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A vision for renewing agricultural infrastructure in the Office du Niger in Mali, transferable to the 4 major watersheds of the Sahel.



This proposal re-works the large hydro-agricultural infrastructure complex of the Office du Niger(ON), which is both a political institution and a physical area of intervention that are the legacy of the 1919 vision of Emile Bélime, a French engineer in the colonial services which controlled Mali at the time. Since independence in 1960, the legacy of engineer driven solutions and top-down bureaucracy has lived on despite being controlled by Malians.

The agricultural infrastructure of the ON bears little or no relation to any sort of context, be it natural or cultural. Withdrawing ~60% of the volume of the Niger river during the dry season, the rigidity of the agricultural infrastructure pays little attention to the Inner Niger Delta immediately downstream, which is one of the most productive landscapes on the continent not only in terms of agricultural output, but in its cultural history, bio-diversity, and position as a bulwark against the spread of the Sahara desert. The static nature of such an infrastructure also becomes its greatest weakness in a climate defined by extreme changes in precipitation, with significant risks predicted for increased droughts from changing weather patterns.(1)

This submission presents a multi-layered approach to agricultural development which leverages existing infrastructure systems to create additional levels of economic activity for local communities and women, and address land degradation by incorporating ecological functions within productive agricultural areas that provide a range of valuable services in return.  The goal of these efforts is not simply to improve crop production, but to directly address the diverse factors which underpin social conflict and political instability within the G5 Sahel countries.  A truly productive agricultural sector can not only address food insecurity, but the lack of local opportunities in rural communities and growing impacts of climate change that are at the root of regional instability.

Is this proposal for a practice or a project?


What actions do you propose?

Background: The Office du Niger as a case study

The agricultural complex of the Office du Niger(ON) located just upstream of the Inner Niger Delta in Mali represents a conventional approach to agricultural infrastructure which diverts a steady flow of water from the Niger River amounting to less than 10% of the yearly flow, but from 60-80% of the river's water during the dry season. This impacts incredibly rich and diverse ecosystem of the Inner Niger Delta immediately downstream, which provides critical overwintering habitat for millions of European birds and waterfowl, and acts as a bulwark against the encroaching sands of the Sahara directly adjacent to its North. It is a critical resource for its 1.5 million human inhabitants, and in supplying the rest of land-locked Mali with 50-100,000t of fish annually and over 50% of its domestic rice supply.

The artificial regulation of water flow of the Niger river which began in 1946 with the completion of the Markala Barrage, and the top down form of administrating agricultural lands, has continued following the independence of Mali in 1961. Development of the area has been slow, and by the turn of the century some 100,000Ha were under irrigation, yet numerous large-scale expansions are currently underway that will see cultivated lands triple to over 300,000Ha by 2040. Since independence, cotton and rubber have been abandoned in favour of Asian rice varieties and sugarcane as the primary planting strategy, both of which are highly susceptible to drought and require great amounts of water to thrive.


The modus operandi of the current food production system has little to no active relationship with the basic operational logic of the area and its dynamic hydrological rhythms. It is a zone for agriculture only, excluding animal herders traditionally accustomed to moving their herds through the lands, and separated from the “nature” enclosed within nearby forest reserves. The amount of water delivered to the ON upstream of the Delta remains consistent from year to year, regardless of the huge variation in precipitation, and in accordance to the flow rates delimited by the geometry of the gravity fed canal system.

This approach to infrastructure embodies a 'fracture-critical' design that requires stability in physical, political and economic conditions which leave the system prone to failure (2). Support for this argument of fragility is proven quite dramatically within the ON, as two major irrigation expansions have failed in the past decade alone. The first being the Malibya project funded by the former Qaddafi regime which built a 40km long, 120m wide canal to irrigate 100,000Ha of land to supply Libyan markets only to have it sit idle as the political turmoil in Libya deprived the project of funding and leadership. The second being the 90,0000Ha American led Alatona expansion, where funding and work was halted due to the coup over the elected leader of Mali. Smaller but more numerous fractures have appeared over time through poor maintenance, a water-taxation system leading to illegal diversions, and numerous small scale conflicts between herders and local pastoralists without deep roots in the area who attempt to exclude animal passage over their lands.

