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Tanzania’s Ruaha River Debacle: Eviction in Vain?

Five years after the Tanzanian government evicted pastoralists from the Usangu plains, the Ruaha River remains depleted.

Tanzania gained its independence from Great Britain in 1964. Situated in East Africa, it has struggled to maintain a balance between indigenous ways of life and pressures to join the modern world. This struggle has appeared in Tanzania’s land-rights laws where both traditional and state laws are recognized, often resulting in a conflict between a Western “fences and fines” paradigm and the indigenous concepts of living with the land.1 In the 1990s, the conflict manifested as a government-enforced eviction of the indigenous pastoralists from the Ruaha River basin.

Tanzania’s land-rights laws, where both traditional and state laws are recognized, often result in a conflict between a Western “fences and fines” paradigm and the indigenous concepts of living with the land. In the 1990s, this conflict manifested as a government-enforced eviction of the indigenous pastoralists from the Ruaha River basin.
In Tanzania’s Usangu Region, the Ruaha River is an essential component of the lives and businesses of its population. Pastoralists use the river as a watering ground for their livestock and cattle while the surrounding basin is an important site for agriculture, even supporting areas of intensive cultivation.2 The basin’s drainage system naturally lends itself to rice production, and the World Bank has funded several rice irrigation projects in the region.3 The Tanzanian Electric Supply Company (TANESCO) also runs two hydroelectric power plants along the Ruaha, generating 50% of Tanzania’s electricity.4 In addition to everything else, the Usangu Game Reserve relies on the river to support its vast diversity of wildlife.

The problem began in the mid-1980’s when the Ruaha River’s flow began to diminish. In 1993 the river’s flow stopped completely for three weeks. By 1994 it was dry for four weeks and, in 1995, for eight. This trend continued until the Ruaha would not flow for the entire three months of the dry season.5 Among other things, the unprecedented lack of water caused an energy crisis at TANESCO’s hydro-electric plants. Many reports attempted to explain the change and while their reasoning differed, they all agreed that human activities were responsible for disrupting the flow.

Many reports claim that the pastoralists, with 1.8 million head of cattle, were exceeding the carrying capacity of the river.6 However, other reports show that cattle numbers had in fact declined, and were well below 400,000.7 It seems likely that the modernized, rice irrigation schemes deserved at least some of the blame. Between 1960 and 1990, more than ten new large-scale farms were built in the Usangu basin, each requiring four times the amount of water a traditional irrigation technique uses.8 This data alone shows that the pastoralists should not have been singled-out as the sole source of water disruption.9

By 2006, the Government of Tanzania knew that it had to address the increasingly dry Ruaha River. In charge of environmental affairs, the Vice President’s office issued a notice of eviction for all pastoralists in the region.10 The government had worked hard to secure World Bank funding for the new irrigation systems and thus viewed the interests of agriculturists and rice farmers in the region as top priority.11 In contrast, the pastoralists constitute a small portion of Tanzania’s population, rarely vote, and are largely uneducated. Disregarding their interests undoubtedly carried less political cost.

The eviction itself was very difficult on the pastoralists. The evicted were denied their right to land – a violation of the Tanzanian Constitution12 – and were not properly compensated. Moreover, they were forced to pay the costs of transport, fines for offloading their cattle to rest, and bribes to officials.13 During the five-day journey to their relocation site in the Lindi Region, there was inadequate infrastructure for the livestock (e.g. cattle dipping areas or pastures) and many livestock perished.14 Finally, their arrival in the Lindi Region created new resource conflicts and inhabiting residents grumbled over “another Usangu.”

Unfortunately, the eviction has not increased water in the Ruaha. Five years later, the river is still experiencing reduced flows and reports show that the waters “never found their way past the rice farms and back into the Ruaha River.”15 The Ruaha Conservation Fund has been tracking the Ruaha’s water level since 1996, and in 2011 reported that the river had reduced to a trickle; in some places it is no more than pools of dark, stagnant water.16

Steps are now being taken to address water permit overlaps and exceeded quotas. First, the government must understand how much water is being taken and from where. Only then can the quotas be policed to ensure that they are not being exceeded. This is particularly important for the rice farmers as the modern technology uses much more water than the traditional irrigation schemes. Further recommendations include restricting the number of cattle allowed in the area (difficult, however, as cattle are treated as currency in the indigenous pastoralist culture) and regulating areas for cattle use in order that some areas are allowed to recover. Perhaps, with these measures, the pastoralists will not have been evicted in vain and the Ruaha will begin to flow again.


[1] Sanna Ojalammi, Contested Lands: Land Disputes in Semi-Arid Parts of Northern Tanzania (May 27, 2006) (Academic dissertation, University of Helsinki).
[2] Emmanuel Mvulla & Chande Kawawa, Resource Mismanagement and the Misery of Pastoralists in Usangu Basin, (PINGO Forum 2006).
[3] Susan Charnley, Environmentally-Displaced Peoples and the Cascade Effect: Lessons from Tanzania, 25(4) Human Ecology 593 (1997).
[4] M.G.G. Mtahiko et al., Towards an ecohydrology-based restoration of the Usangu wetlands and the Great Ruaha River, Tanzania, 14(6) Wetlands Ecology and Management 489, 503. (2006).
[5] Charnley, supra note 3, at 618.
[6] Mvulla & Kawawa, supra note 2.
[7] Id.
[8] Faustin Maganga et al., Implications of Customary Norms and Laws for Implementing 1WRM: Findings from Pangani and Rufiji Basins, 29 Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, 1335 (2004).
[9] Mvulla & Kawawa, supra note 2.
[10] Id.
[11] Mtahiko, supra note 4.
[12] Tanzanian Const. art. XVII, § 1:
Every citizen of the United Republic has the right to freedom of movement in the United Republic and the right to live in any part of the United Republic, to leave and enter the country, and the right not to be forced to leave or be expelled from the United Republic (italics added).
[13] HAKIARDI, Report on Eviction and Resettlement of Pastoralists from Ihefu and Usangu-Mbara District to Kilwa and Lindi Districts, (PINGO Forum, March 27, 2007).
[14] Community Research and Development Services, Pastoralists Endure Sufferings as Evicted from Ihefu Wetland to Southern Regions, Research and Downloads, http://www.cordstz.org.
[15] Daily News Reporter, Water Management in Usangu Basin Causes Concern, Daily News (Dec. 7, 2011).
[16] Sue Stolberger, A Critical Water Management Situation, Ruaha Conservation Fund (2011), http://www.suestolberger.com/RuahaWaterLevel.htm.