This piece is part of Water Grabbers: A Global Rush on Freshwater, a special National Geographic News series on how grabbing land—and water—from poor people, desperate governments, and future generations threatens global food security, environmental sustainability, and local cultures. The piece is also this week's "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.
Mayor Daouda Sanankoua had traveled overnight by boat to see me, through flooded forests and submerged banks of hippo grass. There was no other way.
Sanankoua's domain, the district of Deboye in the heart of Mali in West Africa, is on the edge of the Sahara. Yet Sanankoua's homeland is mostly water. His people live by catching fish, grazing cattle, and harvesting crops in one of the world's largest and most fecund wetlands, a massive inland delta created by the meandering waters of one of Africa's mightiest waterways, the Niger River.
Nearly two million Malians live on the delta. "Everything here depends on the water," said the mayor. "But"—and here he paused gravely, pushed his glasses down an elegant nose, and began waving a long finger—"the government is taking our water. They are giving it to foreign farmers. They don't even ask us."
What is happening here in Mali is happening all over the world. People who depend on the natural flow of water, and the burst of nature that comes with it, are losing out as powerful people upstream divert the water.
As the mayor talked in the schoolyard of Akka village, on an island in the heart of the Niger inland delta, women rushed around putting straw mats on the ground, and bringing bowls of food. By torchlight, we savored a supper of smoked fish, millet porridge, and green vegetables, all products of the waters around us.
This aquatic world, a green smudge on the edge of the Sahara 250 miles (402 kilometers) across, seemed well. It is a major wintering ground for millions of European birds. On the way to Akka, I constantly grabbed binoculars to watch birds I knew from back home. In England, kingfishers are rare; here they seemed to be everywhere. There were other European water birds in profusion, like cormorants and herons, along with endangered local birds such as the black crowned crane.
Without being too romantic, there seemed to be a remarkable degree of harmony between nature and human needs. I saw the Bozo people, the delta's original inhabitants, ply their canoes from dawn to dusk, casting nets that catch an estimated 100,000 tons of fish a year—from the ubiquitous Nile perch and bottom-living cichlids to favorite local species that live only amid roots in the flooded forests.
The Bambara, founders of the great 13th-century Mali Empire, planted millet and rice in the delta mud as the waters receded. By the early 19th century the Fulani arrived from across West Africa to graze their cattle and goats on the aquatic pastures of hippo grasses. There have been disputes, of course, but for the most part, by concentrating on different activities, the different groups have been able to respect each other's rights to harvest the wetland over generations. All the scientific evidence suggests that nature thrived too—until recently.
For the mayor was clear that the waters are receding. Fish catches are down. The flooded forests are being left high and dry. He fears his world could soon be gone. His people are doing their best to cope.
The following morning, I watched the women of Akka scrape channels in caked and cracked soils on the edge of the village, in an effort to persuade water from the lake to reach their kitchen gardens. Each year, it got harder, they said.
Diverting the Niger River
Some blame failing rains and changing climate for this crisis on the delta. Not so, said the mayor. Upstream diversions of water are to blame.
Back on dry land, I found the source of the mayor's ire just a few miles away, where engineers were constructing concrete barrages to tame the Niger River's flow and digging canals to divert its water just before it enters the wetland.
The aim is to provide water for Chinese sugar farms, Libyan rice growers, and German-, French-, and American-funded agricultural development schemes, in a region managed by a government irrigation agency called the Office du Niger. The government sees such development as the route to modernizing its agriculture through encouraging foreign investment. But critics say ministers in Bamako, the capital, are oblivious to the shortage of water that is a critical constraint on achieving this goal.
The Office du Niger already presides over a quarter of a million acres (roughly 100,000 hectares) of irrigated rice fields. That land takes 8 percent of the river's flow, according to the agency's records. That figure can rise to 70 percent in the dry season, says Leo Zwarts, a Dutch government hydrologist who is a leading authority on the Niger River.
The local engineer in charge of the main diversion structure on the river, the Markala barrage, agrees. Sitting on the riverbank beside the massive dam-like structure, Lansana Keita told me that he and his colleagues often failed to ensure the release of 1,413 cubic feet (40 cubic meters) a second, the official minimum flow of water downstream into the wetland. "We do our best, but irrigation has priority," he said.
