Interview with Chris Baker, head of programme Wetlands International
Wetlands are an important water supply for many people. For instance they can provide freshwater for drinking, regulate water availability and quality for agriculture and support important fisheries. Wetlands are also key ecosystems to combat the impacts of climate adaptation. They can mitigate extreme water flows after heavy rainfall and from glacial meltwater, and maintain water availability in periods of drought.
As luck would have it, in the 1990's concerns about waterbird migration started the involvement of Wetlands International in the Inner Niger Delta region, Mali. Head of Programme Chris Baker explains: 'The Dutch government was concerned that the birds migrating annually to Mali were being harvested by local communities for food. In the absence of other options, waterbird harvest had become an important part of local livelihoods, being sold in local markets and generating income for delta families. This realization drove Wetlands international to broaden their role and start to look at issues of food security and the relationship to water management.'
Food security in the Inner Niger Delta is intertwined with maintaining the volume and timing of water reaching the Delta which drives the functioning of the
Inner Niger Delta, Mali. Photo by Sander Carpaij
ecosystem. 'We are talking about a hugely important area', Chris Baker says. 'Annually, 30.000km2 hectares are flooded, provisioning 1 million people with food. That is why water resource management on all scales is so relevant, both for local communities and the wetlands.'
Upstream, pressure on water use is high. Mali uses the river for hydropower generation, rice irrigation and fishery support and has plans for further such infrastructure, Upstream, Guinea has further plans to increase this use. As further infrastructure is built, the Inner Niger Delta will receive less water. 'They say it’s an infrastructure problem, but the roots are political’, Chris Baker adds. 'Politicians often promise to build dams and in doing so earn political capital’. Unfortunately, the voice of the local people living in the Delta is not sufficiently heard in these decisions.'
The Niger River is the lifeline for many people living in the semi-arid, western Sahel zone.
Understandably, hydrological interventions (for example dams and irrigation schemes) aim to increase economic independence and food security in this unstable environment. Tapping the Niger’s flow, however, is not without consequences. The costs and benefits of expensive hydrological structures have to be carefully balanced. 'Dams may well be necessary, but they should only be built when the values of this water to communities downstream in the Delta area are fully considered, Chris Baker explains. ‘Through a Dutch and Malien partnership a decision-support system for supporting effective river management planning has been designed. Socio-economic and ecological impacts and benefits of dams and irrigation systems can be analyzed in relation to different water management scenarios. Eventually, we hope that this will help in the better design and operation of infrastructure in the Niger Basin. The approach has already proven itself: in the light of findings the specifications of the Fomi dam, planned for construction in Guinea are being reconsidered.'
Pape Diomaye THIARE
Communications and Media Coordinator
Wetlands International Africa
Phone: +221 33 869 16 81