These smaller conflicts have grown as a lack of opportunity within local communities across the region has led to political instability and violence with the rise of political extremism.  Although difficult to prove directly, the impacts of climate change which are leading to a more dynamic and extreme climate are not doubt exasperating the social challenges and efforts to improve basic welfare amongst Malians around the Inner Niger Delta, as similar patterns are occurring across several countries along the Sahel.



Proposal: Introducing complexity into simple systems

This project has targeted infrastructure as a strategic forum of intervention because it offers potential for inducing broad, systemic transformation rather than specific, symptomatic responses to issues after the fact.  The area of the Macina-ke district within the ON has been used as a preliminary case study which exemplifies both the challenges and opportunities of this agenda.

Utilizing the existing canal networks as the part of the architecture for intervention, this proposal adds to the functional program in order to  develop the range of ecological activity and economic potential supported by the infrastructure system itself. The basic premise of the techniques and technologies employed within the ON leave a wide opening for improvements which do not necessarily require dismantling and rebuilding of the current infrastructure, yet are capable of making them responsive to downstream needs and more resilient to external shocks. The site within the Macina-Ke district shown in the figures above, forms a sort of anthropogenic watershed employing a strategy of mono-cultural rice production. It functions on the gravity driven premise of water supply from raised supply canals along the perimeter, delivered inwards to the fields through secondary and tertiary canals before flowing into the inverse network of drainage trenches. To address the weaknesses outlined, the interventions employ soft strategies of crop diversification, agro-forestry and ecological intensification through the network of supply canals, drainage canals, and low points within the area which remain too wet for agricultural activity for most of the year.


AGROFORESTRY + Integrating agro-forestry and conservation within existing agricultural areas

Complementary to agro-forestry practices which are increasing in popularity, this strategy actively suggests incorporating new forms of conservation and biodiversity measures as a part of an agro-forestry scheme which creates feeding and habitat opportunities in addition to the economic diversification provided.  Although not specifically putting forward ideas of conservation agriculture which employ strategies such as low/no tilling to address aspects of land degradation such as soil loss, it does not exclude these per se.


Implementing flexible planting strategies and crop diversification within irrigated areas

The new site plan integrates these specific components to maintain a perimiter of high-yield rice for export, while increasing the range of crops grown to include dryland staples of millet and sorghum, along with more drought tolerant but lower yielding African rice strains, allowing the possibility for response to changing levels of water flow and precipitation. Making this infrastructure dynamic increases its resilience to environmental shocks, and improves the function of its core purpose of providing dependable agricultural output in an increasingly challenging climate.

This strategy can potentially be supported by existing data infrastructure associated with meteorological data that monitor precipitation in the Upper Niger Basin before it eventually flows downstream to the ON.  Like the existing OPIDIN flood monitoring system, which gives advanced prediction to water flow of the Niger River well ahead of the increased flows in the Inner Niger Delta, this system does not require advanced technology in the hands of farmers, but effective communication of existing data collection systems that can inform farmers with some advance notice to better prepare for the years particular water levels. 


Diversifying ecological function

Introducing greater ecological function, such as through wetland habitat creation in existing low-lying areas, can not only address environmental issues of land degradation and biodiversity, but create income opportunity for locals involved in conservation schemes that require long term involvement.  The added ecosystem services also hold the potential for greatly increasing the resilience to climate shocks and changes in weather patterns that greatly impact the natural environment.

In the example of the Macina-ke district, several low-lying spots within the area which had standing water throughout the year suggested natural areas for intervention.  Focusing on the currently unused pockets of low areas submerged in drainage waters through the year can provide opportunity for establishing nesting habitat currently under pressure downstream in the Delta. The  surrounding rice paddies are already used as feeding grounds by nearby wetland bird species which, in fact, feed on insects and pests which farmers struggle to control (3) . By planting appropriate tree and wetland plant species, this relationship can be established into a positive feedback cycle where birds can actually live and feed in within the agricultural area while providing a valuable service to farmers.


