flowing altogether in the 1993 dry season, possibly due to irrigation for agriculture. Since then, it has shrivelled to nothing every dry season and stays that way for increasingly long periods. “It should be a dire warning for the Mara River,” says Subalusky. “We have the opportunity to improve management practices while the Mara is still flowing. Let’s not wait until it’s only a trickle.”

Or until Enapuiyapui’s tears have run dry.

The “long rains” fell in western Kenya in July 2011, bringing welcome relief to the dry and dusty land. Since then, the Mara River (and its tributary the Talek) have been flowing strongly.