The main tributary of the Senegal River, the Falémé, is in a vast environmental crisis

The Falémé River is in a state of disaster and the impact on residents of the area and the river’s surroundings are clear for all to see.

How gold panning destroys Falémé. Photo: Jacques Ngor Sarr

In Kolia, in the Senegalese commune of Bembou, the reddish color of the water – a consequence of pollution and the obstacles that obstruct the watercourse – reveals the ongoing disaster of the Falémé River. 

From the top of a cliff  the river lies as calm as a man on his deathbed.  The only activity is a plethora of gold-processing units, on the other side on the Malian bank, and in the middle of the bed, the roar of dredgers. 

“It’s unfortunate for us residents to see this situation,” protests Ousmane Sissoko, a man from Kolia who is in his sixties. “The Falémé is no longer useful to us, we can no longer drink or do the laundry with this water polluted by mercury and which exposes us to dangers.” 

These dredgers, consisting of pirogues equipped with machines to extract ore, leave clay and muddy water that disturbs the quietness of the place. With an infernal whirring, the gold panners, in groups of four, standing upright, work on machines called “spitters” to wash rocks that have been crushed into powder. Because of the inclination of the planks, a good part of the muddy water ends up in the river. 

“Without a sanitation system, they take care of nature’s call nearby.”

Not far from there, a woman is busy filtering the gold using a gourd with the help of a little girl, who is about 9 years old, who repeats the same procedure using a smaller gourd. A few meters away, pumps running at full speed periodically leak gasoline and oil.  

Piles of decomposing rubbish give off a nauseating odor. “This is the work of some of the gold diggers who operate along the river. Without a sanitation system, they take care of nature’s call nearby,” said a gold panner there. All this waste will end up in the Falémé. From a distance, we can see dikes created by the gold panners that prevent water from flowing normally. 

“But it’s not just the Senegalese gold panners who are responsible for all this. There is a strong presence of foreign gold panners including Malians, Burkinabés, Guineans, Gambians, Ivorians and even Ghanaians,” said Cherif Sow, an expert in mining law who frequently visits the area.

Illegal gold panning – gold mining is regulated in Senegal – practiced by hundreds of people on the Falémé River through dredging, makes its waters increasingly muddy, WHILE The polluting chemical substances used by gold panners dangerously affect aquatic biodiversity, adding to the damage already created by gold producer Afrigold.

We found this same set-up about a hundred kilometers away in the village of Saenssoutou, in the commune of Missira Sirimana (Saraya department). The part of the river that crosses this area is seriously damaged by artisanal and uncontrolled gold mining, especially dredging. The same is true in Moussala, in the commune of Bambou and in the other villages along the Falémé River. 

From Kédougou to the Senegalese-Malian border (113 kilometers away), which the tributary of the Senegal River traces, the crisis has reached alarming levels. The Falémé, which supplies water to 12  rural communes in Guinea, Mali and Senegal — and is the main water source for the populations of eastern Senegal and their livestock — is endangered by uncontrolled gold panning activities.

One does not need to be a specialist in hydrology to realize the seriousness of the situation on the banks of the Falémé. Providing 25% of the Senegal River’s water, it risks being wiped off the hydrological map if measures are not taken to save it. The river, which also serves as a natural border between Senegal and Mali, is on the brink of ecological disaster due to damage by dredging equipment and devastating chemicals.

For Saer Ndao,  governor of the Kédougou region, the damage to the Falémé is evident on both sides of the river. ”The situation is heartbreaking,” he said.  “The toxicity of the river has reached a level where nothing can be done there.”

But although the damage to the river is clear, and perhaps even irreversible, alleged top polluter Afrigold denies its role in the river’s degradation.  Meanwhile, Malian and Senegalese authorities bicker over which side bears responsibility-even though some say close collaboration between both countries is critical to resolving the problem. 

But no one wants to take responsibility, each country blaming the other for the degradation.

This may be why many people there do not even appear to want to hear about artisanal gold mining, even though it threatens aquatic and plant resources, disrupts hydraulic and hydrological regimes, and harms water quality and the reliability of measurement data, not to mention endangering the health of the population.

Obviously, the damage did not bother the artisanal miners found on the spot. Unlike many neighboring populations who are alarmed by this situation, these artisanal miners who want to safeguard their activity at all costs, do not even want to hear about the savage exploitation of gold, while it threatens resources. aquatic and plant life, disrupts hydraulic and hydrological regimes, as well as water quality, not to mention the danger to the health of populations. 

Senegalese and Malians pass the buck

The responsibility for this uncontrolled exploitation seems to be shared between Mali and Senegal in view of the multifaceted damage on both sides of the river. But no one wants to take responsibility, each country blaming the other for the degradation. 

Moumoudou Dramé, president of the Kedougou Gold Panners Association, pointed the finger at technology imported from Mali by Malian mining operators who are involved in financing and buying a mine: “The trend seems irreversible. The Senegalese had no expertise in gold panning. This catastrophic situation is the work of our Malian peers.” 

The water of the Falémé is a reddish color due to pollution. Photo: Jacques Ngor Sarr

Youssouf Sarr, a member of Senegalese civil society, made the same argument. He said: “It is our natural environment that is threatened. It’s the Malians who are hurting us. They are the ones who have imported all the technology, with devastating consequences for the river.”

The activities of some mining companies also have significant negative impacts on the Falémé, just like those of the artisanal gold miners. This is the case of the company Afrigold, which has been criticized by the people of Kolia.

The mining company AfriGold faces accusations

Much of the pollution is largely attributed to the mining company AfriGold, which operates in the area and which discharges its waste products from the processing of the mined ore directly into the river.

