By Luca Ferrini and Lucia Benavides. The Inner Niger Delta lies at the centre of Mali and at the heart of the Sahel. The region is affected by armed conflict since 2012, with the death of at least 2,000 people (1) and forced the migration of over 200,000 (2). Confrontation between the different factions and the Malian state continues, and this year attacks on the local civilian population have increased (3). Despite significant efforts to maintain medical assistance, food and drinking water (4), communities find themselves in uncertainty and lack many basic services, while experiencing constant fear of attacks.
A delta with strong development potential
With its more than 4,000 million hectares (5), the Inner Niger Delta (IND) is the third largest Ramsar wetland in the world. Ecologically, wetlands such as the IND provide a large variety of resources and services for human life, such as flood regulation, aquifer recharge and provision of food, fiber and building materials.
The IND is of key importance at both the local and the regional scale. For at least twelve centuries, it is the source of livelihood for a majority of the region’s communities. Covering an area the size of Switzerland and stretching over three administrative regions in Mali (Mopti, Ségou et Tombouctou), the Delta includes three major ecosystems: river-lake systems, swamps and plains(5,6). The Delta is home to two million people, mostly cattle breeders, farmers and fishermen, all of whom depend directly on the Delta’s natural resources (14).
Fishing by itself represents a large share of the life-support system and the local economy. More than 130 fish species thrive in the IND, 34 of which are endemic. The Delta produces between 90,000 et 130 000 tons of fish per year, sustaining a fish trade economy that reaches not only local markets but also markets in other West African countries, where the Delta’s produce enjoy an excellent reputation (7).
The river also sustains the livelihood of transhumant cattle breeders, who come every year to graze their cattle on its shores. Farming is also dependent on the Delta’s water resources, both at the small, family scale and in larger, irrigated areas such as the Office du Niger. In short, the river and its floods are the main driving force of the economy and of development in the region, notably in the agriculture, cattle breeding and fishing sectors (8).
In terms of its biodiversity, the IND is also the habitat of 350 bird species, a majority of which are migrating birds from up to 80 countries. Numerous other species, such as the cobra and the python, as well as large mammals such as the hippopotamus and the Manatee make inhabit the Delta.
A delta of interconnected challenges
Drought, land-tenure conflicts and climate change constitute a growing pressure on resources and are the main challenges of the region, which is currently classified as 2 (under pressure) and 3 (in crisis) in the IPC food security classification (9).
Insufficient and irregular precipitation in the last years have caused the loss of around ¼ of the Sahel region’s cattle (10) and a reduction of agricultural productivity in the Delta region (17). In Mopti, Fulani breeders (also known as Peuls), Bozo and Somono fishermen and Dogon and Bambara farmers have long been in conflict over land use (grazing vs. farming land, land tenure issues) and, during the dry season, also over access to water resources (11,12). These conflicts have deepened since the end of the 1980s due to recurrent and prolonged droughts. A reduction in the river’s discharge has been observed, as well as a decline in the extent and duration of flood periods, which are essential for fishing and for ecosystem health (13,14). Fish populations have sensibly diminished since the beginning of the century (9) due to overexploitation (5).
River sedimentation, caused by deforestation and desertification (see the image below, capturing how dunes are advancing on the river), affects the hydrological dynamics of the banks and has caused marshland and lake surface to recede (7). It also alters the functioning of the Sélingué hydropower dam, which provides the cities of Bamako and Sélingué, as well as the sourrounding regions, with electricity.
Within the context of an armed conflict (mentioned at the beginning of the article), natural resource management becomes more difficult and at the same time more important. Infrastructure maintenance, production support programs or land use monitoring are important instruments to react to the conflict and limit the depth of its consequences. Furthermore, the impacts the conflict has had on fishermen and breeder’s movements, along with a weakening of legal instances in the region (11,15), have heightened and radicalized natural resource-related conflicts, already exacerbated by ever more frequent extreme climatic conditions.
The Inner Niger Delta plays a unique role in the Sahel and in west Africa in general. As part of the Niger river basin, the IDN is a key component of crucial transboundary dynamics, contributing to determine the speed with which every raindrop that falls in Guinea and western Mali reaches Niger, Benin and Nigeria downstream. Besides its regional and global ecological and economic functions (bird migration, life support for nomadic populations, food provisions for markets in other African countries), the IND slows down the flow on the Niger’s main course, allowing irrigation not only in and near the IDN, but also downstream.
The precipitation regime in upstream Guinea as well as different water extracting activities upstream affect seasonal flooding dynamics. Consequently, retention projects upstream from the IND (such as for example, the Fomi project planned in Guinea should consider the very delicate ecosystemic aspects of the IND, as well as the possible effects of its use for human activities. Any water extraction on the Niger (e.g. for irrigation in the Office du Niger) will have an impact downstream, including in Niger, Benin and Nigeria.
A balanced management of natural resources is key to ensure sustainable development and economic, social and cultural stability in the region. The Nexus approach allows to balance human interests with conservation interests, aiming for efficient and participative allocation of resources for different uses.
A Nexus for the Inner Niger Delta
With its wealth of resources and long history of research and projects to protect it, the Inner Niger Delta currently faces a myriad of challenges, with competition over resource access, climate change and armed conflict dominating.
The IND region and its actors possess deeply-rooted knowledge for the peaceful and balanced management of this type of complex problems. The fact that the three main user groups of the Delta (fishermen, farmers and breeders) have managed to co-exist during centuries, through community-based conflict management strategies, is a significant starting point. And several actors (scientific, government, NGOs) remain very actively engaged in the region. The different scales of challenges call for a multidimensional and multi sectoral governance, with important regional and participatory components. Yet another opportunity for the Nexus to display its value.
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