I’m in Kenya to learn more about WWF’s work in the Mara River Basin with Water Resources Users Associations (WRUAs). A WRUA is a voluntary group of water users set up to protect water resources for the local community. I’m in the offices of the WRUA for Nyangores, a tributary of the Mara River, and Mr Koech, the WRUA secretary, is saying passionately “if you got rid of WRUAs all our rivers would dry up because no one will be talking about conservation!”. Behind him a tropical rain storm is pelting at the window and I can just about make out lush tea plantations on the slopes behind. It’s hard to see what the problem with water resources is.
The next day I’m given the chance to find out. We drive up into the surrounding hills, up a bumpy track cut into the red earth. It’s the red soil here that’s a big part of the problem: it used to support the tropical Mau forest, but with population growth that’s quickly being removed for farming. The slopes of the farms are steep and when it rains the exposed red soil, along with its fertility, is washed down to the rivers turning them chocolatey with sediment. The high sediment content of the rivers isn’t just a problem for fish and other aquatic species, but also poses a problem for those who want to use river water for drinking and industrial processes. The sediment is also quickly filling the Mara wetland over 150 km downstream in Tanzania.
We have been working with the Nyangores WRUA to train farmers in conservation agriculture. This entails simple measures like contouring, growing grass strips, digging small trenches and growing cover crops such as sweet potato. These measures help retain the soil on the farms and slow the run-off of rainwater. As well as reducing the amount of sediment that ends up in the river, these measures bring fertility back to the land, increasing the yield of crops and providing fodder for dairy cattle. The farmers are clearly extremely grateful. “We have doubled the production in maize since 2014 and we hope that in 2016 we will harvest more”, says one farmer whom the WRUA has supported.
But it’s not just soil erosion that’s a problem. It might be raining hard now, but during the long dry season the rivers diminish significantly. The scant water remaining is often abstracted illegally for crops such as tomatoes, onions and bananas to extract more of a living from the land. Conflicts over water are not unheard of. One of the jobs of the WRUA is to check who is abstracting water and ensure they have a licence to do so. Indeed, on our way to visit the farmers, the WRUA chairman, Mr Rono, stops to check on a couple of men pumping water out of the river into a large tanker. The say it is for construction work and that they have a proper license – Mr Rono will be sure to check.
Mr Koech, Mr Rono and others leading WRUAs really believe in the work they are doing conserving land and water resources for their community – they feel it is their calling. But it’s tough work: they don’t get paid, they often have to reprove members of their own community, it takes them away from their own farms and businesses, and they receive scant support from the government water authority. That’s despite the fact that the existence of WRUAs has been stipulated in government legislation. I feel incredibly humbled by them.
We’ve been supporting Nyangores, and many other WRUAs, in a number of ways. We’ve helped them to get established as legal institutions, to develop action plans, to apply for funding, and to train farmers in soil and water conservation techniques. We have also been by their side when educating communities about the need for, and benefits of, protecting land and water resources.
The WRUAs are grateful for our support: they say that they are like a baby learning to walk, they need holding and encouraging. But at some point we will need to let them go and walk alone. This requires them to be self-sufficient. So an important part of our work is influencing the government to give WRUAs greater responsibility for monitoring water use and collecting fees from water users. At the same time we’re engaging private water users (such as hotels, hospitals and tea factories) to recognise the benefits they’re receiving from the river and offer support to the WRUA in improving farming practices upstream.
If they can achieve some autonomy, then the WRUAs will have reached their teenage years, and as Mr Koech and Mr Rono say, WWF can then take a “hands off, eyes on” approach.