The Geo-politics of water in the Gambia River Basin- Critical review of development cooperation for the proposed hydropower development.


By Abdoukarim Sanneh, London,UK

Political borders mean different things to different people. The people in the Gambia River Basin their language and culture, settlements and also environmental problems ranging from loss of habitat and climate transcend beyond one nation state and its border. Given the complex interconnectedness of human-environment issues, the spirit of regionalism led to genesis of Gambia River Basin Organisation for shared river basin management and development to meet the region’s chronic energy and food shortage and facilitate principles of free movement of people and goods.

Political implication of environment and natural resource degradation stemmed from appreciation that human societies are bounded by ecological limits, the breaching of which could lead to socio-economic catastrophes (Brown, 1977, Meadows et al, 1972). These works warned about future doom because the trend of Environment and natural resource degradation. Security studies analysts’ conceptualised degradation of natural resources and environment as a security threat with emphasis on climate change (Gleick, 1991; Homer-Dixon, 1991; Myers, 1993; Barnet. 2003; Campbell, 2003; Mazo. 2010). Since after the Rio Summit in 1992 and the Publication of Our Common Future there has been a wider concern in international affairs about depletion of ozone layer, loss of biodiversity, deforestation etc. There were series of multilateral and bilateral environment and development agreements between nation’s states in protecting what Rockström et al (2009) called a safe limit of the planetary boundary framework from causing unacceptable environmental change.

Many reports have connected climate change in sub Saharan Africa with increasing condition of insecurity and conflict. The combine effect of exposure of natural events caused by climatic change such as (low rainfall, drought, flood etc), low economic resources for adaptation, fragmented societies and conflict ridden histories are all foresee assumptions of fitting probable. In this 21st century, water related geopolitical issues are potential source of conflict in many regions of the world. In Africa given that network of rivers, ties almost all African Nations and in the absence of a new style of cooperation can lead to hegemonic behaviour. Africa’s hydrology alone is a solid basis for African Union (Kitissou, 2004). With climate change and resource conflict shaped by the realities of folding issues of environmental politics, reshaping international cooperation to address our natural common such as land, water and atmosphere are fundamental challenges to the paradigms of sustainable development. West Africa is not immune to adding to the list of many water conflicts around the world.

Climatic factors form an important pillar in the geopolitical discourse in environmental diplomacy for water sharing or benefit sharing -the distribution of the benefit through cooperation between member states for the future development cooperation of the Gambia River Basin. The Gambia River is a trans-boundary river that flows into four countries in West Africa- the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Guinea and Senegal, all with a history of colonial rule from Britain, Portugal and France respectively. In June 30, 1978, with factors relating to vulnerable geopolitical implications of hydrological issues, the four countries signed convention for creation of the Gambia River Basin in Senegal (FAO, 1978). The creation of Gambia River Basin Development Cooperation (OMVG) was step towards environmental diplomacy for regional economic integration, natural resource management and socio-economic development of the riparian state with the shared resources of the basin. For three decades since the formation of the organisation with the adoption and ratification of conventions by member states, lack of consensus over the use of water resource for hydropower and irrigation development to meet the sub-region’s chronic energy and food shortage, is likely to escalate resource conflict similar to 1989 Senegal-Mauritania conflict. Senegal Mauritania conflict over water shortage in the Senegal River Basin Development Authority, led to violent skirmishes that have became complicated by regular Black Africans paler-skinned moors in Mauritania and Mali-Mauritania conflict over cattle herders’ refusal to allow the latter to cross border to water their cattle at a well (Garuba, 2011). This further strengthen (Homer-Dixon 1991, 1994) postulation that environmental degradation and violent conflict is likely to caused ethnic clashes

The narrative framing of Hydropower technology development as a catalyst for regional cooperation is what led the genesis of convention relating to the status of Gambia River signed in Kaolack Senegal in 1978. The rational behind this International environmental agreement is political constructed of ecosystem reasoning of regionalism. In neo-realistic image of international relations, regionalism can be understood as a series of bargaining among the political leaders of the major states in a region under the leadership of dominant state often referred to as regional hegemony and in that hegemonic state play a stimulus or catalyst role in the creation and functioning of regional institution (Gandois and Fawcett 2010). In the case of Gambia River Basin, the bargaining of Geographic-spatial phenomenon of Gambia River was convergence- the spirit of bonding and cooperation beyond the colonial legacy of borders that separate communities of the same culture, language and a shared natural commons of the biophysical landscape.

