MALI: All it takes to save the lakes from climate change is money

Thursday, June 5, 2008
Ahmed Toure spends most days squatting beside the only surfaced road running through the Timbuktu region of northern Mali, his face and eyes shielded against the sand and dust by a traditional Touareg wrap and dark glasses. He is waiting for work, or just a ride to somewhere else.

The wait for work is often a long one. "There's very little opportunity these days," he said. Getting a ride out is easier; many people are heading for the more fertile south of Mali, or even further to Cote d'Ivoire, Benin and elsewhere.

Until the 1980s, this remote region in the far north of Mali, in the Sahel region on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, was the country's grain basket. Four interlinked lakes, of which Lake Faguibine was the largest, provided fishing and over 60,000 hectares of fertile land for farming and watering animals.

But the lake started drying up and the region's prosperity evaporated with the water; today, Lake Faguibine is bone dry.

In the 1980s some aid agencies started handing out food and working with pastoralists, but for the most part people say they just get by on what they can forage, grow in market gardens, or buy.

"The past was a time of plenty with fish, forests, and animals," said Mohamed Ali Ag Abdoulaye, an elder in the village of Bintagoungou, close to what was Lake Faguibine. "Now everything is gone."

Simple solutions?

The solution to the problem is simple to understand but apparently hard to do.

When the lake network was functioning it was fed by two canals from the Niger River, one 104km long, the other 57km. originally the waterways were several metres wide; now they are clogged with sand and debris, and have shrivelled to just a few centimetres across in some places.

Kalfa Sanogo, a representative of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Mali, said the clogged canals, combined with two major droughts in 1973-74 and 1984-85, which had severely depleted the lakes, were at the root of the problem.

Clearing and re-digging the canals in the scorching desert heat is the solution, but getting the work done in this remote region, more than 1,000km north of Mali's capital, Bamako, where there are few roads, power sources, or connections with the outside world, is extremely difficult.

"The physical obstacles to getting this done are huge," Sanogo said. But the payoff of getting the water flowing is huge too. "At least 350,000 people would benefit from this project. In a country of 12 million people, that is no small thing."

Getting it done

In 2006 the government set up the Lake Faguibine Authority to get the lakes reopened. Col Ascofare, the director, says his equipment includes a couple of rusty mechanical diggers and dump trucks, and a limited supply of fuel for them. For the rest of work he has to rely on manpower, mobilising hundreds of local men to clear sections by hand.

In two years of work Ascofare has only made enough progress to reopen a small part of the waterways. Around one of the four lakes which have started now refilling because of the work, a splash of green millet and the villagers steadily planting and harvesting is evidence of the project's potential.

Locals say they are harvesting three crops a year, and as a result food prices in the area around the lake have halved in the last year.

Stopping the sand

Ascofare's enemy is the towering wall of sand that skirts the northern edge of the lake system. The Sahara is steadily creeping south, drowning everything in its path in sand, including the Lake Faguibine canals. "We have got to find a way to stop the sand; if we had no sand here, we would have no problem. Every year, the men I mobilise just have to keep on digging out the same section of canal."

He needs money - perhaps as much as 13 billion CFA francs, he estimated - to buy machines and equipment, and seeds to plant up to 300,000 trees per year to hold the sand back.

"This could create huge employment here if we got the funding and the work could begin properly," he said. "This one project alone could feed and stabilise the whole region, providing natural riches for everyone. No-one would need food aid, seeds, development aid; we would be self-sufficient again on our own crops."

If Lake Faguibine is not saved, "We will just go backwards," he said.


Sanogo, of the UNDP, said Mali's government was already overstretched, trying to deal with pressing health, food and water needs an African country that is geographically one of the largest and economically one of the poorest. "Whether this happens or not is up to the donors," he commented.

The UN Special Adviser on Conflict, Jan Egeland, who travelled to Lake Faguibine as part of a week-long mission to raise awareness of the impact of climate change on the Sahel region, said the Lake Faguibine project and others like it should be a priority.

"We must ask ourselves if we are really going to let life-saving projects like this, which are directly related to climate change, go unfunded?" Egeland wrote in a diary entry on the day he visited Lake Faguibine. He is contributing the journal of his Sahel mission to IRIN.

"It would really be a moral failure if climate change projects that already exist to help the people affected would go unfunded by those industrialised nations that caused climate change."