One of the lodges in Masai Mara that has adopted the constructed wetlands system.

The Mara River, site of the site of a phenomenon dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the world is arguably the lifeline to the tourism industry to the great Mara River Basin. In July and August – peak season in the Mara – visitors from across the globe flock to witness the breathtaking wildebeest migration.

In this serene landscape are over 200 hotels and lodges strategically located in proximity to tributaries some flowing into the Mara River, lifeblood of the Mara ecosystem. Situated to take advantage of the magnificent views of this location, they pose a threat to the water quality, as improperly treated effluent from hotels can end up in the rivers.

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River. This is part of the annual migration.© Martin Harvey / WWF

To sustain this phenomenal ecosystem, it is important that there is sufficient water of good quality. It is for this reason that WWF-Kenya with support from the HSBC Water Programme has been working with hotels and lodges in the Mara river basin to improve their wastewater management systems.

Constructed wetland is a sustainable wastewater treatment system, which ensures that effluent discharged into the ecosystem is safe. This system mimics natural wetland by helping filter hazardous waste water that would otherwise pollute water sources.

How does it work?

The wastewater is first retained in a septic tank (also known as the pre-treatment tank) so some time to ensure that all the suspended solids settle down and to get rid of the bacteria.

The second phase consist of a shallow depression in the ground with a level bottom. The flow of wastewater into the wetland is controlled using perforated pipe that spreads water evenly across the system. As wastewater flows through the system, suspended solids settle and are filtered. The plants and organic material also absorb trace metals. Organisms that live on the stems and roots of the wetland plats, in the water, and on the rocks use up the nutrients and organic material as food and hence get rid of the nutrients from the wastewater. Bacteria and nutrients are the two main components of wastewater. The wastewater should be retained in the system for 5-14 days for it to function effectively.

So far, 67 personnel from hotels and lodges across the Masai Mara have been trained on the construction and maintenance of constructed wetland.

Investing in the environment

Since it was initiated a number of hotels and lodges that have installed the system at their facilities have started recording gains. Some of the hotels that have recorded commendable progress include: Sarova Mara, Spirit of the Maasai Mara, House in the Wild, Mara Bush Camp and G&G hotel in Talek.

WWF-Kenya recently visited Sarova Mara to assess progress. The project here is steered by engineer Ashby Mwalili, who asserts that visitors today are not only looking for cosy facilities with world class services, but are also motivated to stay in hotels and lodges that take care of the environment.

Progress in the Sarova Mara wetland plant is noticeable. The well-maintained wastewater system is surrounded with neatly arranged flowers; a big change from the same site several months ago. Last year in December when we visited the plant, pungent smell filled the area. Today, however, the clean atmosphere with neatly done flowers and well-arranged pebbles creates visually pleasing aesthetics. Most importantly, today the quality of the effluent going into the environment, and eventually the river, as well as underground water is improved.

A herd of buffalo in the Maasai Mara. © WWF-US / James Morgan

“We have in the recent past evaluated the importance of constructed wetland in our facility and thus decided to take the bold step of investing in this system,” said Mwalili. Sarova Mara uses 93 cubic meters of water in which approximately 80 per cent of this goes out as waste.

Mwalili claims that their system is both cheaper and more environmentally friendly as it uses natural gradient and no chemicals in refuse processing. The system uses impermeable lining to deter contamination and also has plants on top to help to draw nutrients from the liquid waste that would otherwise pollute the water sources.

WWF’s ambition is to ensure that we have good quality water in sufficient quantities to support the ecological services in the Mara ecosystem for all of those who share the river’s water: the tourism industry, agriculture, domestic use, and the habitats and wildlife who need it to sustain them.

Their system is both cheaper and more environmentally friendly as it uses natural gradient and no chemicals in refuse processing. The system uses impermeable lining to deter contamination and also has plants on top to help to draw nutrients from the liquid waste that would otherwise pollute the water sources.

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