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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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Daouda Sanankoua is an aquatic mayor, and proud of it. The elected boss of the district of Deboye arrived for our meeting in the West African state of Mali last month by overnight ferry. At this time of year, the majority of his district is flooded. Thank goodness. “More water is good,” he said, peering at his foreign inquisitor over his glasses. “Everything here depends on the water, but the government is taking our water.”

While we spoke, in the tiny schoolyard of Akka village, a few meters from the lapping waters of Lake Deboye, the headlines around the world brought news of flood disasters in Australia, Brazil, and Sri Lanka. But Daouda was grateful for the annual swelling of the River Niger, which left most of his 24 villages marooned. For without the water, they would be desert.

The floods in what geographers call the inner Niger delta nurture abundant fish for the Bozo people, who lay their nets in every waterway and across the lakes. As the waters recede, they leave wet soils in which the Bambara people plant millet and rice, and they expose vast aquatic pastures of bourgou (or hippo grass) that sustain cattle and goats brought by nomadic Fulani herders from as far away as Mauritania and Burkina Faso. This inland delta is Africa’s second-largest floodplain and one of its most unique wetlands. Seen from space, it is an immense smudge of green and blue on the edge of the Sahara.

But this rare and magnificently productive ecosystem is now facing an unprecedented threat, as a Libyan-backed enterprise has begun construction of a project inside Mali that will divert large amounts of Niger River water for extensive irrigation upstream.

This is all part of a grand plan by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to make his desert nation self-sufficient in food through long-term deals with nearby countries to grow food for Libya. Mali’s president has agreed to the scheme, which numerous experts say will enhance Libyan food security at the expense of Malian food security by sucking dry the river that feeds the inland delta, diminishing the seasonal floods that support rich biodiversity — and thriving agriculture and fisheries vital to a million of Mali’s poorest citizens — on the edge of the Sahara desert.

“More people will lose than win from most irrigation projects in Mali,” says Jane Madgwick, CEO of Netherlands-based Wetlands International, with whom I traveled for three days in the inner Niger delta. “These projects will decrease food security by damaging the livelihoods of those most vulnerable. What they are trying to do at the moment makes no sense because there is simply not enough water.”

Larger than Belgium, the Niger’s inland delta, laced with rivers and marshes, runs for 250 miles from northeast to southwest in central Mali, one of Africa’s poorest countries. The rights to harvest the delta’s fish and graze pastures are based on long-standing custom neither known nor recognized beyond its borders. I had spent days exploring this world as the seasonal floodwaters began to recede. I watched the arrival of the Fulani and talked to fishing families as they packed up their homes and left their villages to set up temporary camps beside the pools where the fish would concentrate in the weeks ahead.

Out there in the waters somewhere were a few surviving hippos, African manatees, and the odd crocodile. Madgwick constantly grabbed her binoculars to spot kingfishers, marsh harriers, cormorants, and purple herons, many of them winter migrants from Europe. Her organization is working with locals to revive flooded forests destroyed in past droughts, to maintain fish ponds among the flooded grasses, to extend the new practice of cultivating bourgou, and to encourage kitchen gardens planted by women’s groups.

 
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