A Case Study on the Manantali Dam Project (Mali, Mauritania, Senegal)

Peter Bosshard, Berne Declaration
Monday, March 1, 1999

1. The project

The Manantali project consists of the Manantali dam on the Bafing river, a tributary of the Senegal river, a 200 MW power station and a network of 1300 km of transmission lines to the capitals of Mali (Bamako), Mauritania (Nouakschott) and Senegal (Dakar). The dam is 1460 meters long and 65 meters high. It created a reservoir with a storage capacity of 11.3 billion m³ and a surface area of 477 km².

In 1972, the governments of Mali, Mauritania and Senegal set up the Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Senegal (OMVS) in order to promote irrigation, power generation and navigation in the Senegal valley. Under the auspices of the OMVS, construction of the Manantali dam began in 1981. The purpose was to irrigate an area of 3,750 km², to generate hydropower, and to allow navigation between the cities of St. Louis and Kayes. At the same time, the Diama dam was built at the river delta to prevent saltwater intrusion into the lower valley.

The Diama dam was completed in 1986, and Manantali in 1987. Although by then all funding had been eaten up, the power station had not been built, and the river was not fit for commercial navigation. Severe political and military tensions between Mauritania and Senegal, which had been fueled not least by the impacts of the Manantali dam, paralyzed OMVS and stopped all project planning from 1989 onwards. Roger de Diesbach, a Swiss journalist who visited Manantali in 1988, described the project as a "luxury car without a motor". Carl–Dieter Spranger, then Germany's minister for development assistance, in 1993 called Manantali an "act of economic and environmental nonsense". And when Thierry Pellet of the Berne Declaration visited the project site the same year, he encountered a "Potemkin dam".

In 1992, OMVS and donor institutions convened again and agreed to build and complete a hydropower project by 1996. Transmission lines of 1300 km were part of the project. While the original plan had called for the electrification of the Senegal valley, this goal has been all but abandoned, and the transmission lines will mainly serve the capital cities. Still, political disagreements between the riparian states and the donor institutions continued to delay project approval and implementation. Presently, the power station is expected to be completed in 2001.

2. The funding

Construction of the Manantali dam cost about $500 million. Funding was provided by several Arab governments, the Islamic and the African Development Banks, Italy, the French CFD, the German KfW, the Canadian CIDA and the European Union. The civil works contracts were awarded to Ed. Zublin (Germany) and Losinger (Switzerland). The Swiss government provided an export risk guarantee of SFrs. 155 million for the civil works contract. The KfW funding – amounting to 18 % of the total – was covered by a Hermes guarantee. No information about the involvement of other export credit agencies is available. Notably, the World Bank declined to support the Manantali dam, which it did not consider a reasonable investment, and stopped all funding to OMVS in 1979. USAID also declined to support the construction of the dam, but provided financial and technical assistance for environmental assessments and resettlement.

Since the power station was not constructed, the Manantali dam was completed in 1988 without creating any revenues. The European governments, which had contributed 40 % of the project costs, were forced to cancel their outstanding loans. The costs of the new power project are budgeted to be $433 million. At first, OMVS unsucessfully attempted to attract private investors to fund the project. After a period of considerable tension and debate, a new consortium of official funders was put together. The French CFD will contribute $95 million; the German KfW, $66 million; the European Investment Bank and the European Community, $46 and $37 million respectively; the World Bank, $39 million; the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, $29 million; Canada's CIDA, $27 million; the African Development Bank, $26 million; the Islamic Development Bank, $21 million; the West African Development Bank, $20 million; and the Nordic Development Fund, $8 million. The project was approved by the World Bank's Executive Board in June 1997 (with the U.S. and the Swiss Executive Directors abstaining). The Executive Board of the African Development Bank was supposed to approve the project in February 1998, but (in December 1998) has still not done so. Norway had planned to contribute to the project, but withdrew its support in protest over the health impacts.

The civil works contracts, which are predominantly funded by multilateral donors, were awarded to the Spanish company Cubiertas based on public tendering. The electro–mechanical works are being funded by France, Germany, and Canada. The contract was awarded to a consortium consisting of the Swiss(–Swedish) companies ABB and Sulzer, and the French Norelec. Matching the sources of (tied) funding, construction will take place in Germany, France, and Canada.

Incidentally, Mauritania's OMVS high commissioner Baba Ould Sidi Abdallah was arrested in Nouakchott in January 1998. The specialized French newsletter, "Lettre du Continent", reported that the arrest had been motivated "undoubtedly due to diversions of funds".

3. Social and environmental impacts

The Manantali dam and the hydropower project have severe impacts on the regional ecology, on agricultural production, fisheries, and public health.

* Deforestation: In the arid Sahel zone, forest is an invaluable resource. The Manantali reservoir destroyed 120 km² of forest. The depletion of groundwater aquifers, which is caused by the suppression of the seasonal flood cycle, is damaging the forests downstream of the dam. According to the African Development Bank, the power station will further disrupt the forest habitats around the reservoir due to fluctuations of the water level.

* Resettlement: The reservoir caused the involuntary resettlement of 12,000 people. While the affected communities were allowed to select the resettlement sites themselves, many families did not receive sufficient agricultural land and grazing grounds.

* Agricultural production: At $25,000–40,000 per hectare, the construction of irrigation networks fed by the Manantali reservoir proved to be more expensive than originally planned. Instead of 375,000 hectares, only about 100,000 hectares have been brought under irrigation so far, with only about 2,000 hectares being added per year. The peasant families who had lived in the Senegal valley for many decades could often not afford the inputs needed for irrigation farming. In the lower valley, they were sometimes forced into sharecropping arrangements with prosperous outsiders. With irrigation, the traditional sorghum crop was replaced by rice. Even for the richer farmers, however, irrigation proved to be more cumbersome and less productive than the project planners had expected. Since there is no electric power, expensive diesel for running the pumps (as well as seeds, pesticides etc.) must be purchased. Once Senegal (where most of the irrigated land is situated) had to undergo structural adjustment in 1986, the government could no longer afford to subsidize inputs or credits. The harvest from the Senegal valley cannot compete with rice imported at world market prices. The writer Adrian Adams reports that rice–growing farmers have to sell off assets such as cattle, go into debt, and in many cases give up agriculture altogether.

The Manantali dam has not just affected local patterns of agriculture, but has led to violent conflict at a regional level as well. When the dam project opened new prospects of commercial agriculture, land legislation in Mauritania was rewritten in order to abrogate the land rights of the black peasants who had lived along the Mauritanian riverbank for generations. In 1989, the killing of Senegalese farmers by Mauritanians triggered an ethnic explosion in Senegal. Hundreds of people were killed and 10,000s of Mauritanian shop–owners were deported. At the same time, members of the white Moor elite of Mauritania seized the land of the black peasants in the river valley, and expelled 70,000 of them to Senegal. The military of the two countries engaged in armed skirmishes, and nearly went to war over the conflict.

While irrigation turned out not to be competitive, the impact of the Manantali dam on traditional agriculture was equally serious. For many centuries, the annual flood of the Senegal river has been the basis of flood recession agriculture, fishing, and cattle grazing. Sorghum is still the staple food for over 100,000 families in the floodplains. With the Manantali dam, the annual flood has been reduced to an artificial two–week flood. The new hydropower plant will compete with the artificial floods for agriculture, and will reduce the flooded area by another 20,000 hectares (according to the World Bank).

Traditionally, the Senegal river inundated about 150,000 hectares on average, and up to 350,000 hectares in high–flow years. The World Bank claims that after hydropower construction, floods will still allow farming on an area of at least 50,000 hectares, except in very dry years. There is reason to doubt this statement: Critics argue that the Bank's forecast is based on hydrological data which is outdated and does not reflect the reduced rainfall pattern since the 1970s. On the basis of the flows prevailing since the 1970s, the average flood would only extend to 30,000 hectares, and there would not be enough water for any flood every third year. The Bank's Staff Appraisal Report admits that "considerable uncertainty prevails" regarding these data. The funders forced OMVS to outsource the management of the power station to a private company, which will be remunerated based on the amount of power produced. Any private investor will have an interest to "divert" as little water as possible for agricultural purposes.