For more than three decades its creation was shaped by framing of economic integration, free movement of people and goods and poverty reduction which the spatial or geographical phenomenal of Gambia River was seen central in the environmental diplomacy for the benefit sharing in the Basin development. But critics argued that regional hegemony have constraint development of OMVG agreements in comparison with the progress of sister organisation such as OMVS (transboundary basin development agreement between Senegal, Mali, Mauritania). Hurell (1995) identified four roles for hegemon and that is, it perceived a threat by its neighbours¹, the neighbours decide to bandwagon with the regional hegemon in the hope of receiving political or economic rewards², its neighbours try to control the hegemon through the creation of regional institution to contain the regional hegemon³ and, it seeks to expand or maintain its power through an institution that could serve as an amplifier of its interest⁴. Regional integration and development partnership is a prerequisite for the optimal development of the catchment areas, widening of the markets and economic and the creation of OMVG falls within this context. For decades of political diplomacy in the negotiation process of Gambia River Basin Development Plan is continually constraint of by individual state interest-state hegemony and nationalism of winners and loser. In some instances, this sub-regional rivalry and competition manifested into some forms of geopolitical conflict between riparian states. After many years of waiting with numerous consultancy reports and no meaningful action taken on the ground, in 2011 Guinea took a bold step signing a lone 240.5 megawatt hydro-power development with China International and Electric for a dam in Keléta- which was originally a proposed OMVG site which replaced site at Kekreti because of the disagreement between Guinea and Senegal. Water in the Gambia River Basin is now open to competition and potentially new threat of water-based conflict.

The Gambia River which is unique nature features of the region, which flows from the highlands of Fouta D’jallow in Guinea and ends its source into the Atlantic Ocean in the Gambia. The Gambia is located entirely within the The Gambia River Basin, which is shared in basin area Senegal 77.5%, Gambia 13%, Guinea Conakry 9% and Guinea Bissau 0.5%. (Sonko, 2001). The Former British colony of the Gambia is referred to as historical accident in political geography because its location inside Senegal and it is the river that dominates being navigable by ocean sailing craft into West African hinterland (Dorward, 1981). There is a connection between historical geopolitics and contemporary environmental politics of Water of Gambia River Basin. The bargaining of Geographic-spatial phenomenon of Gambia River is what led to the genesis or convergence for the formation of Gambia River Basin Development Cooperation in 1978. The impact of climate change and Hydro political discourse in the future management and development of water resources of Gambia River Basin for regional peace and stability should always be link with the conceptual framework of Regional-Based Approach. This theoretical Framework helps to understand how different regions and sub-regions are connected with each other as well with the global level of politics and it is relevant to ascertain which consequences of climate change may be limited to certain regions, which ones will have inter-regional consequences and which one will influence global politics (Haldén, 2007). Climatic factors form the basic building block within geopolitical theory. Mackinder (1919/1996) observed that the great wars of history are the outcome, direct or indirect, of unequal growth of nations, due to the globe; Fertility at least in terms of agriculture is highly climate dependent but Mackinder and other 20th century theoreticians did not extensively elaborate on climate factors.

With climate change and ineffective sub-regional cooperation, the development a single dam without cooperation of member countries for benefit sharing can induce climate change risk factors which can effects on river flow condition of access and use of water resources in other basin countries that can lead to natural resource conflict. Research in the field of environmental security and the effect of climate change has postulated the link between environmental changes and violent conflict either in the form of full scale war or conflict in lesser intensity (Haldén, 2007). This have been a prevailing intension in OMVG countries between Gambia and Senegal about ferry crossing along the River Gambia to access Southern Senegalese Province of Cassamance, related tension between Guinea Bissau and Senegal to due separatist rebellion and also tension between Guinea Conakry and Senegal. Environmental security debate in the Gambia River Basin matters to the geopolitics of climate change because climate change can lead degradation of the ecosystem and human habitat. According to Homer-Dixon (1991, 1994) the linkages between environmental degradation and violent conflict is likely to caused ethnic clashes, caused by migration and social cleavage caused by environmental scarcity, and civil strife caused by environmental scarcity affecting economic activity, livelihood, elite behaviour and state response than to inter-state wars.

Collier-Hoeffler conflict model of greed versus grievance (2000) is a theoretical base to explore and analyse the transboundary challenges of the Gambia River. The competition between Guinea and Senegal for hegemonic power is a classic example of greed and grievance. Studies indicated that to map the potential source of water-based conflict, one should look into countries that have a high concentration of international rivers and river basins shared by many countries and Guinea in particular has 14 international shared river basins (Kitissou, 2004). Security reason which Senegal cited was about the proposed dam sites in Sambangalou and a reservoir in Guinea. Senegal does not want Guinea to control their water supply and so rejected the earlier proposal of high dam across their border. In 2006 another study commissioned by OMVG with finance from African Development identified dam sites in Sambangalou in Senegal and Keléta in Guinea.

