Falémé: Tales of a silent death

Pollution due to dredging, environmental degradation caused by gold mining, and fishing activities that led to the disappearance of marine resources: this list of damage to the Falémé – the main tributary of the Senegal River – is not exhaustive.

The Falémé river bed is rapidly deteriorating on the side of Sitakili in Western Mali. Photo: David Dembélé

The institutional and structural responses deployed by the Malian state and its partners – including riparian states Guinea and Senegal – to stem the threats are largely insufficient while extractive operations profit from weak border management to escape surveillance.

As the main tributary of the Senegal River that flows through Senegal, Guinea and Mali, the Falémé is suffering from the most serious threats in its existence. The natural gem – which supplies water to the border area between Mali and Senegal and irrigates the southwestern region of Mali – is experiencing multiple and multifaceted attacks, which nothing seems to be able to stop.  

From Kayes to Kedougou via Keniéba, the 650-kilometer-long Falémé bears the scars of a silent death caused by the lack of an appropriate management policy to deal with unprincipled extractive companies.

The river has been cut into several small lakes by piles of rubble accumulated by the dredgers swarming in its bed, and its flow has come to a complete standstill. Visitors can now cross on foot to get to the other side.

On the part of the tributary that connects Kédougou, the last Senegalese town before arriving in Mali, the deterioration in water quality is worrying. The reddish-colored water that was used as drinking water for the local population is becoming increasingly undrinkable. Cases of dermatological diseases are increasingly frequent in the small health centre set up by the mining company Loulo SA for the populations of the riverside towns. 

Threats to river fishingThe once rich and attractive ecosystem of animal species has been dealt a mortal blow. “There are no more fish in this water. The effect of dredging and the chemicals dumped there are killing species off,” says Amara Sidibé, a Kenieba resident. 

A 15-minute walk from the giant South African industrial gold mine of Loulo, which has been operating in Mali for two decades, Oumar Coulibaly, 39, does not hide his bitterness after a morning of unsuccessful fishing: “I’ve travelled about two kilometers, but look, I’ve got no more than ten fish,” says this native of Kayes, visibly nostalgic for a time not so long ago – nearly ten years ago – when he could fill up his dugout canoe in less than two hours.

The practice of gold panning via direct dredging of the river, the harmful discharge of wastewater from certain industrial gold mines – including Loulo SA – into the water and the dumping of chemicals and toxic products are all behaviors that worsen the quality of the water and kill fish and other aquatic life. Our visit to the Loulo operations, in May 2020, allowed us to observe the more and more stark disappearance of greenery from the gold panning site. Worse yet, dead fish were floating up on either side of the waves of a visibly damaged river.  

The other gold panning sites of “Sakala Bada” in the commune of Sitakili – in Kénieba circle – and “Sissinko” give a glimpse of a full-fledged onslaught on the aquatic life there. The Regional Director of the Environment of Kayes, Mali’s first administrative region, mentioned the presence of imported gold panning technology – mainly from Burkina Faso a few years ago – that hurts water quality, endangers species and makes income-generating activities, including fishing and agriculture, impossible.

Ecological disaster

From the last Senegalese village following the path of the tributary to Kayes, navigation is impossible in certain places. The water seems to have disappeared. The Falémé is under siege. There are masses of gold panners equipped with small individual devices and intense dredging activity. The dredging is done from dugout canoes with noisy machinery capable of sucking up the mud underwater to unearth  gold nuggets. 

“Worse yet, dead fish were floating up on either side of the waves of a visibly damaged river. ”

Oumar Coulibaly

Everywhere along the tributary, the scenery is the same. At the gold panning site of Djidian, a village in the Keniéba circle, about a hundred dredges are set up on the river. In this area, where local residents can no longer carry out market farming activities because of water pollution, the gold panners seem to be making plenty of money. 

“We chose this activity because the state cannot hire everyone,” says Amara Sidibé, owner of the dredger on the site, tells us that he is indifferent to government awareness-raising campaigns related to environmental conservation. “Sometimes we have to face threats and unexpected reprisals from the Malian authorities, but here we earn our living,” he insists.

Installation of a dredge in the brown-colored waters of Falémé near the Loulo industrial mine. Photo: David Dembélé

To this disheartening background is added the dangerous behavior of industrial gold operations. We verified with some mining employers in the Kenieba region that none of the industrial mines along the Falémé have wastewater treatment ponds.  

From a climatic point of view, the consequences are devastating. Between the 1960s and 2010, there were very significant drops in rainfall: from 10% to 15% in the upper basin, and from 26% to 35% in the valley and delta, reports a recent study by the Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal (OMVS, Organization for the Development of the Senegal River).

