by Lorenzo Cotula

On this stretch of the River Niger, in central Mali, colourful pirogues bustle in all directions carrying people, sheep and goods. It is here that the River Niger meets the River Bani and feeds one of Africa’s most spectacular seasonally flooded plains – the Inner Niger Delta. When I first visited the delta in October 2002, soon after the rainy season, the miracle of the seasonal flooding was at its peak. Bozo fishers were at work, hoping for a good catch. For a traveller coming from the surrounding dry scrublands, these vast expanses of water seemed like a mirage. With the rains, local farmers plant rice that they will harvest as the waters recede. During the dry season, the lakes turn into dusty plains where Fulani herders graze their livestock on the nutritious grass locally known as burgu. At this time, the delta hosts about half of Mali’s national livestock, with cattle also coming from Burkina Faso and farther afield.

For the herders who, sitting in a circle, share with me sour milk in a wooden bowl, the delta is a source of life. It is here that, in the nineteenth century, the religious Fulani leader Sekou Amadou established a theocratic state and a sophisticated resource management system that, despite many important changes, is still applied today. A diverse mosaic of ethnic groups, each traditionally associated with different liveli- hood systems, depends on the delta. A walk across the bustling streets of Mopti, the main town in the delta, is a tour through this patchwork of cultures and livelihoods.

Upstream, the town of Ségou, on the southern bank of the River Niger, hosts colonial buildings that are a vivid reminder of a not too distant past. It was the French colonizers who built the Markala dam north of Ségou, created one of the largest irrigation schemes in West Africa – the Office du Niger – and forced farmers to settle on the scheme and grow cotton for the French textile industry.

After independence, rice replaced cotton as the main crop in the Office du Niger, and the Malian government and donor agencies expanded the irrigation infrastructure. Today, the Office du Niger hosts some eighty thousand hectares of irrigated land.

The parastatal agency that, through various incarnations, has managed the scheme since colonial times is based in the town of Ségou. The headquarters of the agency, also called Office du Niger, is an imposing white building in elegant Sahelian architecture located in the centre of the town. The extensive powers of this agency in shaping the lives of thousands of small-scale rice growers led some commentators to talk about ‘a state within the state’, though institutional reforms adopted in the mid-1990s have redefined and partly democratized those powers. Productivity on small-scale farms in the Office area has increased sharply since the mid-1990s, but demographic growth and plot subdivision have resulted in an average farm size of less than two hectares.

For the government, expanding the irrigation infrastructure has become an imperative, yet there are limited public resources to finance the expansion. To address this challenge, in 2008 the government issued an ‘appeal to investors’, calling on private capital to acquire land in the area and bring the irrigation scheme to its claimed full potential of 1 million hectares.

Within a few years, the Office du Niger became a hotspot of the global land rush. Companies from South Africa, Libya, China and Europe have flocked in to tap into the area’s potential. National entrepreneurs have also moved in. Nearly 900,000 hectares have formed the object of land deals since 2004, though, as discussed, only a small part of this involved definitive leases from the Office du Niger.

The political mobilization of local producer associations, concerned at losing their land to outsiders, resulted in high-profile farmer fora that called for a halt on the deals.Villagers affected by the deals have also filed lawsuits to challenge two major investment projects. Opposition leaders in parliament have seized on the matter. But it was the military coup of March 2012 and the ensuing political instability in the country that put a brake on the pace of the deals. Many foreign investors have now pulled out, and much uncertainty surrounds the future of agribusiness ventures in the Office. But the full implementation of the deals signed so far could profoundly transform ecology and livelihoods not only in the Office itself, but also, via impacts on the water resource, downstream in the Inner Niger Delta.

