Djenné mosque—the world’s largest adobe structure—and surrounding
town rank with Tombouctou (
) and the famous Dogon
(Bandiagara) Escarpment as the most important of
tourist attractions. The town now faces disaster as plans for an
upstream dam progress.
since the third century B.C., Djenné became a market center vital to
the trans-Saharan gold trade and then a spiritual center for the
dissemination of Islam. The architecture of the mosque and of the old
town dates to this time in the 15th and 16th centuries; the original
mosque (rebuilt in 1907) was built in the 13th century by Djenné’s
first Islamic ruler. The city’s hundreds of traditional houses are
built on hills and adapted to the seasonal floods.
floods have always been essential to the subsistence agriculture economy
in the region. In the last 20 to 30 years, however, climactic change has
resulted in a reduced floodplain, and towns on the edge of the
floodplain have experienced real hardship. A dam was consequently
proposed in the1980s along the Bani
Talo (upstream of Djenné). The proposed dam’s purpose was to raise
the level of the river sufficiently to feed irrigation networks covering
formerly flooded regions. Following
an environmental impact assessment (EIA) lacking sufficient
topographical and hydrological data, a follow-up study determined that
the risk of flooding to villages upstream (always a worry with large
dams) was minimal. Contracts were set to be awarded this spring. No
mention was made of the downstream effects.
with Jean-Louis Bourgeois, Cultural Survival commissioned a report by an
expert team from the International Development Office at
The report concludes that there is reason to pursue research on the
possible detrimental effects the dam might have on downstream
communities and on the Niger Inland Delta.
residents of Djenné may be more susceptible to drought. If the Bani had
an ample supply, water sufficient to meet the needs of downstream
farmers could be released (through a sluice gate) during dry season. The
Talo Dam, however, is proposed precisely because of the Bani’s
dwindling water supply. The proposed sluice gate is unlikely to help at
the height of the dry season.
populations may decline, resulting in a loss of livelihood for the
region’s many fishermen. Life cycles of fish in the
dependent on seasonal flooding; prolonged drought in the region is
already affecting fish populations. Dams on other floodplain rivers have
proven that the construction of dams exacerbates drought effects.
also use seasonal wetlands, especially as surrounding rangelands dry
out. Controlled flooding cannot simulate the natural floodplain’s
quantity or distribution. Nomadic populations already travel great
distances to graze cattle in the delta; their rangelands will become
more arid as the floodplain shrinks.
reduction in groundwater levels is expected. Wetland flooding can
sustain groundwater levels even in distant aquifers.
prolonged drought has created a precarious situation; the Talo Dam could
further deplete aquifers.
health of the populations in Djenné and surrounding villages may
deteriorate as irrigated wetland areas and stagnant reservoir water
create ideal breeding grounds for organisms responsible for the spread
of malaria, schistosomiasis, and bilharzias.
existing dam at Manatali in Mali’s Kayes region (in the west) has
resulted in depleted aquifers, 12,000 displaced people, and an increased
incidence of diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis. Plans to
simulate flooding for downstream farmers and fishers evaporated as
upstream needs took precedence over downstream demands. The Manatali dam
met none of its original goals and objectives and has had a significant
detrimental effect on downstream farmers. Even the African Development
Bank acknowledges its failure. Why then is the Bank supporting the Talo
Djenné Old Town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site. A dam at
Talo could potentially result in the displacement of 20,000 residents of
to bring attention to the dam are supported by a former Malian Director
of Agriculture and by famous Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré.
Residents of Djenné are outspoken in resisting the dam, and the Mande
Studies Association and the International Rivers Network have expressed
recent letter by Cultural Survival to President Omar Kabbaj of the
African Development Bank concluded, “If our suspicions are confirmed,
the Talo Dam project would have severe [and] detrimental consequences
for the people of Djenné. We therefore strongly urge you not to proceed
with the project until you have studied our comprehensive report on the
dam’s potential impacts—environmental, social and economic.”
Development Bank U.S. Executive Director Willene A. Johnson replied on
February 15, 2001. She reports that senior management officials at the
African Development Fund have assured her that it will not give its
approval to begin construction until they have reviewed the report and
discussed Cultural Survival’s findings with the Government of Mali.
She promises that the Bank’s management will consider the report
findings carefully, and will, in consultation with the Malian
authorities, make whatever further changes are called for to ensure that
the Talo Dam project does not damage local communities.
this news is encouraging, it may not be cause for celebration. Cultural
Survival remains dedicated to resisting this potential disaster. A copy
of the International Development Office’s final report is available
from Cultural Survival; we encourage those with deep concerns about the
threat to this historic city to write to officials with the Malian
government and the African Development Bank