Are the rivers in Tanzania at risk of drying up? The contested causes of environmental change – 10th October, 2016

Date :Monday 10 October 2016

Time : 5.15

Location : Room 4429, School of Oriental and African Studies, Russell Square WC1H 0XG


Are the rivers in Tanzania at risk of drying up?

The contested causes of environmental change

This was the topic presented by Professor Bruce Lankford of the University of East Anglia at a seminar on 10 October 2016.

The facts are startling. In 2004 Bruce Fox, whose family run a safari and hotel company in the Ruaha National Park, pointed out that in 1993 the Great Ruaha River dried up in the dry season, with dire consequences for fish in the river, plants and animals in the game park, and the belief that it would affect electricity generation at the Mtera and Kidatu dams downstream (see below), which supply hydro-electricity to Dar es Salaam, Dodoma and many other parts of Tanzania.  In more recent years, it has dried up every dry season. The Great Ruaha river drains an area the size of Wales  and feeds into the Usangu or Ihefu wetland. Fox asserted that it was not a coincidence that the drying up had started after the World Bank and other donors paid for projects that increased the amount of abstraction of water for irrigation and domestic provision via so-called modernised concrete weirs which could divert much or all of the flow onto large areas of irrigated land in the Usangu plains – large state farms (now privatised) at Mbarali and Kapunga and many other smaller schemes.  Other environmental concerns included  the very large numbers of cattle in the Usangu plains, and one of the Government’s responses was to move them all out, in the erroneous belief it  would ‘save water’ – the subject of an earlier Britain Tanzania Society seminar in 2013 (see the write-up and slides at Agropastoralist Headache – paper Oct 2013)

Bruce Lankford had already done work on the hydrology of the river, and was involved in two major research projects.[1]  Many researchers were involved, including many Tanzanians, and there were other research projects, making the Usangu plains one of the most researched areas in Africa. There were some important conclusions. One was that the amounts of water cattle could drink was not so much that it would make a significant difference to the flows, even in the dry season. Another was that the drying up had only marginal impact on the generation of electricity, because by far the greater part of the water flowed into the dams during the rainy seasons, and was stored in the two dams – only a little got through in the dry seasons anyway. The challenge was to get the sustainable supply of electricity out of the water in the dams (rather than a go-for-broke maximum production).  A sustainable HEP production would, for example, mean holding water back at Mtera if the Kidatu dam was full or nearly full, and managing the water levels in the two dams together. If that had been done more electricity could have been generated over periods when droughts or late rains occurred.

The researchers also looked at other possible causes of reduced flows – deforestation upstream affecting springs and delayed releases of water, greater diversion of streams for small-scale irrigation upstream, and greater evaporation due to climate change. All of these could have an impact, and especially more small scale irrigation, but not sufficient to make a big overall difference.

But the accumulation of water abstractions, including from small diesel pumps, combined with the construction of the concrete weirs has had, over time, an impact. They allow large amounts of water, in some cases the whole flow, of tributaries to be diverted for irrigation. They were associated with water rights which gave irrigators rights to an absolute amount of water, even when there was little in a river. They were often not well managed, so that water taken out of rivers ran to waste, or was used in excess of minimum net domestic needs.

The conclusions, some of which are expressed in The Great Ruaha Restoration Campaign, involve rewriting water rights, prohibiting extraction when flows are low, and using weirs that divide the water proportionally, leaving some flowing downstream.  Some progress is being made, but so far not sufficient to restore the flows through the Ruaha game park.

All this and more was spelt out with figures and pictures in Bruce Lankford’s slides from the seminar .

[1] SMUWC – the Sustainable Management of the Usangu Wetland and its Management;  and RIPARWIN  – Raising Irrigation Productivity and Releasing Water for Intersectoral Needs.



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