SINCE its completion in 1988, the Manantali dam in Mali has been courting controversy. The debate which continues to rage about the impact of hydropower development in Africa’s Senegal River basin, has been fuelled by an energy project which will install 200MW of power at the dam site. ‘This project as approved,’ Maike Rademaker from the German NGO Urgewald says, ‘will condemn hundreds of thousands of Senegal River valley people to avoidable impoverishment, nutrition deficiencies and disease.’1

In the beginning

The story behind the Manantali dam can be traced back to the 1970s, when the neighbouring African countries of Mali, Mauritania and Senegal realized that non-oil producing countries in sub-sahara Africa could not achieve development alone. Faced with a long cycle of drought and an erratic rain fall, the Senegal River riparian countries decided to join forces and achieve their main objective of food self-sufficiency. As a result, the OMVS (Organization Pour La Mise En Valeur Du Fleuve Senegal) was formed with the objective of developing resources in the Senegal River basin.

‘The original plans for the OMVS focussed on the development of controlled irrigation to allow double cropping over about 375 000ha,’ Karim Dembele, secretary general of the OMVS, explains. ‘The integrated development plan also provided for river navigation and for power supplies to centres whose connection could be economically and technically justified.’

In order to fulfil the OMVS’ desire for food self-sufficiency, there was a strong need to resort to irrigated agriculture and, it was in this context, that the Manantali dam, and its neighbouring Diama dam in the river delta, were to be constructed. Completed in 1986, Diama’s intention was to prevent the intrusion of salt wedge into the lower valley, thereby allowing for irrigation under a double cropping system. Located 90km southeast of Bafoulabe in Mali, Manantali was designed as a storage and hydroelectric dam allowing for:

• The irrigation of 225 000ha of land in the valley at an elevation of 208m IGN.

• Year-round navigability in the Senegal River from St-Louis to Kayes.

• The generation of hydropower with a guaranteed output of 800GWH/year (the Manantali Energy Project).

The Manantali Energy Project’s main objective is the generation of power which will be distributed to the three countries straddled by the Senegal River – Mali (52 per cent), Mauritania (15 per cent) and Senegal (33 per cent). It also includes the installation of a 200MW power plant at the Manantali dam, a high tension sub-station, some 1458km of new transmission lines and nine transformer stations. The US$440M project has many donors on board, having sought finance from France, Canada, Germany, the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Islamic Development Bank, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, the US, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank. The three member states of the OMVS will also provide US$31M between them to finance part of the local cost, as well as interest acquired during construction.

When scrutinizing the financial aspect of this power project, problems begin to materialize. Construction of the dam was completed ten years ago, but the actual installation of turbines at the site is not anticipated to begin until later this year. Karim Dembele from the OMVS admits that finances have proved to be problematic. ‘It has taken ten years to start on the power project as a lack of money forced a delay. There was not enough money to build the two dams and the power plant,’ he says. As it happens, a lack of funding also appears to point to other, more terminal problems.

Declining support

Last summer, such problems became public knowledge when the Nordic Development Fund (NDF) declined to give expected support for the project. This came as a blow for the OMVS as the fund had been invited to replace another donor, who had also declined to participate. Commenting on their refusal to support the project, Mats Borgenvall from the NDF said: ‘Our board likes to have some say in the projects we finance. As we were invited at a late stage, and as many donors were already on board, we don’t believe that we would have had a chance to express our views.’

In addition, Borgenvall explained that the NDF had reservations about the environ-mental impact of the project. ‘We had doubts about how well the project would reduce poverty and how much this development would benefit the surrounding area,’

he said.

The NDF worked closely with the PEEM (Panel of Experts on Environmental Management for Vector Control) when deliberating over their decision. This network of organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), was not convinced that the power project was putting enough emphasis on the environment and health. ‘The PEEM thought that the power project would have a negative impact on the environment, adding to the negative effects already being caused by the existing Manantali and Diama dams,’ Borgenvall explained. The OMVS acknowledges that there is concern about hydropower in the region but shifts the blame onto the existing dams. ‘A number of concerns have been expressed about the environmental impacts of the power project,’ Dembele explains, ‘but such impacts are not caused by the present regional hydropower development project. They are caused by the existing dams on the Senegal River.’ (See story box).

