Written by Bruce Liggitt, Senior International Casework Officer, RSPB

The Niger River, rising in the moist highlands of Guinea, feeds into the Inner Niger Delta, one of the largest and most important floodplains in Africa, extending some 400 km in length and 100 km in width. Located in central Mali on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, this delta is important for up to two million people who depend on it for their livelihoods through agriculture, fishing, and livestock production as well as for providing water and ecosystem services to millions living further downstream. It is estimated that the Inner Niger Delta provides 30 % of Mali’s rice, 80 % of national fish production, as well as dry-season grazing for up to 60 % of Mali’s cattle.

Credit: Wetlands International

The importance of the Inner Niger Delta and its significance for bird conservation has been recognised by BirdLife International which has specifically identified nine ‘Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas’ (IBAs) within the Delta and surrounding area. Research has shown that Lake Debo alone had 500,000 Sand Martins as well as 200,000 to 300,000 roosting Yellow Wagtails and an estimated 1.5 million Yellow Wagtails for the Delta as a whole (compared with 15,000 pairs breeding in the UK).

The value of the Inner Niger Delta for biodiversity and ecosystem services is now threatened by the proposed construction of the multi-purpose Fomi Dam, potentially located upstream on the Niandan River in Guinea. Several organisations are supporting this development; The World Bank is currently funding updates to the feasibility studies and Environmental and Social Impact Assessments for Fomi Dam, and there has also been Chinese interest in building the Dam.

Recent studies conducted by Wetlands International related to the current proposals find that the construction of Fomi Dam in combination with expansion of the irrigated area in Office du Niger would reduce the average amount of water flowing into the Inner Niger Delta by 23 %, to the great detriment of life in the Delta.

Karounga Keita, national coordinator of Wetlands International in Mali says: “The construction of the Fomi Dam will have a tremendous impact on the Inner Niger Delta. That is a disaster both for nature and people dependant on the Delta. Around 2 million people depend on the Inner Niger Delta for their living through the production of floating rice, fish and cattle. The Fomi Dam will diminish natural resources and increase competition between farmers, fishers and pastoralists in Mali. This spurs tensions in a country that already faces huge problems related to security. There are better ways to increase food production and many good alternatives for generating energy. Solar energy is getting cheaper and cheaper. And instead of using more water for irrigation, we should use available water more efficiently and prioritise crops that use little water instead of growing crops that use large amounts of water such as sugar”.

Under the unstable conditions in the region, it is unrealistic to assume that transboundary cooperation will lead to harmonious and equitable water use, let alone ensure the maintenance of the environmental flows so necessary for the human well-being and ecological health of the Inner Niger Delta.

Women selecting the day's fish catch. Credit: Wetlands International

With no BirdLife partners in Mali, the RSPB is strengthening its relationship with Wetlands International, who have been working in the Inner Niger Delta for many years with a strong team working in-country.

Since the UK is one of the major donors to the World Bank, the RSPB is also engaging directly with the UK Government and the World Bank to ensure that adequate cognisance is given to the impacts that Fomi dam will have on people, habitats, and biodiversity downstream.

Given the outstanding importance of the Inner Niger Delta for bird conservation, and particularly for Palearctic migrants, the RSPB continues to advocate for the best possible outcomes for the Inner Niger Delta that combine the needs of the resident people as well as for the rich birdlife of the area.

The Inner Niger Delta is not only an important habitat for a wide range of herons, egrets and other waterbirds, but many migratory landbirds also uses it as a refueling site. Credit: Wetlands International