Niger River’s ancient ‘water men’ under threat as silt piles upThu, 14 Mar 2024 07:06:36 GMT

Once again, the catch was meagre: two tiny fish escaped the nets and dropped into Ali Sani’s canoe as he drifted down the murky waters of the mighty Niger River.At nightfall, the Nigerien fisherman will try his luck again until dawn in the hope of catching a “gari” or a plump “salambale”, two local delicacies.Time is of the essence for Sani because once the hot season arrives, the river level will drop. Within a few days, fish will be unable to survive in the remaining pools between the emerging sandbanks.Soil erosion from housing developments in Niger’s capital Niamey and increased rainfall in the region has led to a rise in the amount of silt deposited on the riverbed.Over 4,200 kilometres (2,600 miles) long, the Niger River provides a livelihood for over 100 million people in the Sahel region.The primary beneficiaries of the river are the Sorkos, or “men of the water”. These are fishermen, canoeists and occasional rescuers who have drawn their livelihoods from the river for centuries.- Erosion -Since the 1980’s the river has been silting up so much so that it is now possible to cross  on foot in several places in Niamey during the dry season from March to May.In most dry seasons, the government authorises trucks to collect sand from the river.Between 1960 and 2010, land used for farming increased by over 70 percent to boost food supply — matching Niger’s fertility rate which is one of the highest in the world.In 1985, alerted that the river had completely dried up for one 24-hour period, authorities in Niger called on the population to dig out the sand by hand.According to a study published in 2022 by Nigerien researchers, the development of farmland and land clearing has accelerated the erosion of sandy soils which flow into waterways.Soil erosion in the Sahel region has also been exacerbated by increased and unpredictable rainfall since the 1980s.The phenomenon is turning the world of the Sorkos upside down and forcing them to turn away from  ancestral activities.Roughly 50,000 people make their living from fishing in Niger, but it is not enough to meet the national demand — which relies on imports from neighbouring countries, according to Niger’s National Network of Chambers of Agriculture (RECA).”Burkina Faso and Ghana are two countries that have really developed fishing thanks to modern techniques. Here, the sector is going bad, it is not well organised, and the river is seriously threatened,” Moussa Sanou, a representative of a fishermen’s association in Niamey, said.”To give a second wind to the sector, we must clean the river to allow fish to reproduce and adopt a modern fish farming system,” Sanou added.Several programs against soil erosion and to develop fish farming have been created by consecutive governments with the support of international partners. But insecurity fuelled by militant groups both upstream and downstream of the Niger River as well as diplomatic tensions since the 2023 coup in Niger, are jeopardising their future.- Adaption -The Sorkos in the fishing villages have not waited to adapt to their new reality.”People are diversifying to earn a living,” said Abdoul Rahamane, standing in front of his family’s rice field.”People have started gardening, rice paddies, and other activities such as sewing, mechanics, electrical work,” he added.However, not all fishermen are happy to adapt. “We are not farmers, we are not supposed to be growing rice, millet or maize, our livelihood is solely from the river,” said Salou Anawar Neni, president of the Niamey fishermen’s association.Neni lived through a prosperous era when a particularly fruitful catch could fetch up to 100,000 Central African Francs ($170) compared to just 20,000 ($33) today.Now, even the land surrounding Neni’s village is under threat.Like all major cities in the Sahel, Niamey is experiencing an increase in property investments and a population growth.Some Sorkos have already been displaced by new housing developments. “If that happens, it’s the end of the Sorkos and the fishing, because we won’t survive far from the river”, Neni said.