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WILLIAM OJWANG: September has been Africa’s moment for water

In the ever-evolving conservation landscape, this month has been nothing short of a multi-pronged blessing for Africa’s environmental space with a bright beam of light finally being shone on the role healthy freshwater ecosystems - our rivers, lakes and wetlands - play in strengthening climate adaptation and building resilience.


Kenya set the stage by hosting the Africa Climate Summit (ACS), an unprecedented platform that brought African countries together to add their unified and resolute voice to the global climate dialogue. 


The outcomes of this summit are far-reaching, with various climate change-related commitments and pledges from governments and the support of several development partners who participated in the event. Notable was the continent’s enthusiasm for the groundbreaking Freshwater Challenge, which was officially launched at the UN Water Conference in New York, on 23rd March 2023. 


The Freshwater Challenge (FWC) aims to revive and protect our rivers, lakes and wetlands, which will enhance our water and food security, and help people and nature to adapt to the increasing climate risks, tackle nature loss, and drive sustainable development. It further seeks to align with nationally identified priorities and provide a framework for governments and communities to take collective action to improve the health of their freshwater resources. 


Overall, the Freshwater Challenge provides a quantifiable set of global freshwater targets: 300,000 kilometres of degraded rivers restored and a staggering 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands restored by 2030.


The significance of this endeavour cannot be overstated, particularly when many countries in Africa, including Kenya, are water-scarce. And when our continent’s freshwater resources are under ever-increasing stress from a combination of population and economic growth and the worsening impacts of climate change.


Water insecurity, an escalating concern, threatens to undermine the growth rates of water-scarce regions by as much as 6% of GDP by 2050. This grim reality would have far-reaching consequences, impacting crucial sectors such as agriculture, public health, and income generation. Furthermore, the annual costs associated with natural disasters, encompassing direct damage, recovery expenses, and tragic loss of life, continue to mount.


Amid this backdrop, we must focus our attention on the region’s unique and critical natural gem: the Mara River. Unlike many other rivers in the country, the Mara River is a transboundary water resource of immense value to the communities and ecosystems it sustains in Kenya,  Tanzania and beyond. However, its significance also renders it vulnerable to exploitation and, if we continue with unsustainable business-as-usual, it could become a hotspot of conflict - both literally and diplomatically.


Fortunately, we are commemorating Mara Day today almost immediately after the Freshwater Challenge received widespread support during Africa Climate Week. Now on its 12th Edition, the Mara Day commemoration is the only such platform in the region that champions the conservation of a shared waterbody. With nearly all our rivers and water sources facing threats from catchment degradation to climate change, the reality is that every water body should receive not only attention of such magnitude but matching conservation efforts as well.


This year’s celebrations are being held in Mugumu town, in Serengeti District, Tanzania. This gathering brings together stakeholders and development partners from diverse disciplines, backgrounds and regions, fostering collaboration and dialogue on sustainable solutions.


Being a water body that isn’t confined to a geographical or political boundary, events like the Mara Day commemoration play an indispensable role in raising awareness among water users across the two countries about the importance of shared water resources, the urgent need for conservation efforts and how best to advance transboundary water sharing arrangements.


To enhance harmony and promote the sustainable management of this critical natural resource, conservationists advocate for the principle of "sic utere tuo," which essentially encourages users in the upper catchment of the river to utilize the river reasonably and responsibly, bearing in mind that they share this vital resource with downstream users. This principle underscores the importance of responsible and sustainable use of our natural resources to ensure their availability for future generations.


Applying this principle to the Mara River and similar shared water resources would imply that those utilizing the river in its upper reaches must do so in a manner that does not harm or deplete this precious water source. It acknowledges that downstream communities and ecosystems are equally dependent on its sustenance - and that they are dependent on more than just the flow of water in the Mara but also the natural flow of sediments and nutrients, and the incredibly rich biodiversity within it.


In a significant departure from its tradition, this year’s Mara Day has gone beyond awareness creation, exhibitions, tree planting and social interactions to also host a scientific conference. This innovative addition brings together regional think tanks to help us develop comprehensive insights and potential new approaches that Kenya and Tanzania can consider to ensure sufficient future flows of water along the Mara  River while enabling sustainable social and economic development.


The Mara River serves as a lifeline for communities and ecosystems along its course, and it is imperative that we take collective action to protect it. Mismanagement or overuse of water resources can lead to conflicts and inflict severe harm on both the environment and human well-being. The adoption of the Freshwater Challenge as a Water Outcome at COP28 is a laudable step toward ensuring the long-term sustainability of these vital ecosystems - and tackling the climate crisis.


As noted many times during Africa Climate Week, “the climate crisis is a water crisis”.  Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands are central to helping us adapt to the impacts of climate change - from floods to droughts and changing rainfall patterns. Today, let’s commit to investing in a healthy Mara River - for the benefit of people and nature across this region. 



Dr William Oweke Ojwang, PhD, Freshwater Focal Lead at WWF-Kenya.

© © Martin Harvey / WWF
Aerial view of wildebeest trapped by high cliffs while crossing the Mara River. Every year thousands of wildebeest die while crossing the river due to strong currents or crossing at unfavourable crossing sights. Masai Mara National Reserve. Kenya.