>>>page 1 OF 3
>>>you are here: ACTIVITIES \ The Ruaha National Park\ river


The Great Ruaha River

The Great Ruaha River before it dried up every year. Elephants digging for water in the dry riverbed of the Great Ruaha River.

The Great Ruaha River...Once upon a Time Ago

Elephants digging for water in the dry riverbed of the Great Ruaha River.

  The Drying of the Great Ruaha River


To sum-up the situation briefly, the Great Ruaha flows from  south-western Tanzania eastwards,  until it  eventually flows into the Rufiji River.   During the  mid 1970's a large commercial rice scheme was started in the Usangu Plains, (Mbarali) which is the main catchment area for the Ruaha. Subsequent to this scheme, the  flow of water during the dry season began to get less, it was imperceptible at first,  however, by the mid 80's when a  second large rice farm was established  (Kipunga) the flow began to diminish more drastically than ever before.  In  November, 1993, the river stopped flowing completely for about 3 weeks, in 1994, it was dry for 4 weeks, in 1995 it was dry for 8 weeks and so on.  The situation is now extremely serious with the river being dry for up to 3 months of the year. Prior to 1993, there are no records of the  Great Ruaha  River  drying up completely for any period of time.

Naturally, this has seriously affected the flora and fauna of the river system and the Park itself. One's immediate thoughts go to the fate of the Hippopotamus and Crocodiles, which have been severely affected, however, in actual fact, it is the smaller mammals, birds, and amphibians that are affected first. The fresh oyster beds are now no more, the endemic fish for the Ruaha River are now extinct, the White Crowned Plover, whose only breeding ground in Tanzania is on the Great Ruaha River, is now severely threatened by lack of success in breeding, this is directly due to the effect of the drying river. The list is too long to go into here, but suffice to say that irrevocable damage has already been done.  
A noticeable change in the movements of the animals in the park, Elephants and Wild Dogs  in particular. These animals all rely on  water from the Ruaha river for sustenance during the dry season.  Now  that this is not available, they are being forced to move  away from the areas along the river in a desperate search for other sources of water. This will put tremendous pressure on the survival of these species. In a dry year such as this, it will be difficult for the young animals to survive such hardships as active springs will be few and far between.
The situation is extremely serious, as,  not only without the focus and life force of the Ruaha river will  tourists have no  reason to visit the  National Park,  but moreover,  Ruaha is one of the most beautiful and important ecological areas due to it's location.  It is on the convergence zone of Northern and Southern species, for example:- Ruaha Park has over 1,400 species of plants, with at least 15 endemic plants, as  compared to the 600 species found in the Selous or the Serengeti.
It has become obvious now, that with each passing year, the water that reaches Ruaha Park from the Usangu basin is decreasing at an alarming rate.  In previous years the Usangu swamp was the ‘source' of the Great Ruaha River.  Each wet season, the Usangu water would begin its journey from Usangu to the Rufiji Delta, via the Great Ruaha River.   At the start of the rains,  the water table in the swamp rose, until it overflowed from the vast reed beds of the swamps, into the Ruaha River. This water is of a different colour to the local runoff from rainfall in the Ruaha  Park and so is easy  to monitor.  It has been dubbed for many years  by the local fishermen,  as the ‘black water.
The Usangu water catchment area has been put under tremendous pressure from over use by rice farming. In the height of the dry season, when the water is at it's lowest, the rice schemes flood their paddies.  One of the worst aspects of this is that,  although vast areas are submerged in water, not all paddies are utilised, and it often lies wasted and merely evaporates unused.  Recently, the time for flooding has been brought forward, that is, earlier in the dry season, this enables the stake holders to obtain higher prices for their rice, though  actual annual yield,  remains constant.  This earlier season depletes the water reserves sooner, therefore, downstream, in the Ruaha Park, the river dries up earlier, leaving increasingly longer periods of drought.
Secondly, to compound the issue,  there  are thousands of cattle utilizing the swamp area which is a serious threat on the swamp itself. Tremendous damage is done by  the massive herds that spend the dry season here.  Their hooves trample down the soft spongy surface, thus  reducing the surface area of the swamp drastically each year, not to mention the vast amount of water that the animals consume daily.
As a result of the obvious overuse and wastage  of water up stream from rice farmers and cattle, no water at all reaches the Ruaha River, not only during the dry season,  but seemingly now  during the wet season as well. Understandably, due to these phenomena,  during the wet seasons, the  so called ‘Great Ruaha  River' never reaches anything like its full capacity.  As a result, the  animals in the Ruaha Park now  face a serious  problem of  drought conditions.
The fact  is, that  water abstraction up stream from the Ruaha Park has not only become  greater in volume but also more efficient, or perhaps it would be correct to surmise that it is less efficient,  as more people move into the area more channels are haphazardly made. There is no system or control over how the water is used.
What is ironic, however, is that  historical records  suggest that the Usangu/Ruaha area during the late 1880's, was regarded as a ‘Garden of Eden, teaming with wildlife.  However, fairly rapidly into the 1900's it becomes obvious that the area was heavily hunted and the volume of game was drastically reduced, so much so, that reports suggest that one struggled to see even an Impala.  Since Ruaha was gazetted as a National Park in 1964, all the money, time and effort  spent by TANAPA has made the area once again a Garden of Eden.  Tragically, the very reason for the game being here in the first place,  namely the Great Ruaha River, is now no longer   the life giving force that it was, will the game survive? What is the future of the Park now? We have the game, but we don't have the water to sustain it!  Does this mean that all the time and money spent by TANAPA  has  been in vain? When will humanity learn to live in harmony with our planet instead of against it?
It is important that all stake holders are made to face up to the seriousness of the situation and  take the initiative to make the necessary compromises  on the  short term financial gain.  Regulations must be  implemented  to ensure that there is some flow reinstated into the Ruaha River during the dry season.  It has been  noted that a flow of approximately 5 feet wide, by  12 inches  deep was enough to keep the existing pools with enough  fresh water to keep  the fish alive, and keep it  sufficiently palatable for the animals to drink. SURELY one can BEG for such a minute amount of water to continue through the channels!
Unless the situation of the Usangu Catchment area is taken under control, it seems likely that the rest of Tanzania's valuable water reserves will follow a similar fate.
One only has to look at Ethiopia and Kenya to see how devastating mismanagement of water resources is to National development.   We are all aware of the massive mistakes that have taken place globally,  we know the pitfalls, and Usangu is a classic example.  
If Tanzania is to continue to develop for  a better  future, the ONE resource that lies at the heart of all life is WATER.   So, instead of seeking more, and more water, by different and more desperate means, efforts should be made to control our demand, and cut down on the
rampant waste that we see every where.
It is  imperative,  for the survival of the Nation, that we  learn to manage water as a crucial ingredient to our survival.  The Usangu Catchment  Project should be used as a role model leading the way  for the rest of Tanzania.
  The situation is indeed now CRITICAL.

For more about the Great Ruaha River problem or further information about the park:
click Ruaha National Park.





Page updated 8th April 2007