That was evident. During the dry months, there is often more water in the canals that lead from the barrage to the fields than there is in the river itself as it heads for the delta.
As a result, the delta is already diminishing. Zwarts estimates that existing abstractions—diversions—have cut the area of delta that is flooded annually by an average of 232 square miles (600 square kilometers), killing many flooded forests and expanses of hippo grasses. He has a pair of graphs that show how the amount of fish sold in local markets goes up and down with the size of the delta inundation the previous year. In recent years, both have been declining.
But that is just the start. Behind Keita was a large metal sign displaying a map of the domain of the Office du Niger. It showed small areas painted green where there is already irrigation, and much larger areas painted yellow to show where irrigation is planned. All three main canals from the barrage were being enlarged during my visit.
The government eventually wants to irrigate ten times more land than today, and is bringing in foreign companies to do it. They are offered free land and as much water as they need. Zwarts predicts that the diversions could soon take the entire flow of the Niger River during the dry season. Add to that the impact of a hydroelectric dam planned farther upstream by the government of Guinea, and Zwarts says the delta could dry up every fourth year.
The Mali government does not confirm this analysis, but its own figures show that a fall in water levels of just one foot would dry out half of the delta. In an interview, the (now former) head of the Office du Niger said the government's targets for minimum flows will protect the delta. But he also said his office is tasked with increasing irrigation for agriculture. When I pointed out these two goals seem to be in contradiction, he declined to comment.
Mali's Water Deals
This won't all happen overnight. Political unrest in the north of Mali in recent months has discouraged foreign investment. A multiyear aid scheme funded by the U.S. government's Millennium Challenge Corporation to irrigate some 35,000 acres and turn herders into rice farmers was terminated a few months early, although many Malians did receive farm supplies.
But a 50,000-acre sugar scheme masterminded by the Chinese state-owned China Light Industrial Corporation for Foreign Economic and Technical Co-operation is close to completion. And other projects are expected to follow once peace returns, including the biggest of them all, a Libyan plan to grow rice on a quarter-million acres (roughly 100,000 hectares). The huge diversion canal for what is known as the Malibya project is already dug and full of water.
Critics of these megaprojects say the government of Mali is blind to the damage the water abstractions will do to the wetland, a mysterious region where officials seldom go. "The government is so obsessed with getting investment for its agriculture that it cannot see when that investment will do more harm than good to its people," Lamine Coulibaly of the National Coordination of Peasant Organizations of Mali told me.
Jane Madgwick, head of Wetlands International, a science-based NGO based in the Netherlands that is working with people on the delta, agrees. Far from filling the bellies of Malians, "these projects will decrease food security in Mali, by damaging the livelihoods of those most vulnerable," she says.
Water Grabbing: A Global Concern?
The situation in Mali may be part of an emerging global pattern. From the papyrus swamps of Lake Victoria in East Africa to the flooded forests of Cambodia's Great Lake, from the dried-up delta of the Colorado in Mexico to the marshes of Mesopotamia, those living downstream have been at the mercy of those they call water grabbers.
Some—like those in the Niger Delta—worry that they may become victims of the "next Aral Sea," the doomed body of water in central Asia that was once the world's fourth largest inland sea. Half a century ago, Soviet engineers began to grab its water to grow cotton. Over a few decades, they largely emptied the sea and created a giant new desert. Today, the formerly profitable fishing fleets and fertile wet-delta pastures are all gone. The surrounding region is poisoned by salt blown from the dried-up seabed, the climate is changing, the people are departing, and most of the sea is a distant memory.
Madgwick of Wetlands International says that what Mali plans for the inner Niger Delta would be similar, "a human catastrophe as vicious and shameful as the drainage of the Aral Sea." Out on the delta today, the Bozo and Bambara and Fulani people await news of their fate.
Fred Pearce is a journalist and author on environmental science. His books include When the Rivers Run Dry and The Land Grabbers, both for Beacon Press, Boston. He writes regularly for New Scientist magazine, Yale Environment 360, and The Guardian, and has been published by Nature and The Washington Post.