The Senegal River courses through Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal, making its way to the Atlantic Ocean after traversing some of the driest, drought-prone parts of western Africa.
As with any shared water resource, the Senegal River is a major economic, social and cultural lifeline for over 35 million people, 12 million of whom live in its river basin which has a surface area of 300,000 square kilometers.
The US$228.5 million Senegal River Basin Multipurpose Water Resources Development project approved today by the World Bank Group’s Board of Directors marks a new push to alleviate water scarcity and improve farming prospects for millions of people in the four riparian countries. The project is the second phase of a multi-sector, multi-country 10-year program working to bring more food, energy, irrigation and to meet other development targets.
Boost for Farming
Take rice, a major staple food and preferred cereal of choice across much of western Africa. Along the banks of the Senegal River and deeper into the delta, cultivating rice is a major occupation and principal source of food and income security for farming communities whose fortunes largely depend on the availability of water for irrigation.
Currently, irrigated farming is limited. Less than half of the Senegal River basin’s irrigation potential, estimated at 375,000 hectares, is developed. Of the 130,000 to 140,000 hectares that are developed, only 90,000 hectares are really usable. The new project will bring irrigation to 13,000 hectares, enhance regional integration and promote multi-purpose water resources development to increase incomes and improve community livelihoods.
Thilene village, in northern Senegal, is an archetypal example of how transformative impact can be achieved by providing farmers with irrigation. There, a new irrigation system fed by the Senegal River is boosting rice production enabling farmers to achieve record rice harvests three times a year.
“In the past we used to have great difficulties accessing water,” said Mamba Diop, an enthusiastic rice farmer. “Today everybody has water, and everybody can farm all year long. This has increased our revenues; rural-urban migration has stopped because all the young people are interested in agriculture. We were even able to electrify our village and send our kids to school.” Diop also serves as President of the Thilene Farmers Union.
A similar story is playing out in neighboring Mali, where the Senegal River is formed through the merging of Bakoye and Bafing rivers. Here, communities have practiced subsistence agriculture, and lack of irrigation has meant that prosperity had remained elusive until a new irrigation system was installed.
“Our main activity is farming, that’s our only source of income,” said Sambali Sissoko, a farmer in Bafoulabé village. “We are organized in cooperatives and each one of us has a piece of land where we grow cabbage, onions, eggplant, lettuce and maize. We are now able to water our land, and we will have a good harvest and more revenues.”
Protecting Human Health
Water-related diseases associated with large water infrastructure projects are prevalent in the Senegal River basin, a necessary tradeoff of continuing efforts to meet burgeoning food and energy needs for a growing population that is projected to double every 25 years.
For example, malaria affects over 14% of kids under age five and 9% among pregnant women, the most vulnerable groups. Among the riparian countries, Guinea tops the list with the highest prevalence rate of over 54%, while Mauritania has the lowest prevalence rate of 1.2%. Mali and Senegal have each reported prevalence rates of 3.1% and 2.1% respectively.
Thanks to proper management of water bodies and distribution of mosquito nets, more and more communities living in the Senegal River basin are close to seeing malaria banished from their lives. The project has already distributed 3.1 million long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets. As a result, the use of nets has increased from 27.6% to 46% overall.
The example from Richard Toll, a town lying on the south bank of the river in northern Senegal, is illuminating. Commenting about how the battle against malaria is being waged successfully, Dr. Alassane Tall, a physician at the local health center noted that thanks to large-scale distribution of mosquito nets, it is very rare to enter a home in Richard Toll and not find a mosquito net. “Today, we have almost no occurrences of malaria here,” he asserted.
In an interview, Sall Dieynaba Sy, a mother of two young children attested to the success of the mosquito net distribution strategy, adding “Every day, every night, all year long, my children and I sleep under a mosquito net.”
Fish for Food
After agriculture, fishing is the next most important economic activity in the Senegal River basin. Unsustainable fishing practices and changing hydrology are negatively impacting livelihoods in many communities.
To support development of inland fisheries and aquaculture in selected areas of the river basin, the project is providing funding for strengthening fisheries-related institutions, development of sustainable fisheries’ management programs, support for enhancing the value of fish catches through better storage infrastructure, and finance of aquaculture development programs.
“Fishing is our main activity, that is how we are able to provide for our families,” said Serigne Ba, who has been practicing the craft for three decades and is President of the fishery association in village Thiago, Senegal. “With the new fishing boats and nets, we are able to go further in the river, catch more fish, and conserve the fish for a longer time because we now have refrigerated containers. This allows us to sell fish locally and to markets far away such as Richard Toll.”
Coordination and Cooperation Vital for Transformative Impact
The Organization for the Development of the Senegal River Basin (known by its French acronym, OMVS) was established in 1972 to promote coordinated water and energy development. Jointly governed by Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal, the OMVS is spearheading coordinated river basin planning and investment so that the risks of large-scale water investment are mitigated and the benefits are shared among the riparian states.
Speaking to the importance of a multi-pronged approach to sustainable development of the Senegal River basin, Kabiné Komara, High Commissioner of the OMVS said: “Over 12 million people living along the river used to be the poorest in the area. This project has improved health conditions and contributed to improved livelihoods. Through improved management of fisheries, food security has improved and revenues have greatly increased. In supporting agriculture, we didn’t just establish irrigated fields, but also provided farmers with guidance and training along with small loans that allowed for the improvement of agricultural techniques and sharing of knowledge sharing.”
As the four countries of the Senegal River basin work to improve the well-being of their people, it is clear that active coordination and close cooperation is delivering results.
“The second phase of the Senegal River Basin Multipurpose Water Resources Development project is helping communities to secure economic growth, improve well-being and cope and adapt to climate change,” said Shelley Mcmillan, Senior Water Resources Specialist and project leader. “This model of collaboration holds significant promise in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.”