Water must remain a source of life in West Africa

© IAGF, Senegal, Saint Louis, delta du fleuve Senegal, canal d’irrigation, environs du Parc National des oiseaux du Djoudj.

An article by Erick Orsenna, Economist, Academician and President of Initiatives for the Future of the Great Rivers (IAGF) and Hamed Semega, High Commissioner of the Organization for the Development of the Senegal River (OMVS), member of IAGF.

Since the 1970s, West Africa has suffered the full impact of climate change. Water is an important marker of these evolutions: contrasting rainfall, between drought and flooding; rising sea levels; coastal erosion (the coastline has receded by an average of 6 m/year along the entire coast!); salinisation of water and soil…

In Saint-Louis, at the mouth of the Senegal River and a city of transition between the Saharan and Sahelian climates, the emergency is already there, aggravated by the opening in 2003 of a breach in the Barbary language. Necessary to reduce water pressure and protect lives in the face of the river’s high water level, this breach has been widening ever since for lack of accompanying measures. The danger is now permanent on agricultural and fishing activities, habitats and water supply. Lake Chad is another emblematic regional example. In less than 40 years, its surface area has been divided by 10. Displacement of populations, loss of biodiversity and the resulting tensions, with half of the African population entirely dependent on biodiversity resources. In Nigeria, 1,500 deaths a year are attributable to water-related conflicts.

Climate change, population pressure: freshwater resources are becoming a strategic issue, potentially causing tensions and migration. But we want to believe that it also brings cooperation and peace.

What are the main conditions? Here are already four, which seem to us essential:

  • Knowledge to be able to warn and act: this knowledge is that of data, participatory science and forecasting services to know the availability of water resources and their variability in time and space. It is also the knowledge resulting from the exchange of expertise and practices, as proposed by the Initiative for the Future of Great Rivers (IAGF) between rivers worldwide.
  • To govern in solidarity at the basin level and in a coordinated way to maintain the different water uses and share it equitably between countries. The Organization for the Development of the Senegal River (OMVS) has provided, in this respect, an irreplaceable framework for transboundary cooperation. By considering the river and its tributaries as international property and by collectively managing the works, the OMVS has made water a source of rapprochement, integration and cooperation. In the future, it will have to continue to preserve this resource, especially against pollution, and to ensure its sustainability.
  • Protecting and restoring the headwaters: from this area where water gushes forth, everything begins, whether on the glaciers of the Himalayas, source of 10 major Asian rivers on which more than 1.5 billion people depend, or the Fouta Djalon massif, the water tower of West Africa, which supplies a network of 15 rivers in 8 countries. Its fragility is only getting worse due to climatic events and human activities. Protecting it is one of the priorities enshrined in the Bamako Declaration signed by OMVS member countries last December.
  • Involving the riparian populations around managers and experts to make the River a link between populations. Without the acceptability and appropriation of the stakes by all users, the river is in danger and the services it provides for the economic development and ecological balance of the territories will undoubtedly be weakened. How can wetlands be developed while at the same time securing access to the resources of the breeders? How can we promote more water-efficient agricultural practices and limit activities that are destructive for the soil and water without proposing alternatives for populations struggling for their survival?

Dakar is getting ready to host the first World Water Forum in Sub-Saharan Africa. A Forum focused on water security for peace and development and results. For 5 years now, our association, rich in the multidisciplinary skills of its international experts, has been raising awareness of the threats to rivers, proposing solutions and supporting local actors in their projects. We will be present in March 2021 to share these experiences so that, from the Senegal River Basin to other rivers all over the world, the future of great rivers remains in our hands.

The Fouta Djalon Massif: a central role for water resources in West Africa

Surface area: 60,000 km².

Population: more than 15 million inhabitants

Economic activities :

  • Agriculture: it employs nearly 80% of the population;
  • An important cattle breeding area with about 4.2 million head of cattle.
  • Hydroelectric potential: estimated at 26,000 GWh (Kaleta, Souapiti and Garafiri dams)

A region sensitive to the impacts of climate change :

  • Increase in temperatures of the order of +0.5°C to +4.8°C by 2100
  • Rainfall reduction between -2.8% and -26%.
  • Loss of water resources between 30% and 54%.

Article published in Solidarités International’s Water Barometer 2020.

To learn more about Initiatives for the Future of Great Rivers, visit their website here.

Erick Orsenna

Economist, writer, member of the French Academy and specialist in sustainable development, environment, agriculture and emerging economies. He is the President of IAGF (Initiatives pour l’Avenir des Grands Fleuves).

For a more complete biography of Erik Orsenna, visit his website.



Hamed Semega

A graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in Bamako, he has held several ministerial posts in Mali, successively that of Minister of Mines, Energy and Water and that of Equipment and Transport. On 19 June 2017, he became the High Commissioner of OMVS (Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal) for 4 years.