Diversifying economic opportunity


The paths along the drainage system can be used as a network for animal herds to travel through the area, planted with a selection of groundcover, woody shrubs, and tree species which are geared towards producing fodder and fruits while functioning simultaneously as a series of shelterbelts and erosion control measures. The potential for animals to use excess water available into the dry season after being used for irrigation, and to graze within specified areas works to address conflict between herders and farmers, reducing impacts on soil quality caused by herds moving across fields which are at the root of this tension. The basic comforts provided by shade of the trees is also a simple yet powerful result of design thinking which can be maintained year round by staggering of nitrogen-fixing white accacias, which keep their foliage in dry season, and fruit producing Jujube trees that keep their leaves during the wet season.


Using water otherwise lost through seepage, the supply canals are as used as a lattice for an economic planting strategy, which uses selected trees species of Acacia, Baobab and Doum Palm along the canals. The array of products traditionally associated with these trees have the commercial potential to provide an array of benefits for locals through additional income from building materials, firewood, medicinal products, and more. Simultaneously, an aesthetic program is added by associating each of these three species planted along the supply canals with one of the three corresponding growing sectors outlined in the final site plan



Increasing the variety of economic activities which occur on the same land is one of the key means of improving social and environmental outcomes for the region.  Agroforestry, transient pastoralism, and environmental initiatives offer the potential for local communities to create their own opportunities from a wider base of resources than currently present.  Unlike novel crops such as sugar cane, these additional economic activities are rooted in local traditions and relevant industries that are based upon the creation of a resource base comprised of locally suitable input materials. 

In this way, land regeneration efforts are not focused upon as a single target, but with a package of solutions which support long term progress and sustainable achievements.



Who will take these actions?

For this project to be successful, it will require collaboration with local actors in civil society, while working key partners in specific research and scientific organizations, and private business actors.  Examples of specific actors currently working in the area are listed below.

At the large-scale, are the governmental and international aid agencies such as USAID which establish and fund large agricultural development schemes.  Working with partners at this scale to influence the actual design and implementation of agricultural developments can avoid the pitfalls of conventional infrastructure projects.

At the local or regional levels, partnership with agencies and organisations which are already working in the area and have a vested long-term commitment can function to develop the program at farm/community level to ensure that they are appropriate for the given context.


Community Stakeholders

SEXAGON (Syndicat des Exploitants Agricoles de l’Office du Niger)

This organisation is a farmers union which represents over 15,000 farmers within the Office du Niger, and thus one of the key stakeholder representations involved in land rights and water use issues.

Research & Scientific 

CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems, Institut d'Economie Rural, Wetlands International & OPIDIN

Government Agencies

Direction National Hydraulique, l'Office du Niger, USAID & Similar governmental/donor agencies

Relevant Actors

MINUSMA -  There is the opportunity to utilize the significant infrastructure building capacity of the organization as a form of asymmetrical defense strategy, working on land regeneration and economic development will directly address the root causes of conflict and instability in the region which are within its mandate.


One of the goals is to involve the profession of landscape architects within the development of agricultural infrastructure schemes.  This profession, known more for the design of parks and gardens, is one which involves the basic practical considerations of the engineer (topography, drainage), biologist (plant selection, soil development), while incorporating the social dimensions of landscape within a creative and collaborative process.  

In industrialized nations, the profession has been at the forefront of innovative projects for climate adaptation, stormwater management, coastal flood protection, ecological restoration, and a diverse range of other projects where landscape architects facilitate the collaboration between technical disciplines, scientific knowledge, and the desires of the local communities or client.

The introduction of this profession into new territory could yield new ideas and promising results from the collaborative and inter-disciplinary working methods, while avoiding the pitfalls of conventional metric driven assessments which fail to capture the less tangible social and ecological components of a given project that are ultimately crucial to its longevity and success.

Where will these actions be taken?

Actions will begin within or around the Office du Niger in Mali, with a choice of 3-4 sites that represent the different groups of actors, and scales of agricultural operations.  Community consultation will be necessary to select specific sites, but two general areas are suggested here.


The Macine district 

This area adjacent to the Niger, and one of the oldest sectors of the ON upon which research has already been conducted is a suitable area to work with small and medium scale farmers who produce predominantly for local communities, and some export to domestic markets.


