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Africa's Flourishing Niger Delta Is Threatened by a Libyan Water Grab

Mali's president and Libyan leader Gaddafi have begun a major agricultural project that will divert much of the river's water and put the delta's future at risk.

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Now, however, Malian officials have no control over the project. Their president has signed that away. They say the Libyans have carried out a social and environmental impact assessment, although its contents have not been made public. The job of the Malian officials is simply to organize compensation for the thousands of people who are expected to lose their homes to the irrigation projects and to find new land for those farmers who refuse to be turned into Gadaffi’s laborers.

There is no official confirmation, but few doubt that the rice grown here will go to Libya. More than 1,200 miles away across the Sahara, Gaddafi has spent $30 billion over the past three decades building the Great Man-made River, which pumps ancient water from deep beneath the desert through 1,800 miles of huge pipes to irrigate farms on the Mediterranean coast. But even with that giant hydrological enterprise in operation, Libya still depends on foreign markets for three-quarters of its grain.

The giant farm being built on the edge of the inner Niger delta by Malibya is his next big gambit.

Mali of course needs development. It is changing and so are the wants and needs of its people. Schools and clinics are starting to appear; every fishing encampment, however temporary, has a TV antenna; the fishing nets are made of nylon and come from China; the kids wear Obama T-shirts and support European soccer teams; motorbikes are starting to replace donkeys; there is sporadic cellphone coverage and young village men break the still wetland nights with their sound systems. These days, too, traditional lines of ethnicity and livelihood are blurred as cattle herders take up fishing, fishers harvest grain, and millet farmers go herding. But the fecundity of the delta remains the basis of their survival in one of the poorest countries on Earth.

Many government officials see saving the wetland as an environmental priority they cannot afford in the push for human development. But in fact, maintaining the wetland is essential to development.

This year, the Mali government is expected to publish a ten-year “sustainable development plan” for the delta. Early drafts are said to sanction a big expansion of irrigation. European aid agencies funding the process have reportedly demanded a rewrite. Whatever it finally contains, the plan faces a long consultation process before being enacted, by which time the game may be over, the water swallowed up by the Libyan project and others.

This may not just be a local matter either. With Al Qaeda busy recruiting disaffected people such as the Tuareg nomads around Mali’s borders, any disruption to the traditional way of life could feed its violent agenda.

So this is a key moment that will likely determine the fate of one of Africa’s great natural resources, a living embodiment of how humans and nature can live not just in harmony but in synergy. Get it wrong and they will be creating new desert while claiming all the while to be greening it. Get it wrong and the repercussions could spread far and wide.

As we left the heart of the wetland for the provincial town of Mopti, our boat kept grounding on the bottom of the narrower waterways. Macaques laughed as we scrambled to resume our journey. The low water was simply a sign of the changing season, but it felt like an omen for the wetland.

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is an environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of recent books "When The Rivers Run Dry" and "With Speed and Violence" (Beacon Press).

 
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