The member countries of the Organisation for the Development of the Gambia River Basin (OMVG) cover an area of 500,000 km² and have population of about 20 million inhabitants (African Development Fund, 2001). The regional is confronted with development crisis with the people living on the edge. According to United Nation Human Development Index, OMVG member states are classified at the bottom of the scale with life expectancy below 52 years, 31% to 57% of the people deprived of potable water, 36% to 60% access to health, 62% adult illiteracy, while infant mortality is at a rate of 140 for 1000 and infant malnutrition of 45 to 1000.

Since in the 1970s, it has been a national policy vision of a riparian state such as The Gambia to develop the Gambian portion of the Basin. In 1970s the country requested help from United Kingdom Ministry of Overseas Development now called (Department of International Development) to assess the feasibility of constructing across the River Gambia a bridge barrage. The purpose of the barrage would be controlling salt water movement in the upstream and to serve as the storage of fresh water during the rainy season to be used during the dry season for irrigation and also to provide a means of crossing the river for vehicles. A similar study financed by UNDP in collaboration with both Gambia and Senegal executed by Howard Humphreys consulting was on the hydrological and topographical study of the River Gambia. The UNDP study examined the possibility of dam development in two selected sites both in Senegal. The first dam site identified is in Sambangalou for the production of hydro- electric power, and the second dam site is in Kekreti for irrigation development.

In 1985 with Financial and Technical Assistance from USAID to OMVG, contracted University of Michigan study the hydropower potential of the Basin and the study identified dam sites at Sambangalou and Kekreti in Senegal. On the issue of the bridge barrage in the Gambia, USAID study also identified social and ecological impact of the barrage project while Coode and Partners Engineers contracted by UK Government and Gambia Government indicated the economic benefit of 24,000 hectares of land can be under irrigation within 25 years from the completion of the barrage.

After spending millions of dollars and multi-disciplinary team of experts not much is done about Gambia River Basin development projects. Balingo Bridge Barrage Project which includes Trans-Gambia Bridge was said to have social and ecological consequences. However, Senegal need the Balingo Bridge Barrage component of the Basin Development Programme for political and security reasons. With the current separatist rebellion in Cassamance with a bridge in Bambatenda its can rapidly deploy military troupes and easy movement of people and goods. For years it continues to pressure the Gambia Government for Trans-Gambia Bridge Project while show no commitment for the hydropower component of the OMVG regional agreement between the member states. The trans-Gambia Road Transport corridor and a bridge to link/connecting northern and southern Senegal and Gambia divided by Gambia River which had generated conflict between the two countries but with extensive consultation from ECOWAS and OMVG and other between the two countries is about the start bridge construction with financed from African Development Fund of African Development Bank. These project a lost term of revenues to Gambia on tariff from the ferry crossing but will enable Senegal easy access to Southern province currently affected by separatist rebellion.

According to DeGeorges and Reily (2007) UNDP advisor to OMVG prepared a report stating that Balingo have minimal social and ecological effect but high level officials in USAID Senegal brought in what he referred as  “ belt way bandit” from Washington DC- Rongo consultants (that provide mercenary services to US Government) saying University of Michigan and OMVG assessment were wrong and that International donors should return to a political preferred alternatives of Balingo Bridge Barrage and Kekreti dams. DeGeorges and Reily (2007) went further to indicate that undermining University of Michigan study, environmental law linked to US Foreign Assistance and Agency for International Development 22CFR Part 216 Environmental Procedures were in violation and the matter went clandestinely to legal defence firm called Natural Resource Defence Council that negotiated behind the scenes with US Government to assure that American funding would not pass through bilateral or multilateral donors for dam construction until more detailed studies were undertaken. This revelation is clear testimony of what Goldman (2005) stated as imperial nature in the age of globalization. In 2006 another study commissioned by OMVG with finance from African Development identified dam sites in Sambangalou in Senegal and Keléta in Guinea.

There is a need for both member states of OMVG to realised the complexity of environmental, social and political context of the Gambia River Basin. Gambia should pursue constructive diplomacy within member states of Gambia River Basin Countries within the ECOWAS and OMVG framework for constructive agreement and a political willingness for joint integrated River Basin development and management of Gambia River. The commitment from the government of Senegal shows a building a joint hydro-power and irrigation project in River Senegal with other member states of OMVS, such as Mali and Mauritania, and the same commitment should be replicated with Gambia, Guinea and Guinea Bissau.



