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Local initiative brings international support for restoring key Malian water system

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Northern Mali’s remote Lake Faguibine region was once the country's grain basket, fed by a thriving water system that was at the heart of economic development in Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Four inter-linked lakes, of which Lake Faguibine was the largest, provided fishing and over 60,000 hectares of fertile land for farming and watering animals.

But the two channels that brought water from the Niger River to the lake network became so clogged with sand and debris that they shrank drastically and major droughts in 1973-74 and 1984-85 caused the lake to dry up completely. Many people and animals died, others were left dependent on emergency relief, and many left the area. The effect on the area's economy was devastating.

Then, in 2002, the surviving communities began working to clear the channels by hand, and in 2006, the Malian government created l'Office pour la Mise en Valeur du Faguibine (OMVF) to help. With limited resources and working in a remote area with few roads and power sources, it relied primarily on local people to clear the channels by hand because heavy machinery bogged down in the desert sand.  By 2008, one of the four lakes had begun to refill and villagers living around it were able to plant and harvest three crops a year, cutting food prices in the area in half.

The World Food Program played a key role by supplying local people with food as they worked on clearing the channels, and working with local government, continues to supply food to people who are maintaining the channels. The results of the program, which cost only $255,000, can be seen in a WFP video.

As well as digging out riverbeds and streams, the work involves stabilizing and reforesting dunes and riverbanks to prevent collapse and blockages. Entire communities are involved in the project's labor. While men rebuild riverbanks, women plant trees, which are vital to keep the steady southward movement of the Sahara from refilling the canals with sand. So far, more than 200,000 trees have been planted.

The United Nations Environment Program, with funding from the Norwegian government, began a seven-year support project in 2008. The UNEP/Mali ecosystem management project is one of five large-scale, nationally-significant pilot projects that UNEP hopes will show how re-investing in damaged ecosystems can generate significant economic, environmental and social returns while also serving as key adaptation measures for communities and countries facing ever more severe impacts from climate change.

“In a climate constrained world, these nature-based assets and the services they provide will become ever more central to an economy’s ability to thrive and to survive. Investments are urgently needed in hard infrastructure, from cleaner and greener energy to more intelligent and sustainable transport networks and urban planning,” says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director. “But we also need to invest and re-invest in the ‘soft’ infrastructure too - from forests and fisheries to wetlands and soils - if we are to ensure water and food supplies in a world with climate change and in a world with nine billion mouths to feed in just four decades.”

This story was prepared from four sources: a longer story by Allyn Gaestel entitled Mali: Local Communities Combat Desertification in Lake Faguibine Region, published by MediaGlobal (New York) on Dec. 17, 2009, a story by the World Food Program entitled Mali: Restoring Lake in Desert, Farmers Keep Hunger Away, published Dec. 14, 2009; a UNEP media release entitled Country pilots to prove investments in nature-based assets give high economic, social and environmental rate of return, issued in Barcelona and Nairobi Oct. 6, 2008, and a story entitled Mali: All it takes to save the lakes from climate change is money, datelined Lake Faguibine June 5, 2008 and written and distributed by IRIN News, the humanitarian news agency. UNEP's detailed study of the project can be found here.




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