In the middle of June, a Chinese company and the government of Guinea announced that the Chinese company is going to build the Fomi dam in the highlands of Guinea, with construction possibly starting as soon as December of this year. This announcement was a surprise to us and other stakeholders – including the World Bank, Niger Basin Authority and government of Mali – who are currently involved in a process to assess the feasibility and environmental and social impacts of such a dam.
A joint process between the governments of Guinea and Mali to prepare for the construction of the multi-purpose dam has been underway for the past 3.5 years. If built, the dam will have major impacts on the flow of the Upper Niger River, a transboundary river that flows through Mali into the Inner Niger Delta, the second largest floodplain wetland in West Africa.
We are now trying to find out more and have many unanswered questions about an issue with far-reaching implications for the entire region.
- What is the design of the Chinese dam proposal?
- Why did the Government of Guinea not inform international partners about it?
- What will the downstream impacts be and have they been taken into account?
Bypassing the current consultative process – and the prospect of beginning construction of the dam later this year – raises questions of whether the configuration of the dam will address any negative downstream impacts, as well as being properly informed by social and environmental assessments.
More transparency is needed to ensure that the dam not only provides upstream benefits to Guinea, but enough water reaches Mali to keep the Inner Niger Delta wetland ecosystem alive.
Positive or Negative impact?
It is unknown to us what the Chinese-proposed Fomi dam will look like or what benefits it will produce. But the Fomi dam concept by the Niger Basin Authority was to build a multi-purpose dam that, among other objectives, generates electricity for the West-African powernet and provides a stable flow of water to Mali for irrigated agriculture. More power and increasing agricultural production are important development objectives for West Africa. However, there are real risks if there is not enough water left to support Mali’s floodplain wetlands.
Around two million people in Mali depend on the Inner Niger Delta for their survival through the production of floating rice, fish and cattle. This production is directly related to the size of the annual flood. Less water flowing into the Inner Niger Delta means less water for fish, less feed for cattle, and less land to grow floating rice.
Competition for water-dependent natural resources between farmers, fishers and pastoralists is already a driver of conflict in Mali, a country that is plagued by increasing instability. This conflict is spreading from the north into the central delta region. The loss of wetlands that support so many people risks further destabilising Mali and the wider western Sahel, increasing conflict and out-migration.
Environmental assessments are essential
A major concern of ours is that it appears that the Chinese proposal is rushing to construct the Fomi dam without engaging all stakeholders to understand the impacts. A Chinese delegation is now visiting Guinea to understand the reality on the ground. Environmental and social studies on the impact of the dam have reportedly been done, but no one downstream has seen them and we can only wonder about the rigour of the studies.
A new report by the World Bank Inspection Panel points to the importance of impact assessments before a project is undertaken. It notes that in general there are still weaknesses in adequately considering a project’s societal risks and impacts, referring to the social context in which a project operates. To what extent have the Chinese studies looked at impacts on the Inner Niger Delta and risks related to conflict? And what is their influence on the design of the dam?
The World Bank and Niger Basin Authority-led process that we are engaged with is conducting studies on the feasibility and social and environmental impacts – in order to inform ways to minimise any such impacts. We were initially concerned that decisions on the feasibility of the dam would be made without proper information about the potential impacts of the dam. We successfully pushed the World Bank and the Niger Basin Authority to delay a recent workshop so that this information is available to all the stakeholders and the decision-making is better informed as a result. We hope we can achieve the same result with this latest proposal.