Wetlands International

Managing Mali’s Wetland Wealth for People and Nature

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Courtesy of Wetlands International


Wetlands International has been in Mali since 1998, when it started a partnership with the national government to help better manage the country’s water resources for both its people and nature. Those early efforts involved scoping out the state of Mali’s unique natural habitats, not least its globally important wetland, the Inner Niger Delta, and sharing those findings and data widely.

As Wetlands International nears the end of a second decade in the country, we want to highlight and celebrate what’s been achieved and learnt within our growing network of partners. This document is part of that effort. The key to everything is a deeper, collective grasp of the complex factors determining how best to manage and fairly share water in one of the driest parts of the planet. Making this knowledge and expertise available to all concerned is vital to future water policy choices in Mali and more widely in the region.

The staff at Wetlands International have been both students and teachers during our time in Mali. During extensive field work, we have absorbed many lessons from people in the Delta, drawing inspiration from their centuries of skilled water husbandry in challenging conditions. In return, we have shared our own experiences of managing some of the world’s other major wetlands and working up related policies for their wise use. Our sense is that from modest beginnings, we have grown to become a respected authority on the Inner Niger Delta. We feel privileged to be lending a hand to secure the best chances for Malians, and the natural habitats on which many depend, to flourish. That means binding ideas about sustainable water and natural resource use to policies to help community livelihoods, disaster resilience and poverty reduction.

Of course, the story’s not done. Alongside this celebration of the work we have completed is our idea of what more remains, inside the country, throughout the Niger basin and in similar floodplains across the Sahel. So this text reflects on projects past while also looking to the future. More important still, it is call for partners, old and new, to join us in writing the next chapters of the story – partners with the necessary funds, creativity, vision, ambition and energy to carry this exciting work forward.

Mali – what is at stake

Mali, a land-locked West African country stretching into the southern Sahel, is one of the world’s poorest. Its Human Development Index, the United Nations measure of people’s chances of leading long and healthy lives, having access to knowledge and a reasonable standard of living, was 0.344 for 2012. That put it among the lowest of 187 countries and territories assessed by the UN, despite its score having doubled in the last 30 years or so.

In that, Mali shares much with its neighbours in the Niger River Basin, whose catchment waters run through the country in an arc from the Southwest to the North and round. For communities along its banks, the river system provides a lifeline to all in the semi-arid lands through which it runs. Basin states face a demographic boom, widespread poverty, limited governmental capacities along with the associated degradation of nature.

Yet for all those problems, Mali also harbours a natural asset that supports two million people directly with fish, pasture and fertile land for rice paddies and other crops. That place is the Inner Niger Delta, a vast, seasonal oasis that spreads and retreats each year to the rhythm of monsoon rains in neighbouring Guinea’s uplands. The Delta’s riches extend to untold, often unknowing, millions more. Some live elsewhere in Mali, others are downstream and still more are in the European and Asian countries whose migrant, nesting birds over-winter in its waters and wetlands.

For a country stretching from a tropical South to an arid North, with generally limited local rainfall, Mali is the classic case of a state whose economy relies on rivers. Wise husbandry of the Delta’s natural richness could certainly improve people’s livelihoods. Among the benefits would be better food and water security for some of the world’s poorest communities. Skilful management and sharing of resources could also temper the risks of regional conflict and attendant mass migrations.

The Upper Niger and the Inner Niger Delta

Geography and climate combine to create the extraordinary seasonal flood plain that is the Inner Niger Delta, the second largest in Africa next to Botswana’s Okavango. Something like an area the size of Belgium goes under water each year for several months, fed by monsoon rains falling in the Guinea Highlands. The result is a rich and complex interplay between people and nature as waters rise then recede.

Yearly floods are the Delta’s heartbeat. Local gradients of a couple of centimetres’ fall per kilometre slow water flow to a snail’s pace. Flood waves entering one end of the system take a couple of months to reach the other. Major rains are cause for celebration, with peak levels determining the total area under water at any time. The bigger the flooded area, the more there is for the Delta’s beneficiaries – human, plant and animal – making it easier for all to thrive.

So much water running through what would normally be arid land creates pasture for cows and goats, irrigates crops and launches breeding seasons for the Delta’s many different fish and local birds. The varied habitats are vital for the Niger Basin’s diverse fish stocks, which run to a couple of hundred species, including 20 endemic ones.

Centuries of human activity have created delicate governance systems balancing the demands of farmers, pastoralists and fishermen with the water’s seasonal rise and fall. Similarly for the Delta’s birds – flocks of residents inter-mingle with migrant visitors that fly across the Sahara to escape the Northern winter. All suffer in years of poor headwater rains, when competition for resources intensifies and conflicts increase. The rising human population, coupled with the locally warmer and, potentially, drier conditions predicted under climate change, risks unbalancing things further.

Climate change models, on top of existing temperature uptrends, suggest an increased risk of more frequent, prolonged and severe droughts, alternated with high flood events. The result would pile more pressure on an already fragile and degraded Delta, making its wise management more important still.

Such questions tie in with the familiar challenges of poor, rural populations throughout the Global South. Decision makers, to achieve anything like durable policy solutions, must weigh their macro-economic ambitions and poverty concerns with those of sustainable natural resource use. In practical terms, policies in the Delta are ahead of the curve. It has already hosted pioneering partnerships between local people, different levels of government and development and conservation agencies, many involving Wetlands International.

The rationale is simple – pooling expertise boosts the chances of unravelling the complexities of cause and effect. An example is Delta water flows, a single factor with many implications for the vitality of habitats and the livelihoods of water-dependent communities. Various human and natural influences, both locally and upstream, combine to determine how people fare. That means neither development, nor nature conservation, can be tackled alone. Questions of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) influence water planning, just as nature restoration projects bolster local livelihoods.