African Development Bank (2011) Trans Gambia: Construction of Trans Gambia Bridge and Cross Border Improvement The Gambia and Senegal. Available:-

ADB (2008) OMVG Energy Project Environmental and Social Impact Summary Available:-

African Development Fund (2001). Appaisal Rapport National Resource Development and Management Organisation OMVG Available: –

Brown, L, (1977). Redefining National Security. World Watch Institute, Washington DC.

Campbell, K. (2008). Climate cataclysm: The Foreign policy and National Security implications of Climate Change (Ed). Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC.

Collier, P & Hoeffler, A. (2000). Greed and Grievance in Civil War. World Bank Policy Research-Working Papers Number 2355 May 2000.

Coode & Partners in association with: Peat Marwich & Co and T & C Hawksley (1977). Gambia Barrage Study Final Report. Government of the Republic of the Gambia and Ministry of Overseas Development United Kingdom.

Degeorges, A & Reilly, B.K. (2007). Eco-Politics of Dams on the Gambia River

Journal of Water Resources Development, 23:4,641-657. Available:

Dunsmore, J.R, Rains Blair, A, Lowe, G.D.N, Moffatt, D.J, Anderson, I.P. & Williams. J.B. (1976). The Agricultural Development of The Gambia, Environmental and Socioeconomic Analysis Volume 1. Land Resource Division Ministry of Overseas Development. Surrey: England.

Available –

FAO (1978). Convention Relating to the Creation of the Gambia River Basin. Available:

Gandois, H & Fawcett, L. (2010). Regionalism in Africa and The Middle East: Implication for EU Studies. Journal of European Integration, November 2010.

Garuba, D. (2011). Special Report-West Africa’s Many Water Wars. West Africa insight March 2011Vol 2 no5 P.7-8 Publication of Centre for Democracy and Development in West Africa.

Gleick, P. (1991). Environment and Security: The clear connection, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 47 (3):16-21

Goldman, M (2005). Imperial Nature, the World Bank and the Struggles of Social Justice in the Age of Globalisation. Yale University Press: USA

Heldén, P. (2007). The Geopolitics of Climate Change : Challenges to International System. Available:-–2377–SE.pdf

Homer-Dixon, T. (1991). On the Threshold : Environmental changes as causes of acute conflict. International security Vol 16, No.2 (Fall).

Homer-Dixon, T. (1994). Environmental scarcities and violent conflict. Evidence from cases. International security Vol, 19, No. 1 (Summer) PP. 5-40.

Howard Humphreys and Sons Ltd (1974). Hydrological and Topographical Studies of the Gambia River Basin: Final Report Volume 3. Report on the continental basin consultancy. Report prepared for United Nation Development Programme.

Hurrell, A. (1995). Explaining the Resurgence of Regionalism in World Politics. Review of International Studies 21, No3 (1995) : 331-358.

IUCN, (2011).The Gambia River Basin. Available: –

Kitissou, M. (2004). Hydro-politic and geopolitics:- Transforming conflict and reshaping cooperation, Africa Notes, Cornell University, Institute for African Development, November/December 2004.

Meadows, D et al. (1972). The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project ob the Predicament of mankind. Potomac Associates: London.

Mackinder, H.J. (1919/1996). Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the politics of Reconstruction. National Defense University Press: Washington DC.

Mazo, J. (2010). Climate Conflict: How Global Warming threatens security and what to do about it. International Institute of strategic studies: London.

Rockström, J, Steffen, W, Noone, K, Persson, A, Stuart Chapin, F.I Lambin, E.F, Lenton, T.M, Scheffer, M, Folke, C, Schellnhuber, H.J, Nykvist, B, Wit, C.A.D, Hughes, T, Leeuw, S.V.D, Rodhe, H, Sorlin, S, SNYDER, P.K, Costanza, R, Svedin, U, Falkenmark, M, Crutzen, P & Foley, J.A. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461 472-475.

Sonko, E.O. (2001). Gambia experience in Water Harvest. In FAO Water harvesting in Western and Central Africa, Proceeding of a Regional Workshop held in Niamey, October 1999, Accra, Ghana PP103-108.

Toulmin, C. (2009). Climate Change in Africa. Zed Books: London.

UNESCO, (2007) Niokolo-Koba National Park- List of World Heritage in Danger Available:-

The University of Michigan (1985). Terrestrial Ecology and Gambia River Basin Development. Report Prepared for U.S Agency for Development (USAID) and Gambia River Basin Development Organisation (OMVG) Contract No. 685-0012-C-00-2158-00 Available:-

Verker, K.M.P & Van Rens, C.P.M. (2005). Saline Intrusion in the Gambia after dam construction. University of Twente Enschede: The Netherlands.












About Author

Leave A Reply