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 (from a 2008 diary entry by Jan Egeland, then UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser on conflict, and currently head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, quoted by IRIN).
Lake Faguibine in northern Mali is dry and has been since the 1970s.
The Lake Faguibine System, four interlinked lakes 80 km west of Timbuktu, was historically one of Mali's most fertile areas. But over seven years, droughts in the 1970s dried up the lakes.
Then sand filled the channels connecting the lakes to the River Niger, with the result that when rain finally returned the water could no longer reach the lakes. The region's prosperity evaporated along with the water.
In the past, during prolonged rainfall in the Fouta Djallon highlands in Guinea, the river flooded and forced water to flow through two channels into the lake.
Unfortunately, climate change has led to erratic rainfall patterns as well as the advance southward of the Sahara desert. Sand dunes block parts of the channels, thereby preventing the replenishment of the lake. Upstream, people use the water for large-scale irrigation and to produce hydropower. All these factors combine to deprive Lake Faguibine of much needed water.
With only 3.8 percent of Mali having arable land, one can understand the benefits that a restored lake could bring.
At the request of the Government of Mali, UNEP in 2008 began implementing a project to rehabilitate the Lake Faguibine ecosystem.
It followed UNEP’s successful ecosystem rehabilitation of the Iraqi Marshlands, the world’s largest wetland ecosystems.
The Lake Faguibine ecosystem restoration project involved sensitizing communities upstream and downstream on the need to regulate and preserve the water flow in the Niger and its channels. It aimed to re-flood the lake’s 600 square kilometres in order to restore its vital ecosystems (fish catches were once estimated at 5,000 tons annually), boosting the livelihoods of local fishermen, reviving agriculture along the lakeside, and providing food to thousands of people as well as migratory waterbirds.
Expected outputs were:
- Improved livelihoods of about 200,000 mainly nomadic people living in the area
- A lifeline for thousands of migratory water birds restored
- Increased availability of drinking water for humans and livestock; improved groundwater resources
- Enhanced local sustainable natural resource management
- Water transport benefits to the local economy.
Implementation of the project has faced challenges mainly due to the difficult security situation since 2011.
However, with additional funding from the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) of $5.23 million, UNEP is reviving the project to take into account the new situation.
The reformulated project (around $40 million when fully funded) integrates the original scheme into a broader programmatic intervention led by the United Nations, and will address both infrastructure development and socioeconomic interventions, including improving livelihoods. The UNEP component will focus on environmental sustainability by looking at the health and productivity of the lake’s ecosystems.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), established in April 2013, provides security in the country and is contributing to peace.
According to the Government of Mali, the security situation could also be greatly alleviated if the lake’s ecosystem were restored and development projects implemented in the region.
United Nations efforts to date
In December 2009 the World Food Programme reported on the success of a UNEP-supported food-for-work programme which opened up the water channels – for a while at least.
It quoted local engineer Mohamed Touré, as saying: “The soil around the lake is very fertile and spongy; the water can spread for 5km. This means the farmers here don’t need tractors or fertilizer, they can simply plant a seed like a tree and the plant will just grow – this is true for thousands and thousands of hectares."
Interviewed in 2009 by UNEP expert Levis Kavagi, retired Col Tidiani Ascofare, the man leading the Government’s efforts to restore Lake Faguibine’s ecosystem at the time, said: ‘’In 2006, only 100 hectares of land around the lake was farmed. This year  it will be more than 20,000 hectares.
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,said Egeland in his 2008 diary.
Lake Faguibine encapsulates the challenges faced in many other parts of the world where ecosystems are coming under increasing pressure due to climate change, conflict and rapid population growth, among others.