KILOLO, TANZANIA - Gazing at the exposed, rocky bottom of the Great Ruaha River, known as the jewel of Tanzania, Rosemary Kasenza ponders what the future holds for her family now that there is no longer enough water for her crops.
"I am worried because it's the dry season and I don't have enough food to feed my children," she said.
Kasenza grows potatoes, maize, onions and bananas on 3 hectares (7 acres) of land in the fertile Ruaha basin in southern Tanzania.
She says she used to have no problem irrigating her crops, but now the river flow slows to a trickle in the dry season.
"We have experienced long periods of drought which have badly affected the river flow," said Kasenza, who runs a channel to drain water from the river to her farm.
The 51-year-old mother of six is among the roughly 1 million small-scale farmers who produce much of the East African nation's food, many cultivating rice on water-intensive farms.
In the Ruaha basin, the government accuses farmers of illegally squatting on protected land along the river banks.
Now, thousands face eviction as authorities try to protect wetlands critical for the river's flow — and the survival of local wildlife.
The government says farmers' water-intensive methods and herders' cattle have brought the once mighty river close to death, but farmers and pastoralists say they have lived in harmony with nature for decades, and are victims of drought.
"I don't have anywhere to go. We have been staying here all our lives. My children have known no other home than this one," Kasenza said.
Wildlife and water
Described as the "ecological backbone of Tanzania," the Great Ruaha River flows nearly 500 km (300 miles) from its source in the Kipengere mountains, through vast wetlands and the Ruaha national park before emptying into the Rufiji River in the southeast.
The Ruaha river produced more than half of Tanzania's hydropower for decades but increasingly frequent periods of drought have forced the government to shift to fossil fuels, including gas, for electricity production.
A task force set up this year by the Tanzanian government to examine the river's continuing degradation highlighted the impact of intense agriculture on the river's health and recommended the eviction of farmers and pastoralists from some areas.
Speaking in May after reviewing the task force report, Samia Suluhu Hassan, Tanzania's Vice President, said the government would consider removing farmers who encroached on water sources to help restore the river's flow.
"[We must] come together to save the ecosystem of the valley for the welfare of our lives and the interests of the nation as a whole," she was reported as saying in local media.
During a visit to the river basin in the Kilolo area last month, muddy, drying ponds were visible along the river, and crocodiles and hippos seemingly found it difficult to cool themselves.
In another area, vultures hovered above mounds of dead fish rotting in the sun.
Officials say the degradation of the river spans its entire length, from source to mouth.
In an interview with Reuters, January Makamba, minister of state in the vice president's environment office, said farmers who divert water from the river to their farms were responsible not only for the degradation of the environment but also for the death of wildlife.
It is illegal to divert water from the river in wetland areas the government deems to be protected sites.
"We are going to take stern measures against them regardless of their status or position in order to save the river ecology," he said. "We feel it is necessary to be very aggressive and uncompromising in enforcing the laws."
Authorities say that the Ruaha river dried up for the first time during the dry season of 1993. Water levels have dropped and dry spells have lengthened since, sometimes lasting several months, the minister said.
"You can say, without fear of being contradicted, that the river is collapsing. And, for once, God is not responsible," Makamba told Reuters.
He said that unless urgent action is taken to restore flows to the river, Ruaha National Park — the largest in east Africa and home to about 10 percent of the world's lions — will die.
"The beauty of nature across the basin was breathtaking, its destruction is heart-breaking," he said.
According to the minister, farmers with legitimate land claims will be compensated and allocated plots elsewhere but those who occupied land in the river's basin illegally would have to return to "where they came from."
"If someone settles in an area that he clearly knows to be protected land, they will not be compensated," the minister said.
According to local analysts however, the government's decision to evict poor farmers from the river basin and the more fertile areas of wetland will cut off families from natural resources they have relied on for generations.
"Smallholder farmers along river banks have for a long time managed to feed themselves and their families adequately without causing any harm to nature," said Lucas Mnubi, an environmental expert and the editor of Nature magazine in Dar es Salaam.
Mnubi said authorities should instead teach communities how to harvest river water sustainably, not evict them from the land.
Local farmers say they are being unfairly singled out and the move to evict them would destroy their livelihoods.
"We are being accused of destroying water sources, but the government doesn't realize the biggest enemy is drought," said Benjamin Nzuki, a farmer in Kilolo.
According to Nzuki, local farmers have always tried to conserve water sources, especially in the catchment areas.
"We always plant water-friendly trees in order to protect catchment areas so as to allow free flow of the water," he said.
Nzuki called on the government to work with local communities instead of "harassing them and branding them invaders."
The minister said farming methods that were less water-intensive would be introduced in some areas, and communities taught about the importance of protecting water sources.
"We have [also] put a limit on the number of cattle that each household can keep to cope with land scarcity and manage water sustainably," Makamba said.
However, herders who graze their animals in the riverlands are not happy.
"Pastoralism is business like any other, if you ask me to keep ten cows instead of hundreds you will obviously deny me income," said Leikim Saburi, a herder in Kilolo district.