Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Water in the Desert: A Tale from Mali

The River Niger is a geographical oddity. It starts in the hills of Guinea then runs away from the coast into Mali, finally reaching the ocean thousands of miles later.

Each year seasonal flows flood the wetlands near Mopti in Mali, creating a rich ecosystem that feeds fish, migrating birds, cattle and some 1.5 million people who live there. Not, perhaps, for much longer.

Fred Pearce has reported two threats to this ecosystem. Upriver from the wetlands engineers are diverting water from the river to create, by irrigation, new farmlands; farmlands that the government of Mali has given to foreign companies. In 2012 the proportion of river water averaged 8%, but went as high as 70% during the dry season. According to Lansana Keita, the engineer in charge, the barrage is supposed to release at least 40 cubic meters per secoind at all times but sometimes doesn't: "We do our best, but irrigation has priority."So far the wetland area has been reduced by 600 square kilometers and fish yields have fallen. The government of Mali plans a tenfold expansion in new commercial farmlands. Irrigation for this will require the whole flow of the river during the dry season.

And further upstream, in Guinea, the government plans a new hydroelectric dam. This would capture most of the wet season flow. According to dutch hydrologist Leo Zwarts, who has modelled the effects, the combined effect will be to dry out the wetlands about every four years creating poverty, starvation and driving more than a million people off the land.

There's an obvious precedent for this - the Aral Sea. The sea lost 80% of its volume between 1960 and 1998 due to diversion of water for agriculture. The results for pollution, health and losses of livelihoods and biodiversity that have been horrible and widely reported. We might have hoped that the government of Mali and its foreign partners would have noted the lessons. Yet Jane Madgwick, head of Wetlands International, has described the likely results for Malean wetlands as a “human catastrophe as vicious and shameful as the drainage of the Aral Sea". 

Finally (I think) we should note that the mighty river Niger does not end in Mali. What about the downstream users?

When the River Niger leaves Mali it flows into Niger and then into Nigeria. (You can tell its importance from the country names can't you? It's the largest river in both countries!) What will be the consequences for them? And what might they do to avoid those consequences?

This is a depressing tale with a number of lessons:
  • Intensive commercial farming and irrigation schemes may increase food production in a country. Much of the extra food, and profit, will be exported making the local benefits somewhat uncertain and likely to accrue to the local elites.
  • They may create poverty and hardship for existing farmers, fishers and herders. These people are unlikely to be compensated for their losses.
  • We should therefore be highly skeptical of plans to address Africa's problems by encouraging large-scale commercial farming.
  • These problems are not specific to either capitalist or state socialist systems. They reflect drives for status, profit and production that are found in all economic systems plus the fact that national planners are remote from the people and places most affected and are unconstrained by an effective political system.

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