The natural beauty that is the Falémé has shown a clear vulnerability to climate change. The OMVS reports a decrease in rainfall and an increase in temperature upstream (Mali) of the river. “The resurgence of mining activity will accentuate management conflicts and major risks of water contamination,” the document warns. 

The Falémé basin, according to our on-site observations, which corroborate the OMVS report, is being hit hard by climate change. From Bakoye to Bafoulabé, the agriculture, fishing and livestock sectors are paying a heavy price. Women in particular are turning away from these sectors to engage in petty trading. As for the men, they are getting involved in artisanal gold panning. 

At the OMVS head office in Dakar, Senegal, warnings about the Falémé are multiplying each day.The Direction de l’Environnement et du Développement Durable (DEDD, Department of Environment and Sustainable Development (DEDD), headed by Aram NGom Ndiaye, is stepping up actions to address the risk of the tributary – on which Chinese mining operators are setting up their machines – disappearing. A letter distributed internally by OMVS officials bears the title: “Urgent: The Chinese are degrading the Falémé. Thank you for sharing internally for strong and swift action.” According to Aram NGom, the mining companies including Loulo “regularly go beyond the limits authorized in their concessions or permits”.Loulo’s office based in Bamako, the capital of Mali, did not respond to multiple requests for comments  by phone. “We will put you in touch with the right person”, answered our first contact from Loulo’s office. But we did not have an interlocutor despite our multiple calls.

The cancer of gold panning Traditional gold panning has become very attractive as a means of improving the livelihoods of low-income populations. Its practice along the Falémé River is undergoing a dizzying transformtion. Gold panning is no longer seasonal, and the sites where it is practiced remain open throughout the year. The materials used and the method of extraction have changed considerably with the development of techniques and technology.

“Sometimes we have to face threats and unexpected reprisals from the Malian authorities, but here we earn our living.”

Amara Sidibé

Here it is not only Malians who compete for the spoils. Operators are also coming from neighboring countries, including Senegal and Guinea, which the Falémé also crosses. 

Abandoning traditional tools, the gold panners have switched to the use of machines and dangerous and highly toxic chemicals such as mercury, cyanide, etc., with no regard for the necessary safety standards. 

With traditional gold panning techniques, the risks and dangers to the physical environment include deforestation and water and soil pollution. Beyond mining activity, the “high concentration of hundreds or even thousands of gold panners on the same site is often accompanied by abusive logging to meet the needs of artisanal mining, housing and heating,” OMVS experts point out.

Throughout the Falémé basin in Mali, gold panners often move in the search for richer sites. Thus, many wells and artisanal mineral processing facilities are regularly abandoned. “The gold panners are abandoning the soil to gully erosion and intensive erosion processes, leading to the total destruction of the vegetation cover and a significant deposit of alluvium in the minor river beds,” the OMVS deplores in one of its studies.  

To make matters worse, there is a clear lack of supervision and awareness of the concepts of environmental and health protection among artisanal miners. Thus traditional exploitation very often leads to unprecedented ecological and health damage. “Rational management of the environment for its sustainable use is an absolute necessity to ensure the well-being of the current populations and future generations,” say the organization’s environmentalists.

A recent OMVS report reveals a real ecological disaster on the Falémé: disruption of the river’s hydraulic and hydrological systems, unreliability of hydrological measurement data and poor water quality. Added to this is a silent threat to the aquatic and plant resources but also a danger to the health of the population and animals. 

This organization that we have accompanied in the field a few times continues its awareness campaigns targeting the authorities, gold miners and civil society about the problem of pollution. 

Gold miners busy at the Sakala Bada site in Kéniéba in Western Mali. Photo: David Dembélé

At the end of March 2020, during our last visit to the Kayes region, illegal methods of gold panning , characterized by dredging, was still going on and was practiced in areas extending as far as the eye can see by hundreds of operators. To add insult to injury, no major official measure was ever put in place by the local authorities to put an end to the suffering of the local population, who are powerlessly witnessing the death of their only source of subsistence. 

Every day, the population decries the color and quality of their river, which is left at the mercy of real environmental destroyers. “Mercury and cyanide, used without limits by the gold panners, are killing fish and making the river waters unfit for consumption and irrigation of our crops,” deplores an agronomist from Kénieba.  

The gold panning sites of Sakola Daba and Djdjan, near Kenieba, offer an alarming display. On these sites, the machines deployed by the gold panners – dredgers, pumps, etc. – are still in operation despite the authorities’ firm statements about their activities.

Irresponsibility and complicity

An order issued on 15 May 2019 by the Malian government prohibits the exploitation of river resources through dredging. Environment Minister Housseini Amion Guindo then launched what his office called “a merciless war” against dredging operations on the main tributary of the Senegal River. 

