5 June 2008

West Africa: Sahel Climate Change Diary - Day 3

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Timbuktu — The UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser on conflict, Jan Egeland, is travelling in the Sahel this week to draw attention to a region the UN says is experiencing the worst effects of climate change in the world. He is sharing his thoughts and experiences every day with IRIN. This is the third instalment, this time from northern Mali.

"There are so many climate sceptics out there, and I was pretty much one myself in terms of seeing evidence already when I started this trip, but I feel that after what I have seen today I am definitely changing my mind.

"A long day started with the phone ringing at 5.15am in my hotel room in Timbuktu, northern Mali, and already it was many degrees more than 30 outside.

"Yet again we loaded ourselves into far too long a convoy, but this time for a good reason; all of the local parliamentarians, local authorities and people representing nomadic communities wanted to join us as we travelled to the communities living at the heart of the Lake Faguibine area, which is one of the foremost symbols of climate change in the Sahel.

Lake Faguibine

"We must have stopped 10 times on our way to the lake. The Niger River itself is shallower [than it used to be] and so does not fill the old waterways, which means much of the ancient region of Timbuktu is now bone dry all the way up to and including the huge Lake Faguibine. We saw people struggling to dig a new canal where the old water route from the Niger River had dried up because of a combination of climate change, environmental degradation and desertification.

"It was moving to meet so many people who all said 'this is a struggle of life and death for us', and how people are certain that if they only had reliable water sources they could again turn this parched region into Mali's bread basket. On the bed of the old lakes they still have a lot of agriculture, but of course it's only a matter of time before it all dries up, and then it's the end for all the nomadic and pastoral societies in this area.

"When we came to Lake Faguibine there was a big meeting with all of the community leaders there. One of them made a rousing appeal to me that I will always remember. He said: 'I am an orphan of this dead lake because I lived and flourished by the lake when it was a wonderful place for fishermen and farmers and pastoralists.' He turned out to be one of the foremost Touareg people of the region.

"What has happened here is basically equivalent in scale to the Lake District in England going dry after centuries - except in Mali hundreds of thousands of people's livelihoods depend on the lakes.

Turning the situation around

"So how much would it take to turn this situation around? Not much! With just a few machines they are already digging kilometres of new canal every year, and several villages have got their water back at least for a couple of months a year. The World Food Programme has opened up longer stretches using food for work programmes which put otherwise unemployed men to work digging and planting trees in exchange for food rations.

"The German government has supported this project, but few other international donors have. The whole Lake Faguibine restoration project can only keep going for a few more months without new resources. The message really goes now to the Copenhagen meeting at the end of the year.

"When all the world's leaders are there we must ask if we are really going to let life-saving projects like this, which are directly related to climate change, go unfunded. That would really be a moral failure; if climate change projects that already exist to help affected people go unfunded by those industrialised nations that caused climate change!

"All in all we were on the road with more than a dozen meetings and stops from 6am to 6pm. Tonight, we fly back to Bamako, then on to Niger tomorrow morning where we will see the President, then travel to another dried up lake: Lake Chad."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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