Developed through funding from the U.S. government, this sector in the northern end of the irrigation scheme represents medium to larger scale local and domestic producers.  Unlike other large-scale developments, the more bottom up approach to water-rights and land governance makes this area a suitable area to test the project initiatives, and work to support the local communities and farmers in the area.

Sukkala/Private Foreign Landholders

Outreach to foreign actors in the region can take place at a number of locations within the ON, with the right incentives that allow large-scale mono-crop producers to take part in some measures of land regeneration and habitat creation which can provide supplemental benefits to their production.



General Application

The specific research and work behind this proposal is geared towards the Malian context, but has been developed from the start based upon research of common practice in agricultural infrastructure development across the Sahel region.  Since the actions suggested in this proposal have been presented in principle, they can be applied outside of the Malian context to other dryland areas across the Sahel.

A landscape based approach to land regeneration is inherently flexible because it considers the basic physical parameters of climate and ecology, as well as the the cultural aspects that have shaped the current landscapes to where they are today.  

In addition, specify the country or countries where these actions will be taken.


Country 2


Country 3


Country 4


Country 5

Burkina Faso


What impact will these actions have on greenhouse gas emissions and/or adapting to climate change?

This proposal offers the most promise in creating an adaptive and dynamic infrastructure system which can respond and react to changing weather patterns from year to year, and offer a greater buffer for aspects of food security and land degradation which are impacted in adverse climate conditions.

Given the extreme stress on water resources in the region, improving the adaptability of the agriculture sector can work to create dependable production levels during years where precipitation and river flow levels are low, and provide small but not insignificant habitat areas for wildlife such as the many migratory waterbirds which populate the delta region.

Although no concrete data has been supplied with this submission due to time restrictions and limitations on research, an afforestation through agroforestry will certainly yield improved performance for carbon sequestration, 

Further study on the impacts of the suggested actions can reveal the opportunities which offer the most promise, while many of the aspects more difficult to quantify would require some forms of pilot projects to collect viable data.

Further research may illuminate impacts based on comparable reference projects for given components within the overall strategy.


What are other key benefits?

Peace & Security

The social impacts of this project align with the strategies for stabilizing the G5 Sahel countries, where various national and international government agencies such as MINUSMA are working to reduce violence and irregular migration within and from these areas. The benefits of this proposal would lead increased involvement of women and young men in the economy as a by-product of economic diversification, while mitigating losses of traditional farms and businesses in the agricultural sector by improving resilience to climate shocks. 

Although this is not a primary goal of this proposal per se, peace and security in the region is significant concern which could benefit from concrete partnerships that work to specifically address these problems which place pressure on local communities and government.


Economic Development

By creating opportunities at the sites of agricultural production, beyond the actual farming activity, it allows for other members of the community to find employment and entrepreneurial opportunities which are not present in mono-functional agricultural areas geared towards export crops (for example).  By providing alternatives to extremist politics which may offer economic incentives, environmental and agricultural programs can help to alleviate significant security and political concerns.


Environmental Improvement

Improving the environmental performance of the current infrastructure system through crop selection, effective use of water resources, and the various suggested interventions would have significant impacts in improving land regeneration through agro-forestry and better soil quality, while increasing carbon sequestration and reducing total emissions of the agricultural sector.

In addition to some of the social benefits, the more effective use of water resources and the creation of habitat areas within agricultural zones would be beneficial for the ecosystem of the Inner Niger Delta, which already faces extreme pressure from upstream water extraction and use by large infrastructure projects, both in agriculture and hydro-electric power schemes. 

The inclusion of a more diverse ecology within agricultural areas can not only improve resilience to climate and environmental stressors, but support ecosystem services such as natural pest control via predation, reduced water loss, improved soil quality, reductions in erosion, and many others.




What are the proposal’s projected costs?


The $10,000 prize would directly fund a project to develop a concrete proposal for a pilot project that includes a core group of actors and agencies that have established track records and strong local presence, with the organizational capacity to further refine the concepts and deliver the required infrastructure that local communities require to become actively engaged.  The funding will provide the resources necessary to explore how existing efforts and funding can be leveraged to achieve the goals outlined above, and pursue other funding opportunities that can deliver concrete pilot projects within a short-term time-frame.  Full transparency of how the funding is used will be published with ongoing updates.

