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BLOG: New hope for water and life in the Senegal delta?


by Jane Madgwick, CEO Wetlands International

A week before US President Obama descends on Senegal to encourage the tracking down of terrorists in the region, I joined our Africa team and my international Supervisory Council there to investigate issues related to a more fundamental security challenge – relating to increasingly scarce water resources. As we witnessed in Mali last year, water security, human conflicts and mass migrations are closely intertwined in this fragile Sahelian zone.

I could see a lot of water and the impressive metal spans of the river bridge from the balcony of my French colonial hotel room in St Louis - a city crammed into a delta island, once the capital of West Africa. The bridge connects the island to the mainland and is the symbol of the City. It was a challenge to run across it in the early mornings, dodging traders and the curious stares of kids. Reaching the mainland I ran as far downstream as the first skinny patches of mangroves, where some old fishing boats had been left to rot and a few egrets and reef herons patrolled the shore, amongst the plastic litter. On the Atlantic side of the island, the beach was alive with the activity of artisanal fishers with their nets and colourful pirogues.

Armed with bottles of water to sustain us through the heat of the day, our expedition set off inland – our main target was to visit two major wetlands further upstream – the Ndiael Special Reserve and Djoudj National Park: also islands in a sea of semi-desert. In this landscape of river tributaries and a few lakes, there are a myriad of shallow depressions which should fill temporarily in the rainy season. Like the birds and the fish, human living patterns of fishing and subsistence agriculture have been a part of this dynamic system for generations.

Our first stop in the Ndiael Reserve was to look in bewilderment at a sign sporting our Wetlands International logo and a simple statement “Living on the Edge”. The edge of a wetland it was not. Nor were there many signs of ways for people to make a living either – at least not any more. As far as we could see was bare land and dust being kicked up by droves of white-horned cattle. Then some incongruously bright green strips of irrigated rice fields. Another sign proclaimed we were entering the buffer zone of the protected wetland. Still no water in sight. A truck overladen with young men was heading the same place as us – near the source of water for the Ndiael Reserve. Here a huge orange JCB digger was at work and the young men digging deep in the dry canal bed did their best with spades to assist.

We learned from our staff and the Reserve officials that the canal was being extended to bring water eventually to a 10,000 ha ethanol biofuel project in the outer buffer zone of the Reserve. The biofuel company had started operations before an environmental assessment was done. Shouldn’t this be stopped, we asked? Surprisingly only “maybe” was the answer. There was hope that through negotiations, the same canal could feed water further downstream to bring new life to the lakes and depressions of the Ndiael Basin, now cut off from natural flooding due to major water diversions for agriculture, controlled by a number of dams and sluices.

We proceeded downstream towards La Grand Mare. This sounded promising and it was blue on the map. We inspected some culverts and sluices where water backed up and water lilies, egrets and kingfishers were bountiful. People did their washing here and caught small fish. Some sluices would be opened further soon to increase the flow through of freshwater. We drove the sand track and saw a vast bank of irrigation hoses spurting water skyward over cultivated land – this was the start of the biofuel project, but this year they would try to grow rice as the water was too salty, due to the lack of flushing by floodwaters. Eventually we were informed that we had reached La Grande Mare…but saw only dust and distant mirages. The big lake was a desert.

After lunch we entered the famous Djoudj National Park. On my last visit I had been overwhelmed by the spectacular sight of thousands of pelicans as we took a boat tour. But the only pelicans we saw this time were painted on the walls of the park headquarters. They had migrated, some as far away as Mozambique – and were expected back in September. We learned about the struggle of the Park to maintain the open water areas that these and other diving birds need since the natural ebb and flow of the river was stopped when the Diama dam was built upstream in 1988 – cutting off the saltwater and raising levels of freshwater for agricultural off-takes and drinking water supply. Now they control and vary water levels in the Park with sluices and try to prevent the whole system from becoming a vast, stagnant swamp full of the invasive Typha - about as biodiverse as a cornfield.

At the Diama dam itself, on the Mauritanian border, we were greeted by the Director and senior staff of the OMVS, the Basin Authority with whom Wetlands International has recently become a partner. Using a long stick to point at a big map, we got the chief engineer’s perspective on the challenges of managing water in this international basin to meet the different and growing needs in different zones of agriculture, navigation and energy production as well as to take care of the designated wetlands. Many dams, dykes, sluices and structures exist and more are needed. Improved management and control is the answer to bring more stability to such a naturally unruly water system it seems.

A day later in St Louis we were impressed by the turnout and many spirited interventions in the inter-sectoral stakeholder dialogue event we hosted on water, wetlands and development in the Senegal River Delta. The City Mayor made an impassioned plea for more assistance to restore the mangroves in the estuary to protect the city from floods and salt water intrusion. Local representatives from rural areas of the delta called attention to the lack of fresh water for drinking and of increasing water-related diseases. There were calls for the development of “green businesses” for example harvesting the Typha to make saleable products or energy. The water demands of different users in the region were recognised by the Basin Authority, OMVS. They would also do their best to minimise harm to the wetland protected areas. But “who would pay?” they asked, for the water supplied to the wetlands?

Over breakfast the next day with the OMVS Director, we floated the idea of an alternative “systems” approach in which interconnected wetlands and water flows in the Basin could be seen and managed as one whole. If we could make visible the hidden services provided by wetlands in a mapped form, then this would inform decisions on water allocations and development – and it would be easier to predict how changes in one area would affect others.

Projects could be developed based on this that bring life back to the wetlands and share water resources more fairly. Private sector companies that benefit from or impact wetlands could be invited to contribute to the solutions. We agreed to pool human and financial resources to do this mapping as a first step in our partnership. Different stakeholders would be involved in the process. If promoted by the governments, development aid could be attracted to restore wetlands as “natural infrastructure” across the landscape on a grand scale – before it’s too late! The case for this should surely be as obvious to developers in the 21st century as was the road bridge in St Louis to replace the passenger ferry in the 19th century?

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