Condensed Report:
Mara River Basin Expedition 2009
Kenya and Tanzania

WINGS WorldQuest Reprinted courtesy of WINGS WorldQuest

Date: September 15 – October 15, 2009

Expedition Leader: Alison M. Jones; No Water No Life Project Director and Lead Photographer

Team Members:

Alison Fast: No Water No Life Videographer

Tari Wako: Driver/Guide

James Robertson: Traditional Safaris, Nairobi, Kenya

Joash Romeo: Guide, Mara River Airboat Safaris, Musoma, Tanzania

With assistance from the No Water No Life Advisory and Research team, and African-based consultants


To document effects of a three-year drought and raise public awareness of threats to the Mara River Basin, assess consequences and create sustainable management solutions. The No Water No Life team followed the 254-mile (395-km) Mara River from its source in Kenya’s Mau Forest, to its terminus at Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The Mara River Basis is considered an “Eighth Wonder of the World” due to its vast biodiversity, and is one of six case-study watersheds in Africa and in North America being researched and documented by No Water No Life.


No Water No Life chose the Mara River Basin because it is seen as a watershed of global significance due to its extraordinary biodiversity that for centuries has fascinated explorers and all who love wildlife.



The Mara Basin is home for 1.1 million people (775,000 in Kenya and 325,000 in Tanzania). The previously reliable high and well-distributed rainfalls in the highlands of this basin and its fertile soils have been favorable for agriculture, livestock and wildlife activities. Hence immigrants have been attracted into the basin, creating population growth rates as high as 7.5%. Musoma (Tanzania) and Bomet (Kenya) are the largest urban centers with about 120,000 and 95,000 residents respectively. The rest of the population resides in rural areas, where 64% live below the poverty line.


Mara River Basin tribal cultures include the Ogiek, Kipsigis, Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Maasai, Wakuriya, Wajaluo, and Wajita. Despite current repetitions of droughts, the dominant social-economic activity remains crop farming. About 62% of the households are small-scale farmers. Livestock rearing is the second dominant activity. Tourism and wildlife are important economic activities, as exemplified by the Maasai Mara Game Reserve on the Kenyan side, and the Serengeti National Park on the Tanzanian side.

The Ecosystem

The Mara-Serengeti ecosystem contains the most diverse combination of grazing mammals in the world, holding 400,000 wildlife and livestock. However the Mara’s world-renowned wildlife populations of ungulate herds (wildlebeest, zebra, gazelles…) and iconic predators (lion, leopard, cheetah…) are currently threatened since severe deforestation in the upper catchments and land degradation throughout are critically impacting the river flows and the ecosystem.

The Challenge: Balancing Population Growth and Resources

The growing human population is exerting high pressure on the limited land and water resources in the basin and on wildlife. In order to cope with this pressure, there have been, and continue to be, ongoing changes in regulating land and water-use patterns in the basin. The degradation of natural vegetation cover and soil conditions has led to changes in rainfall-runoff characteristics of the basin, which consequently change the river flow regimes. Major environmental changes resulting from the basin surface modifications observed in Mara River basin include high-peak stream flows, reduced base flows, enlarged river channels, and silt build-up along the river bed.

The issues being studied on this expedition…

• Decline of keystone species (elephant, rhino, lion and others)

• Climate change (extended droughts and intense flooding)

• Unregulated water extraction (by commercial and small-scale farms, as well as human consumption)

• Timber extraction (causing loss of forest and water retention services)

• Fisheries management (seasonal and size restrictions)

• Habitat loss / fragmentation (by development, agriculture and forestry)

• Recreation (tourism, fishing, spiritual renewal)

• Pollution (from gold mining, agriculture, human and livestock effluent)

• Restoration efforts (at local grass-roots, national and international levels)

• As with all No Water No Life expeditions, the team employed research, still and video photography to investigate and document Mara River Basin characteristics, including:

• Hydrologic Systems (headwaters/source, rivers, lakes, wetlands…)

• Land Cover / Land Use (agriculture, silviculture, forest, development, national parks and conservancies)

• Biodiversity (including focus on species that are indicator, keystone, culturally significant, threatened, endangered, endemic, native /non-native and invasive)

• Habitat (riverine, wetland and aerial, terrestrial and aquatic corridors)

• Climate (historic, current and predicted changes in precipitation, temperature and seasonal/annual patterns)

• Human Impact: historic and current (population, economy, socio-cultural patterns, infrastructure, governance, political environment, stakeholder actions, and future development predictions)

• Watershed Management


The Mara River Basin is 5,309 square miles (13,750 sq km), of which 65% is in Kenya) and 35% in Tanzania. Basin altitudes range from 2,932 m at its source in the Mau Forest Escarpment to 1,134 m on Lake Victoria. The basin has important swamps, including Enyapuiyapui Swamp in the Mau Forest; Musiara and Olpunyata Swamps in Kenya’s Maasai Mara; and Masurura Swamp in Tanzania.

The main perennial tributaries are the Amala and the Nyangores, which drain from the western Mau escarpment. As well, the Sand, Talek and Borogonja Rivers enter the Mara in Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve. In Tanzania, the Mori, Kenyo, Tambora and Nyambire Rivers drain the basin. Rainfall varies with altitude with mean annual rainfall ranging from 39 to 69 inches (1,000–1,750 mm) in the Mau Escarpment; 35 to 39 inches (900–1,000 mm) in the middle rangelands; and 27–33 inches (700–850 mm) in the lower Loita Hills and Musoma. Weather patterns are bi-modal, with rains falling between April and September, and again in November and December. However, due to climate change impacts on this pattern, predictions are no longer very dependable.

The five distinct physical, land-use sections of the Mara River Basin are comprised of:

• The forested Mau Complex, source of the Mara River

• Plains of large-scale agricultural farms, irrigated with water from the Mara River

• Open savannah grassland protected by conservancies and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania

• Pastoralists’ land used mostly for grazing by the Maasai

• Floodplains in Tanzania where the Mara River discharges into Lake Victoria


No Water No Life researched, photographed and questioned natural resource management in the Mara watershed—or lack thereof —throughout the expedition. Thirty-five stakeholders and stewards were interviewed for approximate durations of one hour each.

The three largest challenges facing the Mara River Basin are water availability, water quality and usage, all of which need to be addressed regional, national and transboundary governance policies regarding sustainable management practices. Without attention to these issues there will be an increase in poverty and likely conflict since humans and wildlife absolutely need access to water. Sustainable water availability can only be achieved by first undertaking scientific environmental assessments of water flow in the Mara River during all seasons. Then action plans for protection and distribution of water resources can be instituted and enforced.

All Mara watershed stakeholders met and interviewed by No Water No Life understood and support the necessity of adapting to changing economies and climatic patterns. Adapting means instituting rain harvesting, afforestation and develping a more sustainable technology for farming and fishing. East Africa must address water deficiency by investing in scientific tools that can forecast and gauge water flow levels in order to establish when reserves are threatened and abstraction must be curtailed. However, such mitigation and poverty reduction efforts, while enacted locally, need to be supported globally by the international community using both top-down policy and bottom-up grass root approaches. Additionally, discussions were held on the pros and cons of pricing water supplies. Many solutions are being considered from many different viewpoints, but they are always underlined with a grave sense of urgency.


Two Scott Pearlman Field Awards, a Towbin Foundation Grant, private donations and in-kind donations by James Roberson of Ker & Downey Safaris, and other organizations.


WINGS WorldQuest (fiscal sponsor for No Water No Life) and The Explorers Club granted their Expedition Flags. Others endorsing partners are International Rivers, Global Information Network, Mara Conservancy, Global Water Sustainability, International League of Conservation Photographers and Art for Conservation.