The Gambia River Bridge/Barrage: The undiluted narrative

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By Suruwa B. Wawa Jaiteh

I refer to The Standard editorial, What is in a Name? of Thursday 24 January 2019, and many other related write-ups regarding the name of the recently inaugurated SeneGambia Bridge.

I felt terribly nervous that the name ‘SeneGambