Front Seat at the Slow Death of Nature

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This is not a so beautiful photo. I am standing at the rocky bed of the dried Great Ruaha River. Before 1993, no person had ever seen this sad nakedness of the belly of this river. This is because before 1993 this river has never dried. While it may not look so great now, there is a reason that this river is called the Great Ruaha. It is a massive river – long, wide, furious, and full of life. Hippos, crocodiles, elephants and other creatures of nature survive because of this river. Birds fly all the way from Europe to the banks of the Great Ruaha. Its catchment basin is about 85,000 square kilometers, larger than Rwanda, Burundi, Swaziland, Gambia, the Comoros, and Mauritius combined. About 70 percent of hydro-electricity generated in Tanzania relies on the flow of this river. A major portion of irrigated area in Tanzania is within the Great Ruaha basin. Production of sugar from the Kilombero, and billions made by sugarcane out-growers, is possible because of this river. The delicate climatic balance of the Udzungwas, which sustains some of rarest and endemic species there, is enabled by the Great Ruaha. The lushness of the Rufiji Delta, and the thickness of its mangrove forests, and its famous juicy king prawns, is made possible by the sustained flow of the Great Ruaha. Ruaha National Park, the largest in East Africa, with about 10 percent of the world’s lions, will collapse if this river dies.

And, in 1993, for the first time ever, for about 21 days, the river stopped flowing. Since then, each year has brought a new record of dry days. Last October, during my visit there, the river had been dry for about 200 days. You can say, without fear of being contradicted, that the river is collapsing. And, for once, God is not responsible. We basically undertook actions that guaranteed the outcome we now encounter. We have diverted the river flow into our farms, and pasture lands. We have filled the river with mud with the way we farm. Fertilizer chemicals washed from farms all over Southern Highlands end-up in the river.

Last year, I took a long tour to see the entire Great Ruaha ecological system – from downstream upwards – from the Rufiji Delta, up to where the Rufiji produces stunning meanders, up to the Kilombero basin, then taking up the escarpment into Kilolo, then the Ruaha National Park, then into the Mbarali plains and into the Usangu swamp, then up the beautiful mountain ranges of Kipengere and the Kitulo National Park in Makete, which is where the Great Ruaha humbly begins as springs and tributaries. The beauty of nature across the basin was breathtaking; its destruction was heartbreaking. In that photo, I am standing at the rocky bottom – source of its fury when the river is flowing – of the Great Ruaha River, where before 1993, no man had ever stood. In those patches of muddy, oxygen-starved ponds, crocodiles and hippos toss and turn, struggling to cool themselves in not-so-cool waters. In bad days, you will find some dead hippos, ballooned, baked by the sun. At the appearance of mortal humans, massive crocodiles, fearsome creatures, will flee into the nearby bushes, reduced to the sad vulnerability of desert lizards. You find a vile stench from thousands and thousands dead fish, some fluttering in their last breath, and plenty of vultures hovering above. There is no spectacular sight of slow death of nature and its assets than this. And there is absolutely no way that this does not portend for our own survival.

So, what do we plan to do about what I saw? I want to be arrogant and say that we will get the Great Ruaha River flowing all-year round again. We did it before when I visited Katavi last year by getting the crucial but once-thought-as-dead Katuma River to flow, and nourish life, again. We have started executing a strategy that has considered lessons from previous failed efforts – and I am grateful for the support of top national leadership, particularly the Vice-President, who came to Iringa to kick-off our effort. It will be difficult, but that precisely is the reason we are doing it. All partners with interest in the basin will be critical to the solution. And all will be involved. But we won’t accept the usual small-ball efforts. We are delighted that the World Bank – Tanzania is keen on working with us on, among other things, smart, climate-sensitive, irrigation in the basin.

Few weeks ago, a court in India ordered that River Ganges, because of its importance and sacredness, be accorded the same legal status as a living person, meaning that polluting or damaging it will carry the legal consequences as harming a person. We probably have not reached that stage yet here in Tanzania. The knowledge that the Great Ruaha River is so important – economically, socially and ecologically – for the wellbeing of our nation should be sufficient reason to get us to protect it. And we must reject the dichotomy between conservation of nature and advancing human progress. Humanity has survived – even thrived – without paved roads. But I doubt that we will survive the collapse of major river systems, such as the Great Ruaha.

January Makamba

April 18, 2017


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