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Great Ruaha River

Great Ruaha River | Full flow at Msembe | 24th March 2007   

Great Ruaha River | No flow at Ibuguziwa Bridge | 22nd November 2013

Overview of Great Ruaha River Flow 

1964- 2016

Until 1975, the Great Ruaha River was a grand, full-bodied river, flowing strongly much of the time where only in very dry years did its flow reduce and slow down. Today it stops, totally, for about 4-5 months of the year.


In 1975 the first rice farm was established in the Usangu Basin, which feeds into the Great Ruaha. This was the Mbarali Rice Scheme and that same year the river almost stopped flowing for one week. But no one took any notice. This trend continued annually, sometimes it almost stopped flowing for 4 weeks, just a tiny trickle flowing in the driest months of October and November.


In 1987 the Kapunga rice scheme was opened in the same area. This time with more of an impact on the flow, in the data recorded it shows anything from 16 - 56 no flow days. during the dry season from October- November 


Then in 1998 the Madibira Rice scheme was opened and that same year a new record of ‘no flow’ days - of 12 weeks or 86 days - was observed. This number  of ‘no flow’  days has grown steadily, year by year, mirroring the huge increase in the acres now under rice, and the number of water users.


Great Ruaha River | Full flow at Jongomero | 24th March 2007  

Great Ruaha River Dry

Great Ruaha River | No flow at Jongomero | 27th November 2010

Rivers usually start as insignificant: highland streams and tiny rivulets that join, gradually merging with other rivulets, slowly forming larger and larger streams until finally, full bodied rivers.  All this, from the billions of tiny droplets of rain that fall yearly from the skies, almost like magic. The Great Ruaha River is no different. It has a long, long winding path over hundreds of kilometers, passing through diverse lands and people.


This story of a degraded river is not unlike many stories of rivers world-wide, where water is essential to agriculture. Agriculture that renders once massive, perennial flows of life-giving water to a mere trickles for much of the time and then total dryness.  Perhaps we are all guilty of not opening our eyes to the bigger picture, the country-wide, West to East view that this river spans. 


For if a river spans that far, then surely our gaze should follow suit?  To ignore the ‘wholeness’ of anything is to ignore its continuity, its life.  This river once gave life to many diverse people, activities and landscapes yet today it is being largely used  for growing rice and a few other small crops. This takes place in a comparatively small area of the country, with a comparatively small number of people. It no longer has the capacity to serve the great number of inhabitants it used to along the way .


The question remains is this right? or is it wrong?  Or perhaps there is somewhere in between. In amongst the reasoning's of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’t’s  surely there is a balance that can be found?

Personally, I am a great believer in balance. To me balance is the word we need to observe in every area of our own personal lives, and then in the same way, it can be extrapolated to the life of the planet.  After all, we are all one and the same, Planet Earth, is our home, we cannot exist with out it, so surely it is in our interests to look after it as kindly and as lovingly as we look after our own families? 

It is not difficult to see that the rice growing activities have severely affected this river. I don’t believe it is possible to shy away from this fact.  However, I do believe that it is possible to grow rice and have a flowing river. My very humble observations over the years have indicated to me that the drastic lack of dry season flow is more to do with poor water management than anything else.

In 2009 this notion of mine was proved correct. It was the second year Ruaha National Park had secured its new boundaries, encompassing the Usangu wetland. Anxious to improve the dry season flows, the Park started a small pilot scheme, which ensured that the relevant gates flowing into the paddies along the in the Ndembera river were closed, and bingo, this simple act was enough to ensure that the Ruaha River flowed though the park all year. Though the flow was extremely small, it was enough to prove that it is possible to change the situation, merely by being a little more careful.

However, from the year 2000, the high level, wet season flows, e.g., the times when the river annually flooded its banks, suddenly stopped.  These wet season flows were no longer high, often times they are never even bank to bank!  Because of this huge loss of wet season water, the river’s integrity became severely affected, not only in the dry season but also in the wet season.  It was then, in 2000, that the whole nature, the ‘Great’ part of the Ruaha river died. These annual wet season floods were incredibly important to the rivers' ecology, and as a result  the river bed itself has changed almost unrecognizably since that time.  Now we only see these huge flows in an ‘el niño’ year. 


Throughout all of 2000, many small and subtle changes began to take place within the river ecosystem and the Mtera Dam water level began to suffer. This indicated to me, that the volume of farmers irrigating land in the wet season had suddenly exploded.


This continues to happen, and in my view, this is not sustainable. Certainly not if one wants to maintain a flowing river that will reach the Indian Ocean and continue to serve many inhabitants on its long and winding course.  Also, it is important to note that currently our eyes are fixed on the farmers in Usangu. However it won't be long before they are suffering too, like the Ruaha National Park is suffering, due to the number of farmers further up stream from them, in the highland watershed, is growing with alarming speed. 

So really, we need to ask, do we want to ensure that we can use this water for future generations or are we just keen to do what we can now and let it die? Because although we are currently focused on ‘no flows' in Ruaha National Park, really that is just cosmetic. It won't be long before we are faced with no flows into the Usangu Basin.


It is also really important to bring into the equation that no one wants to upset anyone's life, no one wants to stop anyone from making a living, all one hopes to do is improve livelihoods and at the same time ensure we are living in harmony with nature's gifts. For if we squander the gifts, especially water, we are squandering our own children.


I am not a scientist and don’t pretend that I know all the answers, but as I said earlier, it's all about balance.  Nature is in constant balance, that is its way, its wisdom.

So to me, I see that it is very possible to get more balance back into this river situation, it does not mean that we have to stop growing rice, it just means we have to change our current methods. We need to look from another window and try to see how we can make it all work for the better of the whole. 


Finally, is it possible for us to become united as an "us”, rather than an “us” and a “them”? Is this not the main stumbling block?  After all, in truth, everyone has an important role to play in the world and no one is more special than the next, or more valuable.  So, with these small pointers in mind, I see it as very possible to get some balance back into the beautiful Great Ruaha River that serves so many, for the prosperity of Tanzania.

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