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ENVIRONMENT: The Niger River in Intensive Care

Ousseini Issa

NIAMEY, Feb 28 2007 (IPS) - Stretching over more than 4,000 kilometres, the Niger is West Africa’s longest river, and greatly threatened in the country of the same name by environmental degradation that is causing the water course to silt up.

“The lack of vegetation along the river prevents water retention during rainfall, and opens the door to soil erosion…So, gullies are created that channel water, sand and all sorts of debris towards the river,” says Mahaman Laminou Attaou, national director for the environment in Niger’s Ministry of Water Affairs, Environment and the Fight Against Desertification.

This trend has worsened as rains have become more torrential, and now compromises activities such as fishing, irrigation and navigation of the river by boat.

”We no longer have good fishing for much of the year. It has also become impossible to do irrigation because the river no longer has enough water,” Abass Sorko, a resident of Kombo in the centre of the country, told IPS.

Siltation is even putting the river’s ability to supply water to Niger’s capital of Niamey at risk, notes Attaou.

Officials are trying to deal with the problem, however.

In 2002 Niger launched a wide-ranging initiative to protect the drainage areas of the river, the Programme to Protect the Banks of the Niger. Funding was supplied under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative – started several years ago by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to help developing nations reduce unsustainable debt. More than two million dollars were made available for the project in its first year.

The programme focuses on building sand banks that are 60 metres long and about a metre high along the river basin to retain rain water, and prevent it from carrying solid matter towards the river bed, Attaou told IPS. Instead, the runoff water seeps into the soil, and raises the water table. This approach also has the benefit of encouraging plant growth on river banks.

According to Niger’s environmental directorate, more than 6,000 of the 100,000 hectares of land that need to be restored, have been dealt with over the past four years. Attaou estimates that a further 7,500 hectares will be restored this year.

In addition to fighting environmental degradation, the programme seeks to address poverty by creating jobs.

”When we began in Bougoum, we used between 800 and 900 people a year. But with the expansion of the programme to the eight regions of Niger, we increased this to 27,682 people in 2006, all of them rural youth,” says Attaou. (Bougoum is the town where the river basin initiative was launched. It is situated about 20 km west of Niamey.)

The good results shown by the programme prompted President Mamadou Tandja to increase its funding to about three million dollars per year in 2004, and to double the number of young people recruited to 60,000.

These jobs, notes Mahamadou Adamou of SOS Environment, a non-governmental organisation, also “contribute to stopping the exodus of rural youth to the coastal countries during the ‘dead season'”. The comment was in reference to the time of year when there is little agricultural activity, and few jobs for young people.

Environmental director Attaou says the success of the programme has also attracted the attention of donors, who have helped expand the land restoration campaign.

In 2006, Italy assisted with the creation of sand banks over 1,000 hectares in Keita village, in the centre-east of the country. In the course of three years, Monaco has helped build sand banks over 1,500 hectares.

The African Development Bank intends to fund 3,000 sand banks at a cost of about five million dollars in 2007 – while the World Bank has promised nearly six million dollars for the programme.

In Bougoum, the first results of the initiative are visible in the growing vegetation: IPS noted gum trees and grass covering the ground.

“I started land restoration at the opening of this site in 2002. Thanks to God, this work has allowed me have a certain amount of financial independence in relation to my husband,” Fatima Boukari, a 32-year-old housewife living in Bougoum, told IPS.

Salifou Ganda, a worker at the Bougoum site, also praised the initiative.

“Thanks to this work, today I make a living for myself and I meet my family’s needs without having to sell grain or animals,” he said in an interview with IPS.

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