Wednesday, 19 August 2015 00:00

West Africa's Wonder River

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The dazzling Senegal River The dazzling Senegal River by Remi Jouan, Wikimedia Commons

On 13th October 1974, 286 athletes ran in the first ever Berlin Marathon. Less than three hours later, 32-year old Günter Hallas had won the marathon. This year in 2014, Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto ran forty minutes faster than Günter and set a new world record. When next year’s winner crosses the finish line, the 42-kilometre long Berlin Marathon will have covered almost 1,800 kilometres since its inception. This is the length of Senegal River, Africa’ second longest river. 

Popularly known as West Africa’s water tower, the highlands of Fouta Djallon in central Guinea are the source of Senegal River. Flowing from these highlands are three rivers that provide eighty percent of Senegal River’s waters – the Bafing, Bakoye and Faleme River Rivers.

After leaving Fouta Djallon, the river powers into Mali then flows on to form the boundary between Senegal and Mauritania. It ends its epic journey upon arrival into the Atlantic Ocean.

Mali has the lion’s share of the Senegal River basin. 30 million acres – which is 38 times the size of Cape Verde – sits squarely in Mali. Senegal’s share of the basin is the least and is one fifth of the size of Mali’s share.

Living in the Senegal River basin are millions of people who have swam and fished in the river for centuries. They are a rainbow of ethnicity and include Peuls, Toucouleurs, Soninkes, Malinkes, Bambaras, Wolofs and Moors. They possess an intimate knowledge of the river borne from centuries of living next to it.

Also familiar with the river are the hundreds of bird and fish species that swim, wade and feed in the river. Among them is the African spoonbill, so named because of their spoon-like bills.

As the white spoonbill sways its large beak in the cool water’s of Senegal River, it appears to be dancing to some riverine music. Left – Right – Swoosh. Left – Right – Swoosh. The swaying is alternately gentle and fast, as if the river’s music is both rhythm n blues and hip-hop.

Senegal River doesn’t just entail the H2O liquid known as water. It has also enabled the Senegal River basin. If this basin was a country, it would be bigger than Uganda. Its 74 million acres are teeming with dazzling biodiversity and rich wetlands.

Despite unending hiccups and monumental challenges, agriculture also thrives in the basin, causing the Senegal River valley to be baptized, Le grenier du Sénégal. Senegal’s bread basket. But it’s also a potential bread basket for the three other countries. Indeed, Senegal River basin’s irrigation potential in the four countries is one million acres. Only one-fourth of this area is currently under irrigation.[1]

For decades, governments of the four countries, local organizations and international donors have invested huge amounts of time and resources towards full utilization of the basin. Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal (OMVS) has been at the heart of these efforts. It was born through a convention that came into force on 11 March 1972. OMVS therefore shares a birthday with Didier Drogba who was born six years later on the same day.

Just like the great Ivorian player, OMVS has scored many goals and also missed many. One of these goals is especially relevant to the riverine communities – secure and increase revenues of people living in the Basin. However, some have ruled the goal as offside arguing that OMVS hasn’t really achieved this and instead made things worse by enforcing large scale rice farming as opposed to enhancing the small scale farming that had existed for centuries.

Twenty five years after the birth of OMVS on seventh January 1997, another convention established Diama and Manatali dam agencies. Diama dam is located next to Senegal’s Diama town. It prevents salt water intrusion upstream and channels irrigation water into approximately 110,000 acres of land. Manantali , which is located in Mali, provides hydroelectricity to Mali, Senegal and Mauritania.  Despite these massive electricity benefits, Manantali’s agricultural benefits haven’t met the expectations of local communities and several other stakeholders. Again, the balance between large scale dam ventures and small scale agricultural practices has proven to be quite tricky.  

The African spoonbill is swaying again, oblivious of the politics that has inundated the river basin. All it knows that the river keeps it well-fed and alive. Less than a kilometer away, acres of rice plantations stand still, indifferent to the river’s music but swaying to the gentle breeze that is a staple of the river during sunrise and sunset.

The rice farms and African spoonbill are not alone in depending on the river. Thirteen million people live in the Senegal River basin. Out of these, approximately three million live near the river and depend on it for their livelihoods[2]. Whether these livelihoods have been enhanced or undermined with the passage of time is still up for debate. What is clear is that without the river, millions of people would be rendered helpless and hapless.

When the river approaches the end of its 1,800-kilometer journey, it flows into its very own delta and does wonders there. This delta contains rich wetlands that host at least four Ramsar sites. One of these sites is the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, a favourite of the spoonbill and at least 1.5 million other birds. Ironically, as Africans migrate to Europe in their hundreds every year, thousands of birds migrate from Europe to Djoudj in Senegal. Without doubt, this place is a 40,000 acre bird paradise par excellence.   

Djoud, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, comprises of a lake, streams and water, water everywhere. The African spoonbill just loves this water, even though it’s not a big fan of the crocodiles that like lazing in it. Apart from the crocodiles, sea cows also roam the waters. These sea cows are so unique to West Africa that their other name is West African manatee. They have short fins that look like legs and small eyes that give them a geeky look.

The Bassin du Ndiaël is another Ramsar Site in the Delta. It is now largely dry although half a century earlier, it teemed with hundreds of thousands of garganeys, those small, colorful ducks that glide on water with the grace of a gazelle skipping in the savannah grassland. Thankfully, the Bassin du Ndiaël is not just about lost glory as it currently hosts at least 20,000 water birds. On certain days, these armies of birds can be seen, gliding, flying, fluttering, cackling, cooing and chirping.

Guembeul Natural reserve is yet another Ramsar site in the delta. This is where Sahelian mammals and reptiles find much needed refuge. One of these mammals is the spectacular scimitar oryx. Its long horns sit on its head like a crown of elegance. A patch of brown on its neck matches just as elegantly with its white body, making it to look as if it is wearing a stylish broken suit from Shakara Couture. Once numbering in their hundreds of thousands, the scimitar oryx have dwindled to mere dozens, making the protective refuge of Guembeul Natural Reserve even more critical than ever before.

The fourth Ramsar site in the Senegal River delta is Parc National du Diawling. Its vast 40,000 acres are all in Mauritania and they host over 220 species of birds including pelicans, black storks and flamingoes. Just like the three other Ramsar sites in the Senegal River Basin, this is one place that birds, mammals and reptiles can call home.

Above all, millions of West Africans earn livelihoods because of West Africa’s wonder river. It is now critical for them to be further empowered so that they can be primary guardians and beneficiaries of the wonder river. In the words of Heraclitus the ancient Green philosopher, ‘you cannot step twice into the same river…’

We only have one chance to interact productively and sustainably with the wondrous waters of River Senegal.




Environmental Africa

Environmental Africa uses creative writing to share Africa's Sustainability Promise and Plight

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