Lifeline for Over 1 Million in Mali Under Threat by World Bank Dam Plans

The Inner Niger Delta in Mali is one of Africa’s largest wetlands, a verdant and biologically rich area bordering the Sahara Desert. In addition to hosting millions of migratory birds from Europe, the delta serves as a lifeline for anywhere between 1 and 2 million people who depend on its bounty for pastureland, flood recession agriculture and fishing. The unique ecosystems of the Inner Niger Delta are in turn sustained by the beneficial annual flooding of the Niger River that inundates up to 30,000 km2 – an area the size of Belgium. The future of this key ecological site, however, is in jeopardy as the World Bank revives plans to construct the Fomi Dam near the river’s source in neighboring Guinea.

Hippo grass fields sustain the Inner Niger Delta
Hippo grass fields sustain the Inner Niger Delta
Photo courtesy of Fred Pearce

At 4,200 km, the Niger is West Africa’s longest river. It starts in the highlands of Guinea and traverses arid stretches of Mali and Niger before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean in Nigeria. The Fomi Dam near the river’s headwaters has long been a priority for the government of Guinea, which wants to harness the Niger’s flows to generate hydropower. Previous plans to build Fomi reached an advanced stage, but collapsed in part over objections from Mali given the magnitude of impacts downstream, including on the Inner Niger Delta.

The World Bank is now helping revive the project, with the new Fomi scheme being billed as a “multipurpose project.” In addition to generating power in Guinea, Fomi would allow Mali to double lands under cultivation in the Office du Niger, the quasi-public irrigation scheme dating from colonial days that yields the bulk of the country’s rice and sugarcane. Vast tracts of land in the Office du Niger have been allocated to foreign investors, including a Libyan sovereign wealth fund, amid allegations that smaller producers have been pushed off the land. The Fomi Dam would ensure year-round irrigation in the Office du Niger by withholding flows during the rainy season and spacing releases throughout the year.

The impacts on the Inner Niger Delta will be severe. Withholding flows during the rainy season and doubling the volume of water siphoned off for irrigation will cause a drastic reduction in the area of the Inner Niger Delta inundated by as much as 1,300km2. Recession rice cultivation will suffer, fish stocks will plummet, and competition among herders who graze their livestock on the delta’s grasses will grow as a result. Upward of 10% of Mali’s population – including some of its most marginalized people – will be impacted. 

The Bank is set to approve this week the Niger River Basin Management Project (NRBMP) to the tune of US$7.5 million, half of which would cover activities to build support for Fomi, including hosting investor roundtables. The NRBMP would also fund necessary studies and regional dialogue surrounding the clear tradeoffs between power generation and irrigation expansion on the one hand, and maintaining necessary flows to the Inner Niger Delta on the other.

Despite the project’s contested history, the World Bank is playing a central role in getting the Fomi project off the ground. Construction may be years off, but the Bank is laying the groundwork by bankrolling requisite studies that examine environmental impacts and technical feasibility, as well as resettlement planning for the estimated 45,000 Guineans who would have to be relocated to make way for the dam’s massive reservoir.

While the Bank might be commended for examining the Fomi scheme’s broader impacts to inform decision-making around the project, even under the best circumstances Fomi would have considerable impacts on the Inner Niger Delta and those who depend on it. In fact, we have seen time and again that agreements intended to guarantee downstream flows are rarely respected in the face of strong economic incentives to recoup project costs and turn a profit. If the Fomi Dam is indeed built, this will most likely spell ecological disaster for the Inner Niger Delta. By leading the process to bring Fomi forward, the World Bank will bear responsibility for a scheme that is fundamentally flawed. We will continue to monitor the Bank’s role and work to support communities in the Inner Niger Delta who demand to be heard.

Sunday, January 25, 2015