“We are going to make the outlaws understand that the status quo cannot continue,” Guindo threatened. The Governor of Kayes – in Mali’s first administrative region – had given until the end of April 2020 to drive out the dredgers from the beds of the Falemé River. 

Unfortunately, this rhetoric has not been heard again or followed up on. Dredging persists thanks to the irresponsibility and complicity of certain administrative officials. Several of them are owners of dredgers or are shareholders of gold panning companies, according to local and traditional authorities,. Moustapha Diarra, an employee on the site, tells us that his boss, a very well-known authority of the Kayes Regional Council that Moustapha did not want to tell me, owns about ten dredgers on the Loulo gold panning site.  As of June 10, more than 70 dredges out of the hundred we counted were still operating despite the governor’s promises to apply the law in all its rigor. As a result, the local administrative authorities are struggling to implement the decisions taken to stop dredging. 

“A member of Minister Guindo’s last mission to Keniéba at the end of March 2020 was also the owner of at least four dredgers in the waters of the sites visited,” said an anonymous source from Loulo, the town that gave its name to the Loulo SA mine. This  information was confirmed by a second confidential source.Housseini Amion Guindo was the single minister followed by chiefs of many directions of his ministry and others environment offices chiefs of Kayes.   

“We are going to make the outlaws understand that the status quo cannot continue.”

Environment Minister Housseini Amion Guindo

The purpose of the ministerial delegation’s visit to the localities of Babala and Massakama (on the border with Senegal) was to kick off the campaign against the dredgers that are causing enormous damage to the Falémé. 

Speaking amidst a group of employees at the Loulo site, dredge owners Sidibé and Arouna Diallo, maintained that 67 dredgers operating nearby the Loulo gold mine are owned by elected representatives and senior officials of the Malian government.  In other words, the decree banning gold mining by dredging in Mali is nothing more than a piece of paper trampled upon by the very people who are responsible for cleaning up the mess. And the official missions of the Bamako authorities to the sites could then only be a farce. The dozens of dredgers seized and the arrest of the offenders at the end of March 2020 at sites on the border with Senegal were in reality just the manifestation of a big bluff by the authorities.

More than half of Kayes’s 221 regional advisers are involved in gold mining and have dredgers, according to Boubacar Niang, editor of the popular Kayes newspaper “Kayes Info”. ”When we know that this gold mining involves in several cases the use of proscribed and pernicious methods on the environment and the waters of Falémé, the responsibility of elected officials or regional officials becomes blatant and shocking,” he said.

However, it should be pointed out that it is not only gold miners who are killing the Falémé. The damage also comes from industrial operators, including the African Gold company in Kolea, which mines without treating the water and other products that it pours into the Falémé. The activities of some mining companies, mainly Loulo SA, have a pernicious impact on the tributary.  African Gold said that it would answer questions about this behavior, but never provided the requested information.

After an initial meeting, the environmental director of the Loulo mining company declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.

Beyond these industrial threats, the populations are not always respectful of their river. As reported in a newsletter from the regional environmental department, “everyday a large number of vehicles are washed on the submersible part of the bridge. This contributes to further polluting the river waters with oil and petrol oozing from engines.”

What hope is there? “If we don’t react, the attacks on the Falémé will dangerously affect our survival.” These words pronounced in mid-2019 at the Kolia gold panning site by the OMVS High Commissioner, Hamed Diane Semega, should serve as a warning to the public.

A twinkle of hope does exist to help to save the Falémé. The OMVS has several large-scale projects, but they are struggling to make an impact.

The initiatives include a navigation project from Senegal to Ambidédji, a sizable hydroelectric component and a revival of agriculture. 

“If we don’t react, the attacks on the Falémé will dangerously affect our survival.”

OMVS High Commissioner, Hamed Diane Semega

According to the first head of the OMVS, states must settle the issue of legislation upstream: “They must work to harmonize their legislation in accordance with the OMVS Charter. Faced with such a disaster, a collective response is needed. The action of a single state is not enough.”

To save the Falémé, according to Moussa Camara, an expert in the field of fisheries resources, “it is necessary to take vigorous measures to implement the regulations prohibiting dredging and, on the other hand, to better organize gold panning activities to minimize their impact on the water resources and the environment of the basin.”

The OMVS’s major hydraulic works should help to adapt to the impacts of climate change. However, the containment measures implemented are struggling to produce results. This necessary change should indeed enable populations to mobilize around viable and sustainable projects. 

This story was produced with editorial support from the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ)and financial support from OSF

The Senegal River, whose main tributary is the Falémé, is a 1,750-kilometer-long tropical river in West Africa that originates in Guinea at an altitude of 750 meters. It flows through Mali, Mauritania and Senegal and serves as the border between these two countries before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean at Saint-Louis.

Mali, which is home to 38% of the basin, is upstream of this natural treasure.