A spokesperson for the village chief of Kolia, Khalifa Dansokho, pointing to places polluted by AfriGold, said: “The company has installed a pumping station by the river. The water is piped to the plant for gold washing. On the other side, Afrigold uses a reverse path across the river to dispose of the waste water. The level of this waste water is filled with mud and can reach a depth of two meters. And that becomes dangerous for people and animals. Some wild and domestic animals have perished in this muddy river as they try to reach the other side of the river. It took the youth of the village of Kolia to rise up for Afrigold to build a bridge to allow the villagers to cross.”

The people of Kolia accuse mining company AfriGold of being one of the biggest polluters of the Falémé. AfriGold’s head of administration, Bara Diallo, dodged the issue and explained: “We have not reached the cyanidation phase (a hydro-metallurgical technique for extracting gold using a solution of alkaline cyanides). Afrigold is in the expansion phase. We are not yet using chemicals. What we practice is a form of gold panning on a large scale. We use a gravitation system that only washes and grinds the ore.” 

And he added: “There is a system that allows us to transport the water. This water travels a long way to allow the heavy particles to settle in certain places. The water that goes back into the Falémé is actually clean water.” 

Agriculture, cattle breeding, fishing … old memories

Agriculture, livestock, fishing and arboriculture – which were once the main activities of the population – are no longer possible with the Falémé’s polluted waters. Long gone are the times when the river was a source of livelihoods for all the villages on both sides of its banks.

The level of this waste water is filled with mud and can reach a depth of two meters. And that becomes dangerous for people and animals.

Currently, areas devoted to crops, mainly food crops, which enable households to feed themselves, are being drastically reduced, creating and accentuating “competition” on an unprecedented scale between miners, farmers and stockbreeders, explained the Observatoire Citoyen International du Fleuve Falémé (International Citizen Observatory of the Falémé River), composed of Malian, Senegalese and Guinean NGOs. 

The observatory reveals that 387,895 inhabitants from 55,414 households spread over three countries (Mali, Guinea, Senegal) are potentially threatened by the impact of pollution from the Falémé on the level of agriculture. , breeding, fishing, arboriculture, market gardening, etc. 

In a press release dated March 3, 2020, the members of the observatory railed against the fact that “fishermen can no longer feed their families with dignity by fishing” and that “women can no longer grow market vegetables, which used to provide them with income to meet their needs and those of their children.” 

Saer Ndao, governor of the Kédougou region, said: “This situation is caused by the use of toxic products that have fundamentally damaged the Falémé.” And he lamented the fact that people can no longer engage in income-generating activities.

The powerlessness of the authorities

The Senegalese authorities have not yet taken any action to put a definitive end to this situation, which threatens the very existence of the Falémé. Mamadou Bèye, head of the Direction de l’Environnement et des Etablissements Classés (DREEC, Directorate of the Environment and Classified Establishments) in Kédougou, is saddened by the crisis.

Shocked by the extent of the damage, he confided: “We are going to note all the non-conformities and we are going to transmit them to the authority.” 

Ndao says the entire river management system must be improved.

While he has not yet figured out how to solve the problem, however, is optimistic: “At our level, we are seeing how to set up a framework in Kédougou to share information and try to develop strategies as part of concerted planning efforts with all stakeholders in order to move towards raising public awareness.” He said.

Brigades that exist in name only

To combat the use of harmful chemicals, brigades have been set up on each side of the river by Mali and Senegal. But for environmentalist Oudy Diallo, a resident of Kédougou working to protect the Falémé, these brigades exist in name only.

But the agents assigned to these outfits work in the informal sector and lack critical resources like the cars and gases needed to effectively monitor the area and prevent wrongdoing.  

He argues that coordination between the two countries is necessary to assist law enforcement agencies in their daily work.

Explaining the complexity of the problem, he said: “When Senegalese agents chase the gold miners from Senegal, they flee, cross the river and end up in Malian territory… and when the latter also chase them, they cross to be in Senegalese territory. In both cases, the agents cannot do anything because they cannot enter a foreign country. This makes the task complicated.” 

Gold panning by dredging in the Falémé. Photo: Jacques Ngor Sarr

Environmentalist Lamine Diagne of the Kédougou-based NGO La Lumière agrees with that point. He also said that beyond coordination between states, it is important, necessary even, to review legislation to regulate and manage gold panning operations.

OMVS warnings and recommendations

The Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal (OMVS, Organization for the Development of the Senegal River) is concerned about the consequences of gold panning on water quality, the river’s flow and the destruction of the river bed. It has already warned on its website about the negative effects of gold mining on nature.

During a visit in 2019 with the local authorities of the Kédougou region and the press, OMVS High Commissioner Ahmed Diagne Semega shared his concerns and went as far as to declare that “the river is in a state of clinical death,” to draw the attention of the various member states to the extreme urgency to act. 

With this in mind, he put forward the idea of Mali and Senegal setting up a joint Falémé surveillance brigade to ensure the river’s protection. He also mentioned the need for states to harmonize their legislation in accordance with the OMVS charter.  He advocated a mixed brigade composed of Malian and Senegalese agents to do the surveillance together-unlike the currently system where each country has its own brigade.

“The toxicity of the river has reached a level where nothing can be done there.”

Mamadou Bèye

The existence of these two brigades complicates surveillance to ensure the security of the Falémé since the agents cannot enter each other’s territory even if they are chasing people practicing illegal gold panning in between the two countries. 

The two states must, in their laws on gold mining, take into account the charter which aims for a rational and efficient use of the waters of the Falémé, he said.  

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