Wetlands of the Sahel: the Inner Niger Delta


In and around the Sahel of Africa, wetlands play a crucial role for the survival of many animal and plant species and for people. The Inner Niger Delta of Mali is a good example of extremely important but threatened wetland in a dry region. The Inner Niger Delta (IND) is a floodplain within the dry country of Mali.


The delta is part of the 4,200 kilometer Niger river system, which flows through 10 countries before discharging via the Nigerian Niger Delta into the Atlantic Ocean. The flow of the Niger River peaks from November to December and creates a set of lakes and marshes between 1,500,000 and 3,000,000 hectares. Most of this land is dry again in spring, leaving fertile areas suitable for agriculture and cattle.


 The seasonally flooded area of 30 000 km2 is crucial for the one and a halve million fishermen, herdsmen and farmers. It is also critical for millions of waterbirds migrating from Europe and Asia to the delta as a winter destination. See The Niger a Lifeline about the values of the delta. Vital link for migratory waterbirds Classified as a Ramsar site in 2004, it is of extraordinary importance for a large range of water-dependent plant and animal species – especially migratory waterbirds. Three to four million resident or migratory waterbirds from almost all parts of the world, in particular Europe and Asia, depend on the area. (see The Niger a Lifeline for information about the millions of waterbirds in the delta).


 Vital for local people One and a halve million people depend on the Inner Niger Delta for their survival. Main ethnic groups in the region include Fulani (who are cattle breeders), Bozo and Somono (both fishermen) and Bambara and Rimaibe (who are farmers). The Delta is an area of culture and immense economic and tourism potential. Many historic cities are now major tourist centers, such as Hamdallahi (former capital of Dina), Djenné and Bandiagara. These last two towns are included on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage list.


Threats to the delta

While the area itself now has a certain level of protection, upstream developments pose a major threat. From its origin in Guinea Conakry to its end in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, the Niger Riversuffers from pollution, diversions and dams for irrigation as well as hydropower generation. In Malialone, 26 water-demanding infrastructure projects are in operation downstream of Bamako. As a result, less and less water reaches the shrinking delta.


See our publication Impact of Dams on the People of Mali.


Figure: Impact of the main dams and diversions on average water flow in the Niger River before entering the delta


Source: Zwarts, L. et al. 2005. The Niger, A Lifeline.


Major irrigation schemes, such as the Office du Niger (ON) in Mali and dams such as the Selingue and planned Fomi, take a large share of the water (see our booklet on Mali dams).


The impact is a net economic loss due to decreased fish catches, fewer fields for herdsmen, and less water for agriculture in the delta. This pressure is worsened by a growing population and changing climate.

See our study on the impact of climate change and dams on the delta.