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Tales from the riverbank – Kenya: a snowball’s chance


At first sight Patrick Oloo reminded me of a retired but still-proud fast bowler. Tall, broad-shouldered, upright. But I guessed wrong. Patrick is a runner, not a cricketer. He told me over a roast goat dinner that he gets out most mornings for a two-kilometre stint, at least. Perhaps I’d like to join him tomorrow, he asked…

Patrick Oloo with Noah Sitati (standing) from WWF KenyaPatrick Oloo (bottom) with Noah Sitati from WWF Kenya. © Dave Tickner / WWF-UK

Patrick also told me about his other passion: snowballs. This was somewhat unexpected.

We are in Narok, southern Kenya. The short October rains have not yet come and the landscape yellows while it waits. As flat-topped acacias and exotic jacarandas wilt, only the giant candelabras of prickly pear cacti stand undiminished in the heat.

On Tuesday, during the half-day drive from Nairobi, we saw myriad dust devils rising from the plain, sinuous and threatening, like hundred-foot-high cobras swaying to the snake-charm spell of the equatorial sun.

Whatever climate change may bring, there’ll be no snow here any time soon.

Patrick is speaking of metaphorical snowballs, of course. With his understated manner he is an unlikely revolutionary, but in his quiet way he is helping to kickstart a movement. It’s a snowball effect he wants.

Patrick’s day job is in Kenya’s ministry of water and irrigation. In recent years he has also offered sage advice to my colleagues in WWF-Kenya as they’ve sought to safeguard the country’s rivers and water resources. Patrick sees this co-operation as a foundation for something bigger, a first figurative flake of snow.

I’ve come here to join Patrick and a team from the WWF offices in Kenya and Tanzania as they hatch a plan to sustain one of Africa’s natural icons: the Mara River. All of this is part of our work with the HSBC Water Programme.

Wildebeest in the Mara riverBlue wildebeest migrating across the Mara river in the Maasai Mara. © Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

You’re probably familiar with the Mara from its regular TV slots. One scene sticks particularly in mind.

Migrating wildebeest, desperate but tentative, sidle en masse up to a wide flow of water, brown with sediment. Reptilian malcontents lurk within. A lone animal leaps into the current and, wild-eyed, half staggers and half swims to safety on the other side. Others follow in their hundreds and then thousands, a beautiful stream of ugly antelopes, each compelled by an ancient urge to follow the rains. A few unlucky individuals are snared by the waiting crocs and meet an inescapable, watery end. Nature red in tooth, if not claw.

The Mara may be a famous film set for the BBC natural history unit. Less well known is its profound importance to the biodiversity of the Masai Mara Game Reserve and its conjoined twin, Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

The Mara RiverThe Mara river, the lifeblood of the Maasai Mara. © Dave Tickner / WWF-UK

If the river runs dry because of drought or over-use, thirsty animals congregate closer together, in or around smaller streams or pools. This can aid the spread of disease and make it easier for big cats to snaffle more unsuspecting prey – all altering the ecological balance between predator and prey.

For similar reasons it may help poachers to find their next fix of ivory or rhino horn. Those nasty Nile crocodiles – along with hippos, fish and waterbirds – simply run out of room.

Such impacts are exacerbated by pollution from towns, livestock, goldmines and, ironically, from the tourist lodges dotted across the game reserve. If animal populations decline because the river is sick, the risk to the tourism industry could ripple through growing, but fragile, national economies.

Mara River signGood water management, as encouraged on this sign, is key to keeping the Mara flowing. © Dave Tickner / WWF-UK

Communities also suffer with the Mara. I was told that 60% of people in the basin source their drinking water directly from the river. If it is polluted, so are they.

On the face of it, Kenya and Tanzania are well placed to address the twin spectres of over-abstraction and pollution. Each has passed progressive water legislation in recent years. These laws mandate communities to manage their water wisely through the formation of local water resource user associations.

The legislation also sets out priorities for water use. Top of the list are people’s basic needs for drinking, washing and sanitation. Keeping water in the river – an ‘environmental flow’ in technical jargon – comes second, ahead of uses for agriculture or commerce.

Topi in the Maasai MaraA Topi in the Maasai Mara reserve; animals like these attract visitors, whose footprint on the river needs to be carefully managed. © Dave Tickner / WWF-UK

Many nations have passed similar legislation during the last 20 years. All are struggling with the implementation challenge. If WWF can help its partners to succeed in places like the Mara, the lessons may be useful not only in Kenya and Tanzania but across the world. So will grow the snowball.

So what’s our plan? Well, we can’t solve every problem but we reckon that we can help the water resource user associations to establish a firm foundation and to access finance which will help them implement riverbank restoration plans.

We will guide tourist lodges in their efforts to reduce the polluted effluent they send back to the river.

And we’ll sow the seeds for government agencies to develop and implement a sustainable water allocation plan.

Patrick’s knowledge and sincerity make his passion for the Mara river – for all Kenya’s rivers –infectious. Having spent time with him, and with the equally inspirational WWF team, I’m optimistic, despite the scale of the challenge.

But there are limits even to Patrick’s persuasive powers. I don’t think I’ll join him on his brisk pre-breakfast run tomorrow. With luck I’ll be asleep, perchance to dream of snow on the African plains.

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