Mali’s Inner Niger Delta communities facing extreme drought

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Source: Wetlands International

Mopti, Mali -- Communities in Mali’s Inner Niger Delta are facing an emerging drought. At this time of the year the Niger River in West Africa is normally reaching its peak, delivering water for millions of people including the 1.4 million living in Mali’s Inner Niger Delta. This year, water levels are drastically low compared to previous years.

About the Inner Niger Delta

The Inner Niger Delta has one rainy season between July and November; this year it started towards the end of August and ended at the start of Oct.  When it rains, the River Niger floods the surrounding area of up to 30,000km2; an area the size of Belgium. The floods are essential for the productivity of  rice farming, fishing and grazing and hence the livelihoods of around 1.4 million people.

Wetlands International, CARE and the Red Cross Climate Centre work in the region with local communities on a range of linked environment, climate, development and humanitarian initiatives. Over the years, the linkages between river flows, environmental condition, food security and human well-being have been subject to considerable research and investigation and this evidence is currently under consideration in the context of a sustainable development plan for the Delta.

A human disaster

As satellite images show, the flooded area is now close to the lowest levels in decades. Similar levels in 1984 led to a humanitarian and environmental disaster.

One farmer explained that though he had sown nearly 12 bags of rice when the rains started in August, barely any of the rice has grown.  “I have lost my 12 bags of seed, I will get nothing from it”, he lamented.

The story is the same everywhere. Acres of ploughed land sit bare with only the neatly ploughed rows as proof of the effort.  Local fishermen too are crying foul as the low flooding has not produced many fish.  Similarly, hardly enough bourgou pasture is available to the pastoralists who are wondering how they will feed their estimated 5 million livestock in the coming months.

The organisations in the field are already noticing a rapid increase in food prices. Many people are moving away with their cattle, for instance to the wetter areas of southern part of Mali and neighbouring countries .

Rainfall and water infrastructures

The rains came late and left early.  Satellite images show that this year’s flooded area in the Delta is 40% less than 2010.  In addition, the Red Cross Climate Center’s data indicate a drastic reduction in rainfall this year. In addition, the distribution of rain in the season has been poor – with a late onset, followed by long dry spells, and an early end to the rains. Forecasts are similarly dismal in southern Mauritania, Senegal, eastern Niger and other regions of the Niger Delta. The magnitude of the problems in these areas is not yet clear.

The lack of rainfall may not be the full story. It is well documented that during dry years like this one, existing dams took 30% of the Niger River discharge for hydrypower and for irrigation. Besides the impact existing dams, another dam has been recently built and another is under construction (Fomi dam). These dams  increase the impact of any drought, as the dam lakes are filled regardless the total available water. See our study about the combined impact that climate change and dams may have.

Social Impact

Already, life in this arid region is changing as young people are forced to leave their homes and travel far away in search of another source of income.  Many of them end up harvesting sugar cane or rice in the large-scale irrigated farms or fishing in the Selingue dams.  Others will cross country borders. Recently, an NGO carrying out tax income assessments in the villages could not complete its exercise as majority of the able male population had left the villages to fend for their families.

Waterbird Bio-diversity Threatened

The Inner Niger Delta is the winter destination for millions of waterbirds, coming from Europe. Examples are the purple heron and the ruff. With rising food prices, water-birds in the area are also under threat as communities turn to bird hunting for their nutrition. Wetland’s International’s Mali Director Elhadj Bakary Kone has noted “a drastic increase in the number of vulnerable species available for sale at the local markets in Mopti, central Mali.”  Dr. Elhadj Kone explains that, in a normal year, water-bird hunting only starts after the food from the harvest begins to run out in early January.

Today’s situation is similar to the weak flood of 1998-1999 where over 62,500 water-birds were hunted and sold at local markets. Last year only 8,098 water-birds were sold in Mopti’s markets.

Urgent Steps Needed

In the coming weeks, Wetlands International will be working with other local partners to investigate the causes and extent of the drought and liaising with local authorities on any mitigation measures that could be taken.

It’s imperative that both the local government and international organizations work closely together to build these communities’ resilience to survive the coming dry spell. Wetlands International is calling for measures to ensure that the minimum flow of water that is known to be required for the Delta (40 m³/sec) is allowed to pass the upstream water management  infrastructure, to avert a humanitarian crisis for the people downstream.

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