New dam in Mali will cause starvation and destroy ancient city

The government of the West African nation of Mali has announced that it is to press ahead with a controversial new dam project, despite revelations that it will cause starvation and threatens a 2,000 year-old city.

According to the US-based NGO, Cultural Survival, even backers of the multimillion dollar Talo Dam, the African Development Bank, on the River Bani, a tributary of the Niger, have concerns about the project, which the Malian government, a major stakeholder in Talo, is eager to start as soon as possible. “According to information we received from the Associated Press bureau chief in West Africa, only last week the Malian government reaffirmed its commitment to begin work on the dam soon, despite a large demonstration by Djenné residents last weekend,” Cultural Survival’s Director, Dr. Ian McIntosh, told edie.

“We have had meetings with executives from the African Development Bank, and they agree that the environmental impact assessment was flawed, and that the dam will have a negative impact on up to one million people downstream,” McIntosh said. “The dam will have a devastating effect on the environment, 40,000 will face famine in the first year and the town of Djenné will be deserted.”

The dam is being constructed to raise the level of the Bani River, upstream of the ancient city of Djenné, sufficiently to feed irrigation networks covering regions that only 20-30 years ago lay in the flood plain of this arid subsistence nation and produced food. Although an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was carried out, it only covered upstream areas and no mention was made of possible effects downstream, which citizens of Djenné and many other towns as far away as the border with Burkina Faso, Cultural Survival and the African Development Bank, are concerned about.

The principal fears are over possible starvation and loss of valuable subsistence crops as far away as Burkina Faso. Cultural Survival commissioned a report by a team from the International Development Office at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, which said that downstream residents of Djenné may be more susceptible to drought. If the Bani had an ample supply, water sufficient to meet the needs of downstream farmers could be released during dry season, however as the Talo Dam, is proposed precisely because of the Bani’s dwindling water supply, the proposed sluice gate is unlikely to help at the height of the dry season. Although the African Development Bank states that only 6% of the Bani River will be diverted annually for irrigation in the target area, Cultural Survival’s hydrological analysis found up to 20% of the river will be diverted while the reservoir is filling during the rainy season.

The project documents fail to adequately consider ecological and systemic impacts, says Cultural Survival. Fish populations may decline, resulting in a loss of livelihood for the region’s many fishermen as life cycles of fish in the Bani River are dependent on seasonal flooding. Farmers also use seasonal wetlands, especially as surrounding rangelands dry out and controlled flooding cannot simulate the natural floodplain’s quantity or distribution. Nomadic populations already travel great distances to graze cattle in the delta and their rangelands will become more arid as the Niger Inland Delta floodplain, which between 500,000 and one million people depend on, shrinks, says the report. A reduction in groundwater levels is also expected as the Talo Dam could further deplete aquifers and the health of the populations in Djenné and surrounding villages may deteriorate as irrigated wetland areas and stagnant reservoir water create ideal breeding grounds for organisms responsible for the spread of malaria, schistosomiasis, and bilharzias.

There is also widespread concern over the future of the United Nations World Heritage Site the city of Djenné, inhabited since 250 BC, home of the Djenné mosque – the world’s largest adobe structure and almost 2,000 traditional houses, and one of Mali’s top three tourist sites. The report says that a dam at Talo could potentially result in the displacement of 20,000 residents of Djenné and the destruction of the life of the city.

Cultural Survival believes that before any dam can be built the following need to be fulfilled:

  • an environmental impact assessment and socio-economic study focusing on the downstream area (from the dam to Mopti);
  • an environmental impact assessment focusing on potential effects of the Talo Dam on the greater Niger Inland Delta;
  • a revised cost-benefit analysis of potential losses that includes both downstream and upstream costs or losses, in addition to projected project benefits; and
  • a comprehensive hydrological study taking into account the amount of water to be diverted from the Bani River, including losses due to factors such as evaporation, and considering climatic variability instead of solely relying on yearly averages.

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