Commercial farms, climate shifts dry Tanzanian river basin


By Kizito Makoye

- In the remote Tanzanian village of Langoni, Ashura Kilinga gets up every day at 4am to join a stream of other women going to draw water from a bore hole on a dry river bed.

“If I don’t wake up that early, I won’t get enough water for my family,” said the 37-year-old mother of four.

Water is becoming scarce in the Pangani River Basin, which supports 3.4 million people across an area of more than 48,000 square km in Tanzania’s northeast, including the city of Arusha. As a result, local people are finding it harder to keep their crops and animals alive, and tensions are rising between farmers, herders and businesses.

For Kilinga, there are also emotional consequences. Her husband accuses her of having extra-marital affairs when she is out searching for water and beats her, despite neighbours’ efforts to stop him.

Kilinga used to draw water directly from the main river channel passing through the village, like other housewives. But now she considers it unsafe, since its muddy waters are infested with hungry crocodiles, and the water is too salty to drink. Most of the river’s tributaries have dried up.

Kilinga is among thousands of people in the Pangani River Basin whose lives are becoming tougher as water resources dwindle. Most earn a living as crop farmers or livestock keepers.

Many local people along the 500 km river remember better times, when there was enough water.

“I never experienced drought before,” said Saidi Ali, a 56-year-old farmer and herder in Mikunguni Ward. “All the troubles with water started a few years ago - I can now hardly find pasture for my animals.”

Other small farmers in the region also complain of dry river beds and an influx of animals from neighbouring areas as pastoralists seek grazing land.

Some point an accusing finger at local investors who run commercial plantations growing sisal, a plant whose stiff fibre is used to make twine, rope and matting.

“These big farmers are the ones causing all these problems,” said Rehema Mganga, also a smallholder in Mikunguni Ward who is now growing cassava and sweet potatoes after repeated droughts destroyed her maize and beans. “The sisal crop is draining a lot of groundwater - they shouldn’t be allowed here,” she said.


The Tanzanian authorities acknowledge that several factors are combining to cause water shortages in the Pangani River Basin, including the expansion of commercial sisal and livestock farming. Other contributors are climate change, a growing population and deforestation, they say.

“We cannot entirely ignore the threat of climate change, but there is also intense pressure on natural resources,” said Hamza Sadiki, a Pangani River Basin officer.

The government needs better information to be able to assess the impact of extreme weather on the area, he added.

“There is nothing we can do without data,” he said. “We are trying our best to raise awareness among the people. They should understand the need to protect their environment by adjusting their way of life.”

Scientists say the Pangani River Basin – which stretches from the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and Meru to the Indian Ocean - will be hit hard by warmer temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, linked to climate change.

Researchers predict a rise of between 1.8 and 3.6 degrees Celsius before the end of the century, accompanied by decreasing rainfall and increased evaporation in the river basin, according to Pius Yanda, a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam who is also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These trends are expected to result in a 6 to 10 percent decrease in annual water flows in the next ten years alone.

According to the Pangani River Basin Authority, three hydro-electric power stations located on the river - which have the capacity to generate 91.3 MW of electricity or 17 percent of the country’s power needs - are running at only 30 percent of their potential output due to insufficient water flow.


Downstream, the Pangani estuary, once rich in marine and aquatic biodiversity, is becoming saltier as the river’s current is too weak to keep ocean tides at bay.

District officials blame the problem on climate change. “The quality of surface water has been affected,” said Mohammed Hamisi, Pangani District water engineer. “Salt water intrusion in the river has gone as far as 8 km upstream because of the rising ocean.”

Fresh water is supplied to Pangani Township during low tide to avoid pumping salty water from the sea, he added.

“Several streams which were supplying water to the main river have either turned seasonal or completely dried up – therefore, the Pangani River current has also been affected significantly,” Hamisi said.

Many people in the district count on wells for their water supply, but the rising sea level has made most deep wells prone to saline intrusion.

Pangani Basin officials said the government is taking some steps to resolve water problems, including making local communities aware of the need to preserve water sources and to adapt to climate shifts.

According to Pangani Basin Officer Sadiki, the country’s 2012 water policy calls for the protection of rivers and their surrounding environment in order to cope with water demand and other pressures.

But critics say the government has yet to adopt a comprehensive approach to resolving the country’s worsening water shortages.

Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam, specialising in climate change and governance issues.

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