DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Lucas Mahiga still fished a decade ago, there was more water in the Kilombero Valley’s Mkele River and catches were good. But now water levels have dropped, making it impossible to earn a living as a fisherman.
“I have stopped fishing, and I’m now engaged in fruit and vegetable farming,” Mahiga said.
The 52-year-old, who lives in Chisano village in Tanzania’s eastern Morogoro region, recalls better times when the river was home to different fish species, most of which have now died off due to insufficient water.
Local residents says there’s no doubt the climate in the Kilombero Valley - which sprawls across 7,679 square km some 200 miles (322 km) southwest of Dar es Salaam - is changing fast.
The vast wetland, listed as a protected site under the Ramsar Convention, has lost most of its perennial rivers. They have dried up completely or become seasonal, affecting the livelihoods of thousands of people.
The Kilombero Valley is struggling to retain its reputation as the nation’s bread basket, as climate and water stresses take their toll.
Chisano residents say the valley has been hit by recurring droughts, while expanding human activities - including livestock grazing and farming - are making water shortages worse.
Richard Muyungi, director of climate change in the Vice President’s Office, told Thomson Reuters Foundation climate change is already damaging people’s livelihoods and the wider economy. Droughts and floods have pummeled many areas, denting food production and causing water scarcity.
“While the government is committed to addressing this global problem (of climate change), the affected people must make serious efforts to take adaptation measures, such as irrigation and sustainable farming, to minimise the risks,” he said.
WATER SPENDING BOOST
Tanzania is endowed with many river basins that play a key role in providing water and income for local communities. But its water resources are under growing pressure from both human and climate impacts.
Media reports indicate that conflict between herders and farmers over shrinking water supplies and pastureland is rife in many areas.
Water shortages are a chronic problem in Tanzania, mostly affecting the rural population. According to the World Health Organization, one out of six Tanzanians lacks access to safe drinking water, due to population growth, rapid urbanisation and climate change, among other factors.
In response, Tanzania has embarked on major reforms in its water sector, aimed at promoting access to water for both urban and rural communities.
According to the Ministry of Water, the government has decentralised water and sanitation services to about 20 urban and 100 district utilities in the past 10 years in a bid to bring water management closer to the people it is supplying.
Official data shows the water sector has received a significant boost in public spending over the past decade, since it was first included as a priority in the national strategy for growth and poverty reduction.
According to a 2013 report on the country’s water sector development programme, the Tanzanian government and its development partners committed funds to the tune of $1.364 billion over the five-year period ending June 2013, 43 percent more than initially planned.
Yet Tanzania is still failing to provide enough clean water for its people. Only 57 percent in rural areas had access to water in 2012, compared to 51 percent in 2000, according to the report. The government will need to speed up its efforts if it is to meet the Millennium Development Goal target of providing water services to 74 percent of its population by 2015.
Herbert Kashillilah, a technical advisor with Water Aid Tanzania, told Thomson Reuters Foundation, that while the government has boosted finance and technical assistance to the water sector considerably, implementation of programmes is proving a challenge due to gaps between policy and practice on the ground, and a lack of accountability.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete made an emotional appeal to the international community to help East African nations tackle water scarcity.
"When I was growing up, there were many rivers - and during the rainy season many people were washed away. These days, those rivers are running dry,” the president said.
Hydropower, which generates over 60 percent of the country’s electricity, has also been hit by acute water shortages, he added.
"We depend on hydropower generation, but in the last decade, it has become very unreliable as dams do not have enough water,” he said.
Lakes are also declining. The water level in Lake Victoria has fallen by 1 metre and Lake Manyara has receded by 7 kilometres. And cross-border tensions between Tanzania and Kenya are growing, as people fight over dwindling water resources.
Kikwete said the international development agenda tends to favour education and health at the expense of access to water, which is critical for both sectors.
"Water is not considered a priority - if you talk about health, in Africa, many diseases are waterborne. Clean water is part of health," he said.
A 2011 study on climate change and cholera in Tanzania said higher temperatures and shifts in rainfall patterns posed serious risks to human health, including a greater possibility of diarrheal diseases.
"For a 1 degree Celsius temperature increase, the initial relative risk of cholera increases by 15 to 29 percent," it said.
Henry Mahoo, professor of agricultural engineering at Sokoine University of Agriculture, warned that unless Tanzania adopts better water management strategies - especially in farming - it will not be able to avoid worsening water woes.
"One of the critical constraints to agriculture in East Africa is water scarcity, which may be defined in terms of access to water. In some places water is abundant, but getting it to people is difficult because of the lack of infrastructure,” Mahoo said.
According to a 2011 study on the economics of climate change in Tanzania, rising temperatures may reduce water availability, as well as exacerbating extreme events such as drought and floods, which affect the water sector. That will be critical for the country's tourism, fishing and farming industries, the report said.
"There could be reduction in rainfall, river flow and groundwater systems that will have potentially large impacts for household water supply, irrigation, industry and the functioning of the existing water infrastructure and ecosystems services,” the study warned.
Tanzania needs at least $600 million per year to fight climate change effects, it added.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam.