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Talo Dam Construction Delay Holds: African Development Bank and Malian Government Implement Cultural Survival Recommendations

Larry Childs

Cultural Survival recently attended African Development Bank (AfDB)-sponsored meetings in Mali with the Malian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. The purpose was to engage in a fruitful exchange on the technical and process concerns Cultural Survival raised three years ago about the Talo Dam Project, part of the government PMB/Program for Developing the Plains of the Lower Bani River (see CSQ 25:2, 26:4, 27:3). Attending for Cultural Survival were Djenné Project Coordinator Larry Childs and Professor William Fisher, director of the Clark University International Development, Community, and Environment program and lead author of the Cultural Survival-commissioned Clark Report on the potential downstream impacts of building a dam at Talo.

From January 10 through 17 we met in formal and informal settings with project staff from the Malian Ministry of Agriculture and AfDB in Bamako, Mali’s capital, as well as with government and civil society representatives in and around Djenné, a community downstream from Talo, and representatives in the towns of Bla and San who are the primary project beneficiaries. We also met at length with the Djenné Migrants Association, a group who has been outspoken about their concerns; engineers working on the project; other agencies in the area such as USAID, CARE, Institute Rural de Developpement (IRD); other government ministries; and members of the Malian National Assembly.

Major outcomes from the meetings included: 1) Improved understanding all around regarding the differing technical concerns; 2) Increased openness to consider and engage civil society organizations expressing contradictory or dissenting views toward the project; 3) AfDB and government readiness to seriously implement Cultural Survival recommendations including complementary downstream impact studies to better inform project design; 4) Appointment of a mediator who reports directly to the office of the Malian prime minister.

Since a construction moratorium was imposed three years ago in response to the Clark Report, the government has been forced by the AfDB to consider the Clark Report and dissenting views. Traditionally large-scale, government-directed infrastructure projects in Mali and elsewhere in Africa have not effectively engaged civil society—especially when opposition or concerns are expressed. Launched amid controversy, these projects often fall apart during implementation. In the case of Talo/PMB, initial government resistance and frustration has given way to acknowledgment that the delay has resulted in tangible and critical improvements to the project planning process and design. This message was emphasized in the community meetings in January, helping to alleviate the frustration project-area communities had been feeling about the delay. These steps represent a significant shift in what has been viewed as an authoritarian “government knows best” approach.

Actual project planning improvements resulting from examination of Cultural Survival recommendations prior the January meetings include the design of enormous sluice gates to increase flexibility in water management. Previously the dam was designed as a virtual wall that would have completely obstructed river flow for weeks, delaying the floods downstream essential to traditional flood recession agriculture. Another significant modification was adding downstream representatives from Djenné to the management team so as to ensure that downstream needs are represented.

Although the Clark University study served as a catalyst, it was actions taken in response to the report by bank officials, most notably Dr. Elie Dote, West and Central Africa regional director for agriculture, who dramatically changed the course of the project. The bank’s decision to delay a project of this scope, already approved for ground breaking, was a courageous admission that an effective solution had not yet been identified—a move unprecedented in Mali and perhaps in all of Africa. The delay has opened the way for inviting genuine civil society engagement as well as leadership within multi-lateral bank and government-led projects.

The World Commission on Dams (WCD) was formed in 1998, one year after the Talo/PMB Environmental Impact Study. In 2000 the commission released its extensive findings, which demonstrated, among other points, that large dam projects consistently over-estimate benefits and under-estimate negative impacts on downstream communities. This information helped Cultural Survival explain that while the 1997 environmental impact assessment might have met standards established at that time, today the project must now benefit from the WCD findings and from the hindsight of the catastrophic experiences of others.

Perhaps most significant at the January meetings was the growing consensus among stakeholders regarding next steps in project planning, design, and implementation.

Grounding our discussions were draft Terms of Reference that will guide studies on: 1) Downstream hydrological impacts of the current dam design from lower limits of the area to be irrigated by the dam to the confluence of the Bani and Niger Rivers; 2) The logistics of the Bani Basin Management Committee using a participatory process; 3) An environmental and social management plan. Cultural Survival has assembled comments from our growing Talo/PMB Advisory Board of experts and currently await comment on these recommendations from the bank and government.

There is an important parallel issue influencing downstream opinion. The notion of dams at Djenné and Talo were both conceived of 75 years ago by the French but were held up by World War II. This long history complicates the current debate, as some groups in Djenné are simply willing to support a dam at Talo so long as there is also one built at Djenné.

Cultural Survival believes that at this time the idea of another dam at Djenné should not have been reintroduced nor allowed to take such a firm grip in the imagination of Djenné leaders as their best local solution to water management. It appears that the same faulty planning sequence that was followed for Talo is being repeated. The three-year Talo delay has, among other points, demonstrated that alternatives must be presented early in the project cycle and quality studies must be conducted to assess potential benefits and negative effects of each strategy before placing full confidence in a particluar solution. Therefore, introducing the solution of a second dam for Djenné has been interpreted by some as a ploy to barter Djenné community consent for the Talo Dam.

An important footnote to the dam concept at Djenné helps illustrate why such bartering has been criticized: A major reason Talo was selected in the 1980s over Djenné as the preferred dam site was that bedrock at Djenné, which must be accessible in order to anchor a dam, is deeper than at Talo. Dam construction at Djenné would therefore have been a far more costly project.

Cultural Survival remains cautiously optimistic about the AfDB and government response the the Clark Report recommendations and has accepted an invitation from the AfDB to continued participation as advisers by correspondence and on the ground. We feel that our continued participation is important to assure that future project decisions better reflect informed consent of downstream stakeholders and are based on the best possible studies so that activities are then carefully monitored.

The AfDB has suggested that the PMB has the potential to serve as a best practices study for demonstrating how government, multi-lateral lending institutions, and civil society can work together in large-scale development projects. We agree and hope that the project can genuinely achieve “best practices” status.

Larry Childs is coordinator of the Djenné Project. For more information, contact him at