Such joined-up policy thinking has already borne fruit in parts of the Delta, increasing incomes and building community resilience to the vagaries of annual flooding and sporadic drought. They suggest possible lessons for similar groups, both locally and throughout the Niger River Basin.

Wetlands International in Mali

Wetlands International has been in Mali since 1998, its work underpinned by an agreement with the Malian government to work on Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), training, natural resources management and biodiversity conservation.

Over time, we have become a respected authority on the Inner Niger Delta and how to help its people and nature to flourish. Our approach binds sustainable water and natural resource use to community livelihoods, resilience and poverty reduction. From the start, when we focused on local waterbird harvesting issues, we have expanded to focus on how to diversify local livelihoods and tackle upstream land and water management issues affecting the Delta.

More recently, we have become more active in dialogue at the Niger Basin level. For that, we draw on knowledge and expertise accrued from all our initiatives and projects on the ground and from a growing web of partnerships and collaborations. Being active at all levels – from villages, throughout the Delta, nationally and at the scale of entire river basins – lends a unique quality and perspective to our work. Our ambition for the Mali office is to use this collective expertise to build alliances that extend across all Sahelian floodplains. The office’s existing, lead role in a partnership with the nine-country Niger Basin Authority is the starting point for this future work.

Wetlands International’s core values include building trust and stimulating debate and collaboration among all water stakeholders. Our local and global staff work principally through partnerships.

At the local level in the Delta, that means working with individual villages, with mayors, their communal councils and decentralised state services. Our choice of village partner depends on factors including their vulnerability to drought or recurrent seasonal flooding, our entry point being via village leaders and their councillors. We work in collaboration with government-recognised associations of farmers, fishing groups and so on and also with national NGOs.

Mali’s decentralised government means communes are responsible for managing natural resources and water, primary and secondary education, and health. Given their habitual lack of money and staff, our capacity-building efforts focus on helping them find the necessary resources to do their work. These local partners are at once targets groups for our work while also being champions of the policies we propose at sub-regional and national levels.

We also work with prefectures and at sub-regional and national levels, the latter involving ministries and their departments for water, farming, livestock raising, fisheries and rural development. We organise debates for National Assembly deputies, not least those in the Environment, Water and Rural Development Group, and run field trips for them to visit projects and assess their impacts.

Beyond Mali’s borders, we collaborate with the Niger Basin Authority (NBA), taking part in reciprocal events, training days and policy discussions. We are among several international organisations to have NBA collaboration accords. At the NBA’s request, we recommend stakeholders for water use management committees and suggest text for their regulations.

Alongside these partnerships, another foundation of our approach at Wetlands International is the gathering and use of sound science and local knowledge to support and influence wise decision making. We freely share insights and learning from field programmes with government, civil society and private-sector partners and communities. Our role is akin to that of a knowledge broker and collaborative action enabler.

One of Wetlands International’s key resources in Mali is a deep and expanding knowledge base on the Delta’s biodiversity, its community stakeholders and the relationships between river flows and change drivers such as climate, hydropower and agricultural projects. We built this base in partnership with Malian and international experts on the issues and challenges facing the Delta. All our work on policy, capacity-building and direct interventions stands on this bedrock. The effect has been to make Wetlands International a trusted presence and recognised depository of data and know-how, one that is both widely used and valued.

We play an active and effective role in bringing the right information and issues into policy and management dialogue. Our visible, local presence, coupled with ongoing efforts by our staff and partners, have helped build a network that encompasses Mali’s major stakeholders. We are committed to exploring different policy options and acting alongside government and other stakeholders. The combined effect is that our modest size can pack considerable weight. The shared prize we dream of is to secure a better future for the people and nature of Mali’s
Inner Niger Delta, one of the worlds’ most important wetlands. We also aim to replicate that work in other important wetlands in the Niger River Basin and elsewhere across the Sahel.

Encouraging wise use of the Upper Niger’s waters

Fairly sharing the Niger Basin’s water is a dynamic and complicated challenge in one of the poorest parts of the world. Lower rainfall and higher temperatures in recent decades have made the task still trickier and climate change effects will likely make it harder yet. Water demands vary between the upstream and downstream users and even, in places, between those on opposite banks. Dams for hydroelectricity and irrigation, drinking water supply, farming and fishing based on seasonal flooding patterns – all have their needs.

Mali has particular reason to focus on wise use of Niger Basin water – it depends almost entirely on what falls in the catchment to meet its needs.

Fathoming the complexities of water use is the key to determining what might be fair, the technical term being Integrated Water Resources Management, or IWRM. That means assessing things like land use, rainfall, river flows, the rise and fall of seasonal floods and combining the results to model the effects of water management choices on both people and nature.

Having worked in Mali since 1998, Wetlands International is ideally placed to help IWRM work in the Upper Niger, from a basin scale downwards. Our experiences and knowledge of the Inner Niger Delta are particularly relevant (see Box).

Our work has helped embed ideas of conservation and wise use of floodplain wetlands in Mali’s “Sustainable Development Plan for the Inner Niger Delta”. In 2013, the “Sélingué and Markala Water Commission” was able, to some extent, to fairly share Upper Niger waters between upstream and downstream stakeholders. Wetlands International lent management skills and some technical support to the process. Sixty institutions from government, civil society, private sectors and local water users now meet regularly to decide on how to meet different stakeholders’ needs. We support their work with scientific data on water resource availability.

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