It’s September in Ndedo village – the depth of the dry season. The sun has dipped below the dusty western horizon and I am taking a bucket shower. Five litres of water in a plastic bucket and a cup with which to anoint myself. A few hours ago it was a toasty 34 degrees in the sultry afternoon heat, but already a dry breeze chills my body as a hyena calls in the distance.
I am thinking about the water that I am using; it came out of a well, but not the kind of well you are picturing. This well is a narrow, mud-sided shaft dug ten metres deep into the earth beneath the dry woodlands of the Masai Steppe of Northern Tanzania. The narrow shaft is itself at the bottom of an enormous hole that may have been dug decades ago, a cavern into which herds of cattle are brought every day to drink, down a steep, rough entrance ramp. The water is lifted bucketful by bucketful from the well and poured into drinking troughs as the base of the cavern for the cattle. This ancient process starts at daybreak and goes on until shortly before dusk, and is a glimpse of the Neolithic past of the arid African plains. Herders have, over the past few thousand years, adopted a semi-nomadic lifestyle in order to adapt to the seasonally and geographically unreliable water resources dotted throughout the rich grassland savannahs where their cattle can thrive. Vibrant green and bursting with life when rains fall between November and May, these particular wooded savannahs of the Makame Wildlife Management Area become tinder dry with no surface water for many miles around for up to six months of the year, leading to the need for these deep, traditional wells.
Although I am using only a meagre five litres for my evening wash, I appreciate every cup and reflect on how this resource scarcity has lead to a subtle land-use system in the Masai Steppe, one that we are seeking to support with our latest carbon forest project with the local Masai communities. Much of the land within Makame can only feasiably be used for traditional pastoralist practices, and even this lifestyle is at its limit here. Land-hungry immigrant farmers may view the area as having potential for agriculture, but while a few areas may yield crops for a year or two, the general scarcity of water here means that long term farming is not viable, and results only in land degradation and eventual desertification, a process that has been witnessed on the margins of the Sahara for the past two millennia.
And while these deep wells can support communities of Masai and their cattle through the dry seasons, their use still needs to be carefully regulated so that the wells to not run dry from overuse. Community leaders ensure that as soon as temporary water sources appear when rain falls, access to the wells is restricted to allow them to refill. Cattle are then required to move into seasonal grazing areas, called ronjoo, where they must remain until the waterholes and streams dry up when the dry season returns. These ronjoo areas, covered with indigenous Acacia-Commiphora savannah woodlands, act as seasonal refugia for the herds, and are earmarked for protection from unregulated clearance, and it is these areas that are at the core of our carbon forestry project, Makame Savannah Project. Preventing these areas from being cleared means a reduction of carbon emissions, supports traditional pastoralist livelihoods and leads directly to the conservation of endangered wildlife such as Elephants and Wild Dogs which also use these areas throughout the year.