Environmental impacts

The crux of the argument about the new energy project questions, to what extent, the proposed power output will affect the current situation at the Manantali and Diama dams. This was also a cause for concern for the PEEM – they did not believe water from the dams would be controlled effectively to benefit agriculture. ‘The concern was that output would be a priority at the cost of the environment,’ Borgenvall commented.

‘Producing power will not be the problem,’ Robert Boss from the WHO explains, ‘but a compromise must be sought. Instead of striving for maximum, efficient power there is an urgent need to achieve a balance between power and safeguarding health and the environment. It may not always be an appropriate time for electricity producers to release water from the dams, but we need effective management to help our problems in relation to health and the environment…We believe an integrated river basin management scheme would solve our problems.’

Condemned by critics for their involvement in this much-discussed power scheme, the World Bank may hold the solution to the Senegal River valley’s problems. ‘We decided to get involved as we thought we could make a difference, through the creation of a sound reservoir management plan, to mitigate the negative impacts of the dams,’ the Bank’s Philippe Durand says. ‘I can assure you,’ he adds, ‘power will not be produced at a detrimental cost to other users.’

As Durand explained, over the next few years during the initial stages of the energy project, a reservoir management plan will be developed. It will be translated into a charter for all three of the participating countries’ governments and will address the need to balance salt and fresh water reserves. ‘We believe that this will achieve a balance between economic, social and technical issues,’ he said.

Achieving the right balance appears to be the answer to the problems facing the Senegal River valley. And perhaps this is something which the PEEM did not take into consideration. ‘Personally, I was for the power project,’ Borgenvall from the NDF says. ‘The World Bank’s argument was that the scheme would supply power to three countries, and it will achieve this. The PEEM looked at the health and environmental impacts, but many of these were already evident because of the existing dams, and other related projects are addressing such concerns. I believe that a hydropower project can not be a jack of all trades.’


While the reservoir management plan will hopefully address concerns about water control, as Borgenvall said, a vast array of projects are currently underway looking at health problems in the region. (The OMVS, the AfDB and the NDF are all involved.) In order to give more information about such health and environmental concerns, the OMVS staged a workshop in Senegal last October. A group of NGOs from the three member states were present and reported as being happy with the consultative mechanism which was being organized in relation to the power project. ‘It is true that in the past stakeholders and beneficiaries were not properly consulted,’ Durand says. ‘This is changing.’

Change appears to be inevitable for those involved in the Manantali Energy Project. In order to achieve effective energy production in the Senegal River valley, a compromise must be sought between hydropower, health and the environment. As long as consultative mechanisms remain in place, the Manantali dam’s courtship with controversy, may finally be over.

Negative impacts – the Diama and Manantali dams

The main concern surrounding the environmental impacts of the Diama and Manantali dams centres on the fact that they have brought an end to flood-recession farming, which has been used in the Senegal River valley for one thousand years. In addition, the electricity promised to farmers so that they can install pumps on their land has not materialized, as to date the turbines have not been installed at the Manantali dam. Philippe Durand from the World Bank admits that: ‘It is true when the dams were built, irrigation projects were not as successful as they had been planned.’ The World Health Organization explained this in more detail. ‘We have known for a while about the impact of the Manantali dam in the middle valley, and the effect it has had on the nutritional status of people whose original methods of farming have been stopped by the dam,’ Robert Boss from the WHO says. He goes on to add that they have very good documentation about the effect of the Diama dam. The creation of large areas of fresh water in the lower valley has, he claims, ‘caused the largest epidemic of schistosomiasis that has ever occurred in sub-sahara Africa’.
In contrast, the OMVS says that mitigation measures carried out before and after construction of the dams have resulted in ‘a regress rather than an increase’ in water-borne or related diseases. The OMVS also defends the dams and argues that the problems which existed before Diama and Manantali were built must not be overlooked. ‘We must take into account the fact that from the 1950s to the 1980s a long drought cycle insidiously settled in this part of the Sahel,’ the OMVS’ Karim Dembele explained. ‘This reduced farm yields, driving farmers towards urban centres or abroad to gain a livelihood, which they could no longer gain from their traditional activities. The construction of the two dams permitted irrigated farming, and made farmers far better off than they used to be.’ Dembele does however add that there are ‘serious environmental and health impacts of the two dams’. He goes on to point out that these will be taken into account in the mitigation plan for the hydropower project.