The Inner Niger Delta in central Mali is a giant green oasis on the edge of the Sahara desert. It is one of the country’s most productive areas, but also among its poorest. At the height of the wet season, when the River Niger is swollen by heavy rainfall in Guinea, an area the size of Belgium, from Mopti to Tombouctou, turns into a landscape of lakes.
As I discovered on a previous visit in January, travel is by boat, across a waterscape of fishing vessels and migrant birds from Europe, feasting on the abundant aquatic life. But once the waters start to recede, farmers move in to plant rice, millet and other crops in the wet mud. And Fulani cattle herders bring their animals to feed on the rich hippo grasses, known locally as bourgou, that are exposed by the retreating water. By May, the lakes are dry and their beds turned to scrubby woodland, dry pasture and desert. Outside the villages, people are rare. Travel now is by four-wheel drive across dried up lake beds.
It is in this environment of extremes that Wetlands International and CARE Netherlands, with the technical expertise of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre are working with local NGO partners, AMPRODE-Sahel, ODI-Sahel and GRAT, to improve the resilience of communities by protecting and rehabilitating the ecosystems on which they depend. This involves helping them to plant and rehabilitate flooded forests and the bourgou grasses that serve as both fish nurseries and livestock fodder, to reduce grazing pressure on trees and grasses, and to manage water in ways that can sustain those ecosystems and the livelihoods of the communities.
In return for working on these long-term ecological projects, Wetlands International and its partners offers communities assistance with projects that deliver more immediate benefits to livelihoods, like setting up vegetable gardens and planting fruit trees. Often this is done by establishing micro-credit schemes for women’s groups.
The programme in Mali targets those most in need. The government has listed 703 vulnerable municipalities. The highest concentration is around the Inner Niger Delta, where all 20 of the programme’s project villages are situated. Within these municipalities, mayors and other local officials choose which communities might benefit the most by participating.
Daouda Sanankoua, the mayor of Deboye municipality, said: “I don’t just choose on the basis of the government’s vulnerability index. I also see which can benefit from help. Some will always fail. We like the villages that are doing things for themselves.” Good leadership was important too, he said. “Many villages work hard, but it is important that they work together.”
Wetlands International and its partners then hold village meetings to set an agenda. In each village, a disasters committee is established to handle projects, make decisions and liaise with local officials and NGOs.
“The floods in the delta are likely to be poor. So soon we will be advising the rice farmers to plant drought-resistant varieties.”
An important part of the project has been to help communities learn how to make better sense of their environment using modern tools. Many have been given rain gauges and help in using the data from them to decide which crops to plant. Soon Wetlands International hopes to be linking up with a mobile phone company to send text messages to villages warning them of upcoming flood or drought risks.
As we travelled into the delta in May 2014, Wetlands International’s Mali director Bakary Kone noted that: “Rainfall has been poor in Guinea this year. The floods in the delta are likely to be poor. So soon we will be advising the rice farmers to plant drought-resistant varieties.”
People I met in pilot villages were all keen to adopt new ideas. Many communities were developing their own strategies to adapt, usually through more sophisticated management of their natural environment, such as channelling water into fish ponds and onto grazing pastures. In some cases, the programme simply helps them do what they already plan – by providing finance or technical expertise.
“We think upstream dams are preventing the water from coming into the delta. We are worried. There are two more dams planned.”
They were also well aware that ecosystem management in their villages, while valuable in the short term, had its limits. Environmental forces outside the wetland were shaping their world, and threatening their traditional ways.
Climate was changing. I asked several communities about the climate change they were seeing. At Sobé on the north shore of Lake Deboye in the heart of the delta, they reported classic signs of desertification. “The wind is driving the sand into the village,” said village leader Samba Touré. “Most of our fields are gone now. The school is next.”
In Noga village, the women discussed the question for some time. “There are three things,” their spokeswoman finally concluded. “One is we are getting less rainfall because of lack of trees in the area. Second there are big winds here, which means sand dunes are invading our fields. And third, the water flows in the rivers are becoming weaker. We think upstream dams are preventing the water from coming into the delta. We are worried. There are two more dams planned.”
Sanankoua, who travelled with me to several villages in his area, said: “Everything here depends on the water, but the government is taking our water. They are giving it to foreign farmers. The lakes don’t fill properly now.”
Wetlands International is involved in advocacy work to raise the profile of the Inner Niger Delta and its ecosystems and inhabitants. It commissioned a hydrological analysis to make the case for maintaining river flows into the delta, and has encouraged local mayors and other leaders to make the case too.
This is necessary work. For some in government, the delta remains a remote place where the tarmac roads turn into rutted tracks and ways of life seem remote from modern Mali. They remain unconvinced that protecting water flows into the delta is an effective use of a vital natural resource. They think it is a good idea to hold back flood flows to generate hydroelectricity and fill irrigation canals.
But, says Kone, the delta is responsible for 8 per cent of Mali’s GDP and is home to a third of its cattle – some two million animals in all – as well as three million sheep and goats. Fish from the delta are exported all across West Africa. I saw trucks in the major wetland market in Mopti loaded up with fish packed in crates with ice to the make a week-long journey to northern Nigeria.
The maintenance of ecosystem services on the wetland, which sustain two million people and deliver major gains to the national economy, can only be achieved if the water keeps coming down the river. Wetlands are nothing without water.