* Groundwater and fishing: The Senegal river used to provide nutrients to the coastal fisheries. Its annual floods used to recharge the groundwater table of the downstream areas, and supported extensive fish habitats. The Manantali dam affected these vital functions, and reduced fishing significantly. Even fishing families are reported to eat imported fish now. The hydropower project will further impair fisheries in the floodplain and the coastal sea.

* Health and nutrition: The Manantali and Diama reservoirs have infested the Senegal valley with water–borne diseases, especially with schistosomiasis and malaria. According to USAID experts, such "health risks have increased, in some cases dramatically". Certain villages near the reservoir and in the valley report a prevalence of schisostomiasis of close to 100 %. The new World Bank project includes a public health component. Unfortunately, this covers only a small area surrounding the dam site, and is based on an outdated, narrow repair approach. In 1994, the Panel of Experts on Environmental Management for Vector Control sponsored by WHO and other international organizations had started to devise an integrated strategy to combat waterborne diseases in the Senegal valley. This integrated approach was disregarded completely by the Bank project. As was mentioned earlier, Norway withdrew its announced support for the project in 1997 because of the unresolved health problems.

The switch from local grain to rice production and the reduction of fish consumption also have negative impacts on the diet of the local population. A study financed by USAID in 1994 confirms this. According to the study, villagers interviewed in Senegal and Mauritania "clearly state that their health has deteriorated in the past few years because of the deterioration in their diet. They are convinced that before the construction of the dams, when they produced traditional food recession crops (...) their diet was more varied and hence more healthy. They insist that it is because of their present diet, made up primarily of rice, that they are weaker and have more health problems than before." Rice consumption is not only a consequence of the new dam, but also seems to have become a cultural preference in the Senegal valley.

* Conclusion: On September 26, 1997, 250 farmers from the Senegal valley attended a public meeting in Ndioum. The gathering ended in a public outcry. Speaking for many other farmers, Thierno Oumar Sow said that the Manantali dam had caused "poverty, famine, and indebtedness". The official Appraisal Report of the African Development Bank on the new hydropower project supports this bleak assessment. According to the report, "the absence of or the low flood level induced by the retention of the Bafing waters by the dam (nearly 60 % of the river flow), seriously disturbed the basin's ecosystems and disorganized its traditional economic activities, as a result of which the region became the poorest in all three countries. The appearance and increase of social disparities and malnutrition led to the massive exodus of labour force from the basin" (an exodus which, one should add, started well before the construction of the dam).

4. NGO participation and concerns

Affected people and NGOs have so far had hardly any chance to participate in the planning or implementation of the Manantali project. USAID initially planned to involve the dam–affected people in the construction of the resettlement sites. When progress proved to be too slow, this approach was abandoned. As it is often the case with dam projects, the inhabitants of the downstream area were not consulted or informed about project implementation. In 1996 e.g., the project authorities emptied the reservoir in order to evaluate the state of the dam. The floodplain farmers profited from an extraordinary flood. Hoping that the miracle would occur again the following year, many sowed an extra amount of sorghum instead of rize. Nobody had informed them about the reason of the flood, or the fact that this was an isolated event.

