SUCCESS STORY: Life returns to Mauritania's Diawling Delta

Posted: 19 March 2004

The restoration of the Diawling delta in Mauritania over the past eleven years has improved the livelihoods of its inhabitants by bringing back the biodiversity that was once lost.

Diawling Delta, Mauritania. Photo: Lucy Chambers/IUCN
Diawling Delta, Mauritania. Photo: Lucy Chambers/IUCN
Fish are now in abundance since the restoration of the Diawling Delta, Mauritania.© Lucy Chambers/IUCN.

Artificial flooding of the delta has brought back a diverse delta ecosystem, and its natural products are again providing the inhabitants around the delta with livelihoods. Fish catches have risen from less than 1,000 kg in 1992 to over 113,000 kg in 1998.

Seeds of the returned Acacia trees are used in the tanning industry, and the women in the area once again produce the famous traditional mats from Sporobulus robustus, a brackish floodplain grass that now grows abundantly. Bird counts have risen from a meagre 2,000 in 1992 to over 35,000 waterbirds in 1998.

These are the main findings of a new study, The rehabilitation of the delta of the Senegal River in Mauritania - Fielding the ecosystem approach, which provides a complete overview of the eleven-year project in the Diawling delta - its activities, results and lessons learnt.

"The Diawling project shows that the ecosystem approach, when applied to the restoration of a severely damaged wetland, can have very positive effects on both livelihoods and biodiversity," says Dr Olivier Hamerlynck, a former adviser to the project.

Map of Diawling delta in Mauritania. Image: IUCN
Map of Diawling delta in Mauritania. Image: IUCN
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Protected area

The Diawling delta was destroyed by the construction of Diama dam in 1985 and years of low rainfall. The ecological crisis and loss of wetland-dependent livelihoods resulted in the mass migration of inhabitants to the capital Nouakchott or the fishing port of Nouadhibou. At that point in time, visitors described the area as "a dusty salt desert with a few sickly-looking cows."

In 1991, the Government decided to declare 16,000 hectares of the area a National Park. The reaction of the population was hostile: "first they put in a dam to kill us, and now a park to finish us off."

But the reality was less gruesome. One of the objectives of the Diawling National Park was to "promote the continuous and harmonious development of the range of activities of the local population", and with the support of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the Park authorities in 1993 began a long process to restore the biodiversity of the region and the livelihoods of its inhabitants.

Consulting the community

The project area was much larger than the National Park area alone of 50,000 hectares. In discussions between scientists and local communities, the project tried to reconstruct the former pattern of flooding and saltwater inflow, the link between the movement of the waters and the natural resources, and from these natural resources to the lives of the communities.

"Government authorities in Mauritania have in this case used an ecosystem approach which, associated with development actions, has brought back life and tangible socio-economic benefits to people in what used to be a degraded and saline floodplain depression," says Mr Moma Ould Hamahallah, Director of the Diawling National Park.

In 1994, the first experiments with artificial flooding of the delta began, leading immediately to dramatic recovery of the ecosystem. At the same time, local communities started up activities in market gardening, drinking water provision and resource management.

Now, there is an agreed management plan for the area, increased capacity for management, and procedures to resolve conflicts between those dependent on the region's resources.

But, most importantly, the delta is again teeming with life. So much so that Mauritanian authorities are making plans to expand the managed area and establish a biosphere reserve.

Related links:

Available in French and English, The rehabilitation of the delta of the Senegal River in Mauritania, by O.Hamerlynck & S.Duvail.

World Conservation Union (IUCN)