Mali: Shrinking of Niger River threatens agriculture

October 14, 2019
A translation for this article is available in French

Over its 4,200-kilometre journey, the Niger River waters 1,750 kilometres of land in Mali. The river has always provided local populations with water to carry out their farming activities. But since the 90s, the longest river in West Africa has been receding due to climate change.

Djeneba Diarra has been farming by the Niger River in Bamako for the past 13 years, growing okra, groundnuts, leafy greens, and tomato. She applies fertilizers to increase her yield and waters her garden with a motor pump when the water level decreases. But access to water is difficult. The river now recedes up to 100 metres from her garden, nearly 50% further than before.

Alassane Souleymane grows beetroot, onion, melon, and other garden crops in Baguineda, a municipality close to Bamako. He says that when the river recedes, he uses his own well. Other farmers use water from towers that supply cement canals which water their gardens.

Several human activities have been responsible for damaging the river and nearby agricultural production, including deforestation, gold panning, and urbanization. In addition, the scarcity of rainfall and erosion are making life difficult for farmers. Facing these new realities, farmers are more and more worried.

Sidi Ba is a researcher at the Institut polytechnique de Katibougou and author of the book Péril sur la Pollution du Fleuve Niger (Peril of Niger River Pollution). He is an expert on the issue, and says that farmers are directly affected by the decreased water flow. But at the same time, the receding river offers them fertile soil for small-scale agriculture along the riverbanks. He says there is a lot of gardening in Bamako, in the middle of the city.

Djoouro Bocoum is the national deputy director of hydraulics. He worries that using riverbanks to grow crops leads to erosion and contributes to the volume of sand in the river. He says the river is threatened, but there are actions people can take to both reduce the damage and adapt to it. He says. “We see the digging of deep boreholes, and … large projects in terms of dams, like the one of Taoussa in Gao.”

With boreholes, farmers can have abundant access to water and farm beyond the riverbanks.

According to Mr. Ba, the deterioration of the river has been happening for some time. He says the river flow in Koulikoro, around 60 kilometres from Bamako, has decreased by 20% since the 1990s.

Another contributing factor is that, for more than 10 years, population growth has led to increased demand for water and arable land.

Further, reduced rainfall is increasing the level of silt in the river, and reducing the amount of land available for farming. Mr. Ba says: “At Tombouctou, there were flooded areas where we used to farm rice and maize. But because there is less water flowing, some of these soils cannot be used anymore except when we irrigate.”

A group called Save fleuve Niger, formed in March 2019, is sounding the alarm about the dying river and fighting to conserve it. Dia Sacko is the organizer of the group. To adapt to the new conditions, Mrs. Sacko recommends continuing with agricultural activities, but also creating a buffer zone, since it’s not possible to farm just anywhere.

To accomplish this, Mrs. Sacko says that the government and farmers need to cooperate to establish areas that are exclusively reserved for market gardening and other kinds of farming.