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Water shocks - wetlands and human migration in the Sahel

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This report presents the case for improving the condition of the wetlands of the Sahel as part of a strategy to address human migration and its links to the degradation of land and water resources, poverty, conflict and climate change. We offer an analysis of the key trends and issues and their relevance to existing policy goals.

Wetlands and livelihoods in the Sahel

The rivers, lakes, floodplains and deltas of the Sahel are highly productive and biologically diverse ecosystems, fed by seasonal floods. They have played a crucial role in shaping culture and driving local and regional economies for centuries. Tens of millions of people depend on the vitality of these wetlands, whose outputs of fish, cattle and crops such as rice are directly proportional to the flood extent. Moreover, during the dry season, wetlands become a magnet for pastoralists, and act as a buffer against droughts for very large areas of the region.

But these natural assets are degrading, often due to ill-advised economic development projects intended to “harness” water resources. Water diversions for irrigated agriculture, for instance, have resulted in frequent periods of man-made water scarcity, with environmental and humanitarian impacts resembling those of meteorological droughts.

Consequently, some wetlands have ceased to be a refuge in hard times and have instead become sources of out-migration, as people look elsewhere for alternative livelihoods. While often the poorest are left behind, significant numbers of wetland inhabitants now travel to Europe with the aim of sending remittances back to their families. In places the “squeeze” on wetlands has also exacerbated conflicts over access to water and productive land, causing social breakdown and armed conflict.

Case study findings

Following the loss of the seasonal floods due to a major dam upstream in Mali, wetlands along the Senegal River can no longer sustain the livelihoods of farmers, herders and fishers. Since the late 1980s, villages have emptied, and increasing numbers of people have headed for Europe. While the environmental degradation from mismanagement of the river is recognised as a problem by the authorities, the development paradigm of further irrigation expansion remains in place.

Flooding in the vast Inner Niger Delta has receded due to upstream water offtakes.
Cooperation over fishing, grazing and crop agriculture between different ethnic groups is breaking down. Disputes among herders, fishers and farmers are increasing. More than a million people could be permanently displaced as a result of operations of existing and proposed upstream dams and water diversions.

Upstream water withdrawals for irrigation have led to massive environmental degradation of Lake Chad and its surrounding wetlands. This in turn has heightened competition over scarce water resources and caused breakdown of local adaptation responses to the naturally shifting lake shores. Deepening poverty, the collapse of law and order, conflict and the forced migration of more than 2.3 million people since mid-2013 have ensued.

The once extensive Lorian Swamp fed by the Ewaso Nyiro River in Kenya lies outside the Sahel, but has historically provided sustenance for pastoralists from far and wide in the dry season.
People fleeing conflict in Somalia took refuge here until recently, forming the world’s largest refugee camp. However, the swamp is now a source of out-migration, since diversions of water upstream for intensive horticulture, combined with over-abstraction of groundwater beneath the swamp have caused it to desiccate.

Key conclusions

Migration is an established and valued livelihood strategy in the Sahel. But our case studies illustrate that the continuing loss and degradation of wetlands is contributing significantly to new and often disruptive migrations, including to Europe. It is hard to know how many migrants might be classified as driven by environmental decline in wetlands. What is clear is that outward migration from formerly productive wetlands – coupled with increasing conflicts over their natural resources – is now a regional trend. Moreover, we suggest that our case studies illustrate symptoms of a deeper problem with conventional forms of economic development in the region, that fail to recognise wetlands as major natural and economic assets.

Due to the interaction of water scarcity, environmental degradation, climate change, poverty and migration, risks to regional security are multiplying. To halt a spiral of decline there is an urgent need for the adoption of more sustainable forms of development – forms that reconcile food and energy production with maintaining and restoring the flood pulses of the major river systems that sustain the integrity of wetlands.

This is a tough challenge. Internationally agreed policy goals for food and water security, climate change and disaster risk reduction all point to the need for integrated approaches to land, water and ecosystem management. But implementation lags far behind, because national governments often lack sufficient capacity to integrate sectoral policies across transboundary basins.

Greater emphasis is needed on strengthening the socio-ecological knowledge base and institutional capacity of countries and basin authorities. Alongside this, investments are needed to scale up community-based approaches to safeguarding and restoring wetland ecosystems. Civil society in the region can play an important role in connecting communities and institutions, often by building on traditional knowledge. They have the potential to unite different ethnic groups, preventing and reducing conflicts and the need for out-migration.