Costs of more extensive implementation for the project may vary greatly depending upon the scale of application, and requires a deliberate assessment.

If introduced within the scope of an existing or planned agricultural infrastructure, the additional costs of creating a more complex program would involve the consulting fees involving improved scientific input and design considerations.  These would be a very small fraction of the typical project related budget for technical expertise, involving the creation of improved designs/plans for infrastructure roll out in the design phase.  These costs are easily offset by the near-term and long-term benefits in sustained output, improved environmental performance, and greater social productivity.  Potential increased costs would be relatively minimal if involved in design and planning stages of such infrastructure development programs.


Barriers to Implementation

Instability, in the broad sense, is one of the major obstacles to implementation of this strategy, along with the expected challenges of coordinating action across different communities and ethnic groups.



The degraded security situation across the region is a serious concern as it makes long-term investment and operation in the area much more difficult.  Both foreign and local actors are more likely to come under threat from extremist groups operating in the region with specific agendas to cause disturbance and instability for the local government.


Instability in climatic conditions will also continue to provide a significant obstacle in the sense that they place great stress upon most hydro-agricultural infrastructure systems, and the delivery of landscape regeneration/afforestation schemes will also experience this stress as they are implemented.


The logistical challenges of establishing this program should be expected, in part due to the difficulties of working in rural areas with significant demographic and environmental pressures, and existing challenges to the development and maintenance of critical infrastructure systems.

As an extremely diverse region, there are unique challenges which are presented due to differences and/or competing interests across various cultural groups.




Funding from Foundations and subsequent research within the first year would be followed up by implementation of test sites and pilot project.  Partnership with ongoing or planned agricultural infrastructure packages could begin within the second year.

Depending on the avenue of application, the initial impacts of the first 15 years would be felt in local economies via establishement of supporting businesses (i.e. tree nurseries, conservation funding measures for farmers, etc.) within this time frame.  Diversification of crop strategies and implementation of dynamic infrastructure within existing agricultural zones could begin to yield significant effects within 15 years, with successful partnership involving administering agencies and stakeholders .

The invovlement of women and youth in the agri-food sector would increase gradually during this time, while the environmental consequences of implementing agro-forestry and ecological construction/conservation would be in the earliest phases of establishment.



If successfully implemented at scale, the impact of creating dynamic agricultral infrastructure, and transforming areas of existing practice could be applied as maintenance of water delivery systems occurs.  This would yield implementation across an area the size of the ON, and within this time frame the tree plantations would begin to yield measurable benefits to communities through timber products, food and medicinal crops, as well as nitrogen fixing processes that improve soil quality gradually.

The impacts of creating ecological complexity in previously simple systems would at this stage offer small but mature habitat zones and larger feeding grounds for waterfowl and other valuable species of wetland ecosystems nearby.


Long -Term 

A mature agro-forestry system with varied economic activities in the agricultural zones would mean that productive and meaningful opportunities created amongst rural communities could support political and social stability, as the ability to adapt to the unforeseen impacts of climate change are supported by the agri-food sector.

If successful, by this point the full environmental benefits would be felt, and the strategy could be strengthened with additional technical infrastructure that advances agricultural output without compromising the social and ecological stability of the system.

About the author(s)

Matthew Poot is a practicing landscape architect currently located in Oslo, Norway.  Originally from Toronto, Canada with background in environmental policy and urban planning, he aims to introduce the working methods of the landscape architecture profession into the arena of development projects usually dominated by engineers.

Related Proposals


(1)  Giannini, A., 2015. Hydrology: Climate Change Comes to the Sahel. Nature Climate Change, vol. 5, pp. 720-721

Salack, S. et al, 2016. Global Warming Induced Hybrid Rainy Seasons in the Sahel. Environmental Research Letters, vol. 11, no. 10.

(2) Fisher, T., 2012. Designing to Avoid Disaster: The Nature of Fracture-Critical Design. Routledge, New York.

(3) Wymenga, E., and L. Zwarts, 2010. Use of Rice Fields by Birds in West Africa. The International Journal of Waterbird Biology, Vol. 33, SP. 1, pp. 97-104