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Friday, 10 March, 2000, 16:19 GMT
Mali pioneers river co-operation

By Ruth Evans

Such is the shortage of water in many parts of the world that some experts predict that the wars of the 21st Century are most likely to be fought over water.

In Mali, where the mighty River Niger runs in a great ark through the country, a pioneering project has been set up for 30 villages to work together to share the river's waters for irrigation.

Bamako bank on the bank
Bamako: All sorts of activities take place along the banks of the Niger
The villagers will have to set aside their differences for the best use of the Niger - a situation that is, in many ways, a local microcosm of larger international issues and problems.

The simplest way of travelling downstream, from the picturesque mud architecture of Djenne is by Pinasse.

This is a motorised wooden canoe with a simple reed cabin rigged up to keep off the scorching Sahelian sun.

Little white fishes leap out of the river as the boat cuts a gentle swathe through the wide meandering Niger.

Environmental catastrophe

The magnificent river sweeps through West Africa from its source in Guinea to the point where it meets the ocean in Nigeria thousands of miles away.

Bridge over the Niger
There is unchecked urban and industrial pollution into the river
In Mali, the river divides the northern Sahara from the southern Sahel, winding slowly past places that are the stuff of legend - Timbuktu, Djenne, Mopti and Gao.

The River Niger is Mali's lifeline.

The country - one of the poorest on the planet - is dependent on the river for transport, food, and water.

But today many stretches of the river are facing an environmental catastrophe, as a result of unchecked urban and industrial pollution from the country's main towns.

Elsewhere the river is silting up with sand from the encroaching Sahara and now parts of the river are only navigable at certain times of the year, when the water levels are high.

The legendary city of Timbuktu, once accessible by boat, is now cut off from the river by the sand.

Rice production

Rice - a staple crop in Mali - is grown mainly in the huge inland flood delta of the river.

But this area is subject to great fluctuations in rainfall.

Floods and droughts have both combined to damage Mali's crop harvests in the past.

Mosque on the river bank
A pioneering irrigation system has been built
Securing a good level of food production is essential in a country where the current population of 10 million is set to more than double in the next 25 years.

For the government and people it has become even more critical to guarantee to continued cultivation of the rice crop.

Now, the international NGO, Care, is increasing rice production in the flood plains of the inland delta of the river, by helping villagers to build an ambitious irrigation infrastructure at strategic points along the river.

A series of small concrete sluices and barrages have been built to control the water's access to canals and channels that criss-cross the vast plain.

As a result, an additional 10,000 hectares have become available for rice production on the vast Plaine de Pondori.

Floodwaters

Last year, due to heavy rains in neighbouring Guinea - where the mouth of the River Niger is situated - the floodwaters arrived in Mali fast and strong.

Canoe on the Niger
The river is useful for transport, food and water
In the past, these waters would have destroyed much of the newly planted rice, but now for the first time, farmers have been better able to control the entry of water onto the flood plains.

This is not the first attempt to harness the waters of this mighty river. During colonial times, the French tried to build the largest irrigation works in West Africa here but failed.

What distinguishes this project from its predecessor is the direct involvement of villagers who will be directly affected by the success or failure of this scheme.

The long-term aim is to make it sustainable in the future without the need for foreign aid.

Improved lives

Control of land and water is a very complicated issue in this country.

It is regulated by centuries of agreements and laws between various villages, so it is vital that the villagers resolve their local conflicts before they can work together to make the irrigation scheme effective.

Mali mud mosque
An intricately built mud mosque sits comfortably along the banks of the Niger
Care's Sekou Coulibaly says it is still too early to say for sure whether this year's rice yields on the Plaine de Pondori have really increased or not, but the early indications are very positive.

The peasant farmers I met along the river were in no doubt that the project has improved life immeasurably for them and their families.

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See also:

18 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
'Nature caused Sahel drought'
18 Feb 00 |  Africa
Mali's National Complaints Day
02 Mar 00 |  Crossing continents
Cutting out a tradition in Mali
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