African heads of state and senior representatives of the nine members of the Niger Basin Authority (NBA) drafted and signed a blue print for the sustainable use of the Niger River and it’s tributaries during a two-day meeting in Paris, which closed on Tuesday.
The Niger River is the third largest river in Africa, snaking through nine sub-Saharan countries as it makes its 4,200 km journey from its source in Guinea to the Niger Delta in Nigeria. An estimated 110 million people live along its banks.
The two-day conference had been billed as an opportunity for a wider discussion of the protection of the biodiversity and ecosystem of the Niger Basin. However, the two-day meeting concentrated on the exploration and protection of the Niger River itself.
Hosted by French President Jacques Chirac, who described the Niger as an essential source of wealth, the nine members of the NBA agreed to draw up of a plan of action for the sustainable use of the Niger River before the end of 2004.
While water specialists widely hailed the plan as a “turning point”, a demonstration of the nine nations’ commitment to environmental sustainability and poverty alleviation, the outlook for the Niger River is bleak.
Climate change and rapidly growing populations are stretching the resources of the Niger. Droughts in 1985 and 1990 caused parts of the river to dry up completely, something which was previously unheard of.
Water experts estimate that the volume of the Niger has shrunk by one third in the last thirty years alone.
Pollution is another major concern. The Malian capital of Bamako lies on the banks of the Niger River. Nearly all the city’s commercial and residential effluent drains into the river, untreated.
Other Malian towns further east follow suit. The river then passes through the capital of Niger, Niamey, where yet more untreated waste is offloaded into its waters.
By the time the Niger River reaches Burkina Faso, the waters are highly polluted and certainly unsafe to drink.
As the water table shrinks, due to an annually decreasing rainfall, pollutants have become increasingly concentrated in the river.
The spread of water hyacinth has also had a damaging impact. Water hyacinth, a floating, aquatic weed, originated in the Amazon basin in South America and was originally brought to Africa as an ornamental plant.
It grows best in stagnant and polluted waters where it starves the river water of oxygen killing fish and aquatic life. As in East Africa and southern Africa, the spread of water hyacinth on the Niger has brought serious environmental consequences.
River fishing communities have become increasingly vulnerable as fish stocks have dwindled.
Silt is also threatening to choke the Niger. In a statement issued last year, the NBA warned: “The Niger River is facing a great danger and risks extinction if silting continues at the alarming rate observed during the last few years”.
Last September the African Development Fund (ADF) approved loans and grants to the total of US$ 20 million for a silt control programme, which will pay for the construction of dunes and land reclamation to maintain the course of the river.
The area most affected is the mid-basin, where the Niger loops through the three landlocked countries of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso - three of the most impoverished countries in the world.
For landlocked Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, the Niger River is a lifeline, however, it can also bring death and disease.
In Niger, where many riverbank communities drink water directly from the river, the government has set up a programme to train and educate villages in water use and management.
The health hazards become most serious during the rains, which bring flooding and a sharp rise in water-born diseases. Cholera outbreaks are common. Every year hundreds of people die from this severe diarrhoeal disease which is spread through contaminated water.
The nine members of the NBA are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions