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ENVIRONMENT-WEST AFRICA: The Arteries of the Niger River Clogged

Saliou Samb

CONAKRY, Dec 30 2006 (IPS) - The Niger river snakes through nine countries in West Africa before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. It is an epic 4,200 kilometres in length, provides sustenance to millions of people – and has trouble brewing at its source.

In the Faranah region of central Guinea where the river begins, small islands of sand have formed in the bed of the Niger, prompting a decline in fishing and harvests.

“The silting up of the Niger river has caused our revenues to tumble. The level of water does not allow for fish resources to be renewed. The fish are threatened because there are practically no more deep waters where they can breed,” Lanciné Camara, who is in charge of a group of about 300 fishermen, told IPS.

At approximately the start of the 1990s, he adds, “we managed to catch more than 50 kilogrammes of fish in an hour of fishing. Today, an entire night of work is not enough to catch a quarter of this amount.”

All in all, notes meteorology official Namory Diakité, the silting up of the Niger has affected 210,000 square km of arable land, and undermined the livelihood of about 110 million people. After leaving Guinea, the Niger makes its way through Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria.

According to Benjamin Tounkara, a water and forestry engineer, there are three main causes for the silting up of the Niger: deforestation, soil erosion and climate change, which has resulted in noticeably diminished rainfall.

“The plant cover does not exist here any longer. The savannah has gained ground, and several small rivers have disappeared,” he told IPS.

Diakité notes that until about 1970, an average of 50 millimetres (mm) of rain fell annually in the north of the Niger river basin, and up to 4,000 mm in the wetter regions of the south. This has fallen to 30 mm and 375 mm respectively.

The “border” marking the region where rain starts to fall “is only moving south year after year, prompting complete desertification of areas that are deprived of water in the basin of the Niger river. The level of water tables has lessened considerably” adds Diakité.

Famoro Camara, a farmer, is another of those affected by the changes that are taking place with the Niger and its environs. “Without fertilizer, I now have difficulty obtaining eight sacks of rice per hectare – about a tonne. Beforehand, I harvested more than 20 sacks a hectare,” he said in an interview with IPS.

“We do not even manage to provide our daily food…(and) send our children to school,” added Camara, who is also a muezzin, calling Muslims to prayer at the mosque in the village of Faranah.

A national initiative to combat desertification in Guinea is underway.

“The aim of the programme is to fight against deforestation, soil erosion…bush fires and the overgrazing that leads to considerable land damage,” Djiramba Diawara, manager of the national office for water and forests, told IPS – noting that Guinea received 50,000 dollars in international funding for this programme in 1997.

Authorities also began a campaign to reforest the banks of the Niger in 2004.

Failure to restore the river to health will have dire consequences well beyond the countries it flows through, warns Diawara, who points out that declining harvests and fish catches lead to food insecurity, and greater poverty and misery on the African continent.

“The direct consequence of this trend is economic emigration towards the countries of the North, with all the problems that this can cause (in these states),” he says, adding that this should prompt the international community should pay greater attention to the fight against desertification.

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