The Inner Niger Delta in Mali. Source: Deltares

In the Inner Niger Delta (IND), a large wetland area in the centre of Mali, around 2 million people earn a living from cattle herding, farming and fishing. Watergrass (bourgou), a fertile soil for crop farming and fish are part of the ecosystem services provided by this wetland. The availability of these ecosystem services has diminished in past decades, and together with population growth, this has resulted in increased competition and violent conflict among different socio-professional groups in the Inner Niger Delta. In 2019, several mass killings took place in villages in the Inner Niger Delta, taking the lives of several hundreds of civilians.

This violence in the Inner Niger Delta is taking place within the wider insecurity context in Mali. Mali experienced a military coup in 2012, and several events of violent conflict and terrorism in the years before and after (EIA 2018). Between early 2012 and 2013, renewed fighting in northern Mali between government forces and Tuareg secessionists and their Islamist allies, a French-led international military intervention, as well as chronic food shortages, caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Malians. Most of those displaced domestically sought shelter in urban areas of southern Mali (Clingendael 2017). 

The availability of ecosystem services is directly linked to the inundation dynamics in the Inner Niger Delta. Annually, an area of between 10,000 and 20,000 km2 is inundated by the water flowing in from the Upper Niger basin, which includes the Niger and Bani Rivers. The seasonal variation in large-scale inundation and falling of water levels of the Inner Niger Delta is of key importance to sustain ecosystem functioning and related livelihoods. Upstream regulation of the Niger and Bani, and large-scale abstraction for irrigation of cropping areas will alter the inundation regime of the Inner Niger Delta. Specific proposed developments that could have negative consequences for the ecosystem and livelihoods in the Inner Niger Delta are the construction of a new storage reservoir in Guinea (Fomi dam) and the extension of a large irrigation area managed by the Office du Niger.

The WPS partnership's engagement in Mali focuses on understanding the connections among river regulation in the Upper Niger basin, the inundation regime and ecosystem service availability in the Inner Niger Delta, the livelihoods of different groups of people living in the Inner Niger Delta as well as violent conflicts among them, and bringing these connections to the attention of actors. This enables WPS and stakeholders to jointly explore possible ways forward so that choices regarding the use of the upstream catchment do not result in further escalation of the conflict.

Dialogues and stakeholder engagement

Several workshops have been organized in Bamako through the Wetlands International Sahel Office to discuss the links among water, livelihoods and conflict in the Inner Niger Delta with various stakeholders. These workshops involved representatives from national government and civil society.  In these meetings the possibility of a connection was discussed, information presented, perceptions shared and knowledge gaps identified. The meetings identified key stakeholders and set out awareness-raising strategies for the national, regional and global levels. They also identified possible pilot actions at the local level and began more frequent interaction among actors from different backgrounds and with different responsibilities to develop a joint understanding of the challenges and of possible ways forward. 

A WPS policy brief for Mali supports awareness-raising with national and international decision-makers active in Mali, especially those concerned about the security situation. It underlines both current and future challenges in relation to water, peace and security for central Mali. The key message of the briefing paper is that plans to expand irrigation, generate hydropower and restore wetlands should ensure positive effects on human security. Achieving this goal requires increased coordination involving not only ministries of water, energy and agriculture but also ministries in charge of environment, civil protection and peace and reconciliation.

Summary of model results through interactive dashboard

Understanding human responses to changed availability of water and ecosystem services

Based on discussions with Malian stakeholders and a review of the literature, we qualitatively and quantitatively modelled how different groups of people living in the Inner Niger Delta respond to changes in water and ecosystem services. We jointly identified which groups of people may be impacted by and respond differently to such changes, what their possible responses are and which environmental, social, institutional, economic or cultural factors play(ed) a role for the different groups in choosing a specific response. As a participatory approach, this joint research directly contributed to training and dialogue activities.


Schematic on understanding links between wetland functioning and human behaviour.
Causal loop diagram based on stakeholder workshop in Bamako, January 2019.

Understanding Inner Niger Delta inundation dynamics in connection to upstream changes

Using solely freely available global data sets, we modelled the hydrology, water use and water allocation of the Upper Niger Basin. We use freely available data sets because this reduces the need for local data collection, allowing for quick zooming in to analyse the local water resources system. Moreover, using global datasets adds to the transparency of the modelling process. With this model the impact of new storage reservoirs, alternative dam operation or expansion of irrigation areas is carried out.  The model gives monthly discharges into the Inner Niger Delta as a result, which can be used to further analyse Inner Niger Delta flooding extent, ecosystem service availability and societal consequences. Comparison of the model results with previous studies shows that models using local data in addition to global data show more accurate results but that the model based on global data can be considered of sufficient accuracy and as ‘fit for purpose,’ that is, sufficient to get a quick understanding of how upstream regulation of the Upper Niger Basin impacts downstream water resources.

Hydrological model            

 Water use and allocation model