ALONG THE SENEGAL RIVER VILLAGES, MALI and SENEGAL – The two countries shared a single river, and all the tensions boiling up through its troubled waters.

The heat of friction and conflict rose from the local communities below up to the management authority for the transnational river basin (OMVR). Despite the many differences, some of the problems were nearly identical in scope and severity.

Water is expensive for the poor when it used to be free. Drinking water has grown scarce. Crops began dying and shrinking in size. Intestinal bilharzias and schistosomiasis spread, especially at Richard Toll, wreaked havoc on public health. Mollusks and other environmental problems proliferated at a growth rate of 7.9% -- doubling in a decade. Air and water pollution worsened due to interference between water sheets and septic tanks. Fisheries have been crashing from river to sea. 

This litany of woes was traced back to construction of two dams: Diama and Manantali.

Not all the dam impacts were negative. Populations at Louga acknowledged the “many positives aspects to them, especially in terms of access to electricity, and development of irrigated agriculture. There’s no risk-free development.

But before the dams, people adapted to the natural rhythms; afterwards, they were displaced and confused. “After the construction of the dams, our populations could no longer cope with the artificial swelling of water to organize their agricultural activities,” said people along the river. “No information was made available as to when and how water will rise. So we only suffer damages on our crops and decline in our revenues.

It was only when the tensions crossed borders, however, that anyone really took note. 

In Mali and Senegal, donors helped establish the Senegal River Water Commission (OMVS), with coordinating committees to sort out differences. The trouble was, the OMVS communicated between and within national ministries and agencies but rarely, if ever, connected with the millions of people most involved with consequences of the flows. Local farmers, herders and fishermen decided their voice was not represented, while OMVS saw little need to reach out to those who might do nothing but complain. 

Dissent grew. Tensions worsened. That was where IUCN stepped in. “OMVS, as political entity, didn’t care about people at lower level; their needs were never taken into consideration,” said Juliette Koudeoukpo. “If the ministry agrees, the decision can be made. There was no power with the people. That’s why we focused activity at the lower level. We set up a Water Charter, creating opportunities to take voices of the illiterate into consideration, address the needs of local people in the system’s decisions.

Over the course of a dozen Local Coordinating Committees, in two countries, the intensive outreach efforts began to calm the social stress, and re-connect authority over the river to those who most depend on it’s ecological health: the riparian communities.

Better understanding and improved feedback have begun to lead towards a re-assessment of how and for whom the dams should be operated. It has led the OMVS to engage with scientists who tell them what the consequences of their decisions are. They are looking at (“or pretending to,” as one critic put it) rehabilitation needed for dam-affected people.

One interesting development is that OMVS has begun to “take credit” for much of the progress with civil society, while “pushing IUCN into the shadow.” 

And that is just fine,” said Aliou Faye. “Our role is not to say in place, but to act as a networker, matchmaker, facilitator and enabler. We just want to make sure that they meet the aims that all parties agree upon.”

Others want to make sure that OMVS does not have total control over funding for outreach, until they have shown, through transparent accountability, as one put it, “that they are responsive to the needs of people, and understand both the rights and responsibilities as outlined in the Water Charter.”
Written by Jamie Workman