The village that survived

12Jun 2016
Deo Mfugale
Guardian On Sunday
The village that survived

THERE were a number of things that had put Ukwaheri village in the spotlight. The village is located in Mbarali district of Mbeya region on the western part of Ihefu, the important wetland that, when tampered with, refuses to release water into the Great Ruaha River.

Subsequently, Mtera hydropower plant becomes helpless; it fails to generate enough electricity to meet our needs.

Now, let us not wander off; we will stick to Ukwaheri. I was in the village a couple of years ago and there were interesting things about the village school and the village as a whole.

One is that the school had only one teacher for all the classes, one to seven, with a total of 350 pupils. I don’t think he bothered to teach all of them but chose to concentrate only on some classes, probably the seniors who would be sitting for exams at every year end. Even then, the school had not sent a pupil to secondary school for well over five years. There was no record beyond the five years. That too can be understood.

But there was another teacher who was more interested in doing administration (there was little to administer here really) than teaching the poor kids. Of course people must see the difference between a teacher and a headteacher; the latter must stay in the office, work on some files, deal with parents who are not anxious to pay contributions and may be receive one or two visitors who might visit the school once in three months especially during the dry season. People must notice the difference between a teacher and a headteacher, the schoolmaster.

Another thing is that the two teachers would collect their salaries regularly from June/July to November/December and then leave to fend for themselves for the rest of the year. During the other months of the year floods would cut them off from the rest of the world.

And these were not the kind of floods that would visit for one day and then go back the way they came; no, they would remain in the village to get used to the folks and provide them with fish. That would be for two or three months. When the floods subsided, there would still be deep pools of water here and there and no one could use the road (or something similar to it) because there would be none; it would have gone with the floods.

Somehow the teachers had learned to cope with the situation. The school survived. The village survived too!

But there was something ominous about the land - the heart and soul of the community and the school. Ukwaheri which is within the Usangu valley was slowly caving in to desertification. Thorny bushes had started invading into what used to be fertile land. Crop production was declining over the years, so said one of the villagers.

Even with sufficient of rainfall and subsequent floods, the soil cracked as soon as the season was over. Deep cracks that appeared on soil formed patterns that were beautiful to the eye but scary to the small-scale farmers.

Instead of a continuous sheet of soil covering the land, the cracks formed ‘soilcakes’ with white icing on their sides. Soon the soil would not be able support any crops as salinity increased and fertility was lost. That would be hard for the farmers and the livestock keepers.

But what was happening to the environment in Ukwaheri was also happening elsewhere in the district. In Usangu valley in particular, there was evident reduction of flows in the Great Ruaha and other small rivers.

It was at about this time too that the hydropower plant at Mtera was not getting enough drink to enable it generate power. The Ihefuwas shrinking because it was being starved.

I was in Mbarali recently, and although I could not travel to Ukwaheri, I learnt that things had changed. The school has a few more teachers, six actually, including the schoolmaster.

What I couldn’t find out, however, is whether the pupils are performing better, now that there are more teachers who are probably qualified enough to teach them well.

Now teachers don’t have to go without salaries for up to six months because they can travel to the district headquarters to collect them. The floods are less severe and the rainy season has become shorter. The road is in use for a good part of the year.

There are also changes on the environment. With short rainy seasons and undiscernible rainfall patterns, the village is facing water scarcity that has affected crop production.

Those who depend on rain-fed agriculture and those who conduct irrigation alike have been affected by the water challenge.
Farther afield, the situation is not different from what the Ukwaheri community is experiencing; it could be worse.

Recent research has established that over the years there has been a variability of about 40 to 50 per cent of rainfall from previous records and a net decrease in water availability is predicted in all parts of the Usangu Valley which is part of the Rufiji Basin. This is indeed bad news! The message goes to the Great Ruaha River, Ruaha National Park and of course Mtera hydropower station.

But what is behind this scarcity that threatens the wellbeing of communities and the economy of the country? One of the reasons is of course climate change; we know this already and we tend to heap the entire bale on this whenever things related to water go wrong.

However, there is another reason which is a direct cause to the situation.

“Low water levels in wetlands and rivers, the drying up of some sections of Great Ruaha River particularly in the Ruaha National Park and low levels on Mtera Dam are not caused by climate change but they are due to uncontrolled irrigation in Usangau Valley,” said one water expert recently.

The good thing was that he was not addressing farmers; I think they would have dealt with him squarely so that he would not be able to make such statements in future.

But what the expert said was merely a repeat of what I wrote way back in 2000 in my article titled “Irrigation: the monster that drains the Great Ruaha River” and I got a harsh reaction from many quarters.

If we have heard such statements for more than adecade, what have we been doing? What action have stakeholders to the Rufiji Basin taken?

“Our problem is not that we don’t know what to do. We hold a lot of meetings and agree to do a lot of things but we leave them at the venue of the meetings.
We do not honour our commitments by taking action that has been identified and agreed upon,” said Eng. Willy Mwaluvanda, former Rufiji Basin Water Officer.

Well……just flip quickly through your mind and find out what how many meetings have taken place to discuss issues related to the Great Ruaha River and the Rufiji Basin and link these to any actions that have been taken. Wouldn’t you agree with Eng. Mwaluvanda? I completely agree with him.

And while we debate in our minds what the former Rufiji Basin Water Officer said, let me shed some light on findings of a survey on the water situation in the Rufiji basin as conducted by the Water Resources and Energy Management (WREM) International.

The report reads in part, “Clearly the level of water use in the Great Ruaha sub-basin is highly unsustainable and is already causing multiple environmental and economic problems including shrinkage of the Ihefu Wetland, complete river flow stoppage in the Ruaha National Park for extended periods of time every year, and large declines in power generation at Mtera.”

There is something more to the findings:” Intense irrigation, the dominant water use in Usangu has been shown to be the leading cause of these adverse environmental and hydropower impacts,” says the report.

But there is a more damning finding: “Thus agricultural irrigation expansion advocated by SAGCOT, BRN and other national programmes is not sustainable for the agricultural sector in Usangu and the Great Ruaha region under current irrigation efficiency conditions.”
Hear that! It is pretty bad…..eeh!

“Now that we have launched the Great Ruaha Restoration Campaign, we have to think differently and act accordingly with due concern for the trade-off between Irrigation, energy and the environment,” said Onesmo Siggala, Country Representative for 2030 Water Resources Group who together with WWF Tanzania, SAGCOT, CEO Round Table and Rufiji Basin Water Board will implement the new initiative with other stakeholders in a bid to reserve the water situation in Rufiji Basin.