The World Bank's Staff Appraisal Report claims that public meetings were held in 16 villages when the environmental assessment of the hydropower project was prepared. Adrian Adams, who has lived and worked with the peasants of the Senegal valley for twenty years, is not aware of any such consultations. She estimates that "some sort of token consultation with carefully chosen participants" might have taken place. An international study of the effectiveness of environmental assessment found in 1997 that "the main weakness of [Manantali's assessment] is on the side of the identification of social impacts and their importance", especially regarding the artificial floods which were "a great concern for local communities". The Bank's Staff Appraisal Report does not create confidence in the sincerity of the Bank's efforts. Under "poverty category", its project summary boldly claims that the project will "improve the artificial flood regime that is vital for poor farmers practicing traditional agriculture". Over 58 pages, the body of the report does not mention that the "vital" artificial floods will actually decrease under the project. This information is only revealed in the annex. In comparison, the project report of the African Development Project is much less disingenuous (see above).

Downstream farmers affected by the dam have come together to create a union called "Mouvement des Acteurs de la Valle" (MAV). Their demands are
* the reestablishment of regular floods favouring agriculture, herding and fishing,
* the reorganization of irrigated agriculture to be more accessible to more farmers,
* the establishment of adequate health regulations to address pollution and diseases caused by the dam,
* and the participation of the local people in all future decisions which affect them.

Adrian Adams suggests that after many failures, "the work should now be taken up where it should have started in the first place": it should, in discussion and cooperation with the farmers themselves, strengthen the family–based agriculture – "the only possible basis of a prosperity which does not exclude anybody".

5. Conclusion

The Peasant Association of the Senegal River Valley stated in a declaration of April 1992: "Those who remain in the villages, in spite of their work, harvest very little, sometimes nothing. The fish have disappeared. Our livestock die. The trees die. The land is becoming exhausted. (...) The development of the river is condemning us to a life without hope." A year later, Carl–Dieter Spranger, the German minister for development assistance, called Manantali an "act of economic and environmental nonsense". As the African Development Bank pointed out, "social disparities and malnutrition" have appeared or increased among the affected people, and the rich Senegal valley has become "the poorest [area] in all three countries".

The tragedy of the Manantali project did not come as a surprise. Independent observers predicted many of the negative impacts which have materialized in the meantime. The World Bank consciously declined to get involved in the funding of the dam, and temporarily stopped funding OMVS in 1979 as a consequence of the ill–conceived project. Eugene Brantly and Karen Ramsey, environmental health experts of USAID, conclude that "the financing consortium could have required changes in the project's design but did not", because the funders "were eager to particpate in the project".

At least two lessons regarding financial institutions can be learnt from the experience of the Manantali dam:
* Financial institutions who have a vested interest in a project – to ensure export opportunities, or to support a particular government – tend to rely on wishful thinking rather than on thorough analysis regarding the positive and negative impacts of projects. In order to balance such vested interests, the accountability of financial institutions vis–à–vis affected people, interested NGOs and the public at large must be improved.

* Export credit agencies, sources of tied aid and even multilateral development banks compete with each other in order to secure export contracts or to influence the development programs of borrowing countries. This competition tends to result in a social and environmental race to the bottom. In order to avoid such unproductive competition, financial institutions should create common, upwardly harmonized social and environmental standards.

The new Manantali hydropower projects indicates that financial institutions, including the World Bank, have not yet internalized the negative lessons of past experience.

Berne Declaration's press release on the project (German)


  • African Development Fund, Appraisal Report, Manantali Project, Multinational, Mali–Mauritania–Senegal, September 1997.
  • Africa Energy & Mining [various issues].
  • Brantly Eugene P., Karen E. Ramsey, Damming the Senegal River, in: World Resources Institute, World Resources 1998–99, pp. 108–114.
  • Homer–Dixon Thomas F., Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases, Part 1, in: International Security, Vol. 19, No. I (Summer 1994), pp. 5–40.
  • International Study on the Effectiveness of Environmental Assessment, Manantali Energy Project EA (MEP), Regional Hydropower Development Project, Senegal [1997].
  • La Lettre du Continent [various issues].
  • McCully, Patrick, Silenced Rivers, The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, London 1996.
  • The World Bank, OMVS – Manantali Energy Project, Discussion Paper [1991].
  • The World Bank, Staff Appraisal Report, Regional Hydropower Development Project (Mali–Mauritania–Senegal), June 2, 1997.