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African Leaders Sign Declaration on Niger River Basin - 2004-04-27

Leaders from nine African countries that share the Niger River have agreed on a project aimed at better coordinating the scarce resources of a body of water that is threatened, both by the region's booming population and by global climate change. The two-day meeting ended Tuesday in Paris.

The future of the Niger River, which flows through no less than nine sub-Saharan African countries, does not look good. Currently, more than 110 million Africans live on its banks and depend on its waters. And their numbers are expected to nearly double to 200 million, by the year 2020.

At the same time, environmental degradation and climate change are already taking their toll on the river. Since the 1970s, the Niger has been struck by a series of major droughts, and in 1985 and in 1990, parts of the river stopped flowing altogether.

Overall, experts say, the river's average water volume has diminished by a third over the last 30 years.

It is against this bleak backdrop that the nine African leaders met in Paris this week, to sign a declaration to jointly draft a blueprint for a sustainable future for the river.

The nine are expected to come up with a concrete plan of action by the year's end, according to Inger Andersen, an African water specialist for the World Bank. Ms. Andersen described the two-day meeting as a turning point.

"What the countries signed yesterday [Monday] was the Paris Declaration, in which they commit to a cooperative development of the river. They commit to environmental sustainability," she said. "They commit to poverty alleviation. So, these are major political agreements that have been made."

The Paris conference was hosted by French President Jacques Chirac, who described the Niger River as an essential wealth for the countries it flows through. Those countries include Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Chad.

The Paris conference was not intended to gather new donations for the river, but rather to outline a plan of action. Nonetheless, experts, like Alice Aureli, an African water specialist at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, in Paris, note that the amount already earmarked by Western countries for the Niger's preservation falls short of what is needed.

"You're talking about some of the poorest countries of the world - Niger, Mali... except Nigeria... Most of these arid countries are very poor," she said. Definitely, there is the possibility, and I hope the international community will take this possibility and help these countries in their important task and responsibilities."

Ms. Aureli also said the countries need to jointly manage their ground and surface water resources, as part of their action plan to save the Niger basin.