No place in Africa can illustrate more powerfully the important implications of the global land rush for water resources. A land lease in a semi-arid country like Mali would be worthless if it did not ensure access to sufficient water for agricultural use. Land acquisitions in Mali were concentrated in the irrigable Office du Niger area. And water is an important driver of the land rush in the first place. Countries that have much land but little water – such as the Gulf states – have been among those signing the deals. Financiers interested in capturing increases in the price of land are also mindful of the gains that can be made from the water rights embedded in the land deals. It is impossible to assess what the land deals mean for recipient countries without properly under- standing their water dimension. There are two aspects to this. The first concerns water issues linked to individual deals – the ‘micro’ level. The second relates to the cumulative impact of numerous deals in a given location – the ‘macro’ level. Developments in the Office du Niger provide insights for both aspects.

At the micro level, an important issue concerns the commitments that governments enter into to make water available to the companies that lease the land. Some contracts relating to agricultural investments in the Office du Niger contain clauses that are capable of affecting water access for small-scale farmers. A deal for 100,000 hectares grants the company the right ‘to use the quantity of water necessary for the project without restrictions’ during the wet season, and to use the water necessary for less water-intensive crops during the dry season. Another contract commits the government to provide water for irrigation and industrial use for up to 20 cubic metres per second every day. This can be extended to 35 cubic metres per second if the company exercises an option to expand the plantation area within fifteen years.

These contractual commitments to the company create a legal obligation for the host government to ensure that the water needs of the project are met. Effectively, this establishes priority rights for access to water. In fact, the contract for a sugar cane project explicitly states that the project regulated by the con- tract and a pre-existing sugar cane project would be prioritized if water became limited. Should a water shortage occur – owing, for instance, to drought or to over-commitment of the limited water available – government authorities would be contractually obligated to prioritize these two sugar cane ventures over other water users. Sugar cane is a thirsty crop. Thousands of small-scale rice growers, who account for the bulk of agricultural production in the Office du Niger, risked being left without sufficient water. Scope for dry-season cultivation of water-demanding crops like rice is already restricted by water scarcity during this season. Also, in times of crisis, prioritizing sugar cane over rice may result in food scarcity. These concerns are all the more important if one considers the very long contract durations and the growing fluctuations in the water resource base due to climate change.

The cumulative impact of large numbers of land deals can also have profound implications for water use. The rise in large-scale irrigation projects in the Office du Niger area may impinge on water availability in the Inner Niger Delta. The environmental impact assessment carried out for a large sugar cane project in the Office noted that, although there is currently enough water to meet the water demands of different users in the area, the cumulative effect of numerous land acquisitions could create shortages vis-à-vis the multiple water demands of existing or planned users. That study also found that only measures to in- crease seasonal water availability, such as the construction of the Fomi dam upstream in Guinea, would ensure that water demand is met during the dry season in the longer term. Others agree that the Fomi dam is critical for the viability of additional large irrigation projects in the Office du Niger. It is worth looking further into this dam.

Fomi is one of three dams that the Niger Basin Authority — the intergovernmental body that regulates the river basin – has been planning since 2008. The other two dams are downstream of the Office du Niger, in Taoussa (Mali) and Kandadji (Niger).

Fomi is located in the highlands of eastern Guinea, which receive abundant rainfalls. This is where the River Niger originates. The dam aims to generate electricity and stabilize water flows for agriculture, fishing and navigation. Construction works are set to start in the course of 2013 and would involve a ‘Build, Operate and Transfer’ scheme, whereby a concessionaire will build the dam and generate returns through operating it for twenty-five years, before handing it over to the Guinean government.

The governments of Guinea and Mali have been strong supporters of this dam. It is not difficult to see why the Malian government is keen. The dam will increase water flows in the dry season, which – among other things – will allow extension of dry-season farming in the Office du Niger. Easing water constraints in the dry season will improve commercial prospects for agricultural ventures in the Office. But the dam in Fomi will also have negative impacts. One is that the dam will reduce water flows during the wet season. As a result, the flood plains of the Inner Niger Delta are expected to shrink.

According to some projections, the flood plains might be reduced by up to a half. A squeeze on this scale could have disastrous consequences for the estimated one million herders, farmers and fishers who depend on the delta. In the Inner Niger Delta, competition for resources is already intense. Over the past few decades, pressures on land, water and grazing have increased as a result of demographic growth, but also of an already shrinking resource base: the scale and duration of the flooding have already contracted owing to climatic fluctuations and to the earlier construction of another dam upstream, at Sélingué.

Already, when I conducted fieldwork in the delta back in 2006, concerns about the shrinking resource base were raised by mayors, customary authorities and pastoralists alike. Conflict over access to land and natural resources was endemic – for example, between competing customary authorities, between these authorities and elected mayors, and between fishers and farmers, on the one hand, and customary leaders and herders on the other.75 Any further squeeze on the delta is bound to be felt. The rapid unfolding of the land rush in the Office du Niger reflects strategic decisions about water management that will have lasting repercussions for livelihoods well beyond the areas immediately affected by the land deals.

By signing many large land deals in the Office du Niger and by supporting the new dam in Fomi to make the deals viable, the Malian government put at risk one of its most precious resources, the Inner Niger Delta. Hundreds of thousands of farmers, herders and fishers risk losing out to plantations that will most likely support only a smaller number of jobs. Because of the close interconnection between livelihood systems and social identity, these changes will also profoundly affect local societies. There is nothing to suggest that people who have so much at stake have been meaningfully involved in these decisions. In fact, there has been very little public debate in Mali about the implicit strategic choice to shift water from the Inner Niger Delta to the Office du Niger, or about the full implications of this choice.

Where water is a trans-boundary resource, the cumulative impacts of land deals may have important international dimensions. The basin of the River Niger includes nine West African countries. A regional body to coordinate the management of this shared river basin, the Niger Basin Authority, has been in place since 1980. A Water Charter adopted in 2008 by the Niger river basin countries refers to the principle of ‘equitable and reasonable’ utilization of the shared river basin among the riparian countries. But what this means in practice may be open to different interpretations, and is likely to involve political negotiation. The disconnection between the trans-boundary water implications of the land deals and the power of national governments, not regional bodies, to sign those deals may yet prove an important source of tension. Nigeria, which is the country farthest downstream and also West Africa’s economic powerhouse, has raised concerns that the three new dams planned on the River Niger will reduce water flows.

Despite the many specificities of the Malian context, the issues raised by this experience resonate with developments in many parts of Africa. For example, governments from three countries that share the Nile river basin – Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan – have collectively allocated millions of hectares of land for irrigated agriculture. While exact estimates of increased water demand linked to the rise of large irrigation projects in Ethiopia are not available, important impacts on water availability downstream seem inevitable.78 These developments risk straining relations among riparian states.

In Mozambique’s Massingir district, a large ethanol project raised concerns about water availability – with the trade-off here being between the new venture, involving irrigated sugar cane farming next to the dam, and pre-existing irrigated rice cultivation downstream, in the Limpopo river valley.

The rush for land has major implications for access to water – not only because the deals may give companies priority rights that disadvantage local farmers, but also because the cumulative effect of the deals on water abstraction may have far-reaching reverberations downstream, and because strategic policy choices may link the signing of the deals to major dam developments that can affect transnational watercourses. As a result, the socio-economic outcomes of the deals are not limited to the people who live in the project area. Directly or indirectly, the deals can affect a much wider set of interests, within the national territory and beyond.

Since the many land deals were signed in Mali’s Office du Niger area, the political situation in the country has deteriorated. The occupation of northern Mali by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and foreign jihadists in early 2012 destabilized agribusiness developments in the Office du Niger. Several foreign companies have now withdrawn, and many investments have been put on hold. Between the rush for land and water, on the one hand, and political instability, on the other, the future of the Office du Niger and of the Inner Niger Delta looks more uncertain than ever.


Lorenzo Cotula is Senior Researcher, Law and Sustainable Development at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

The Great African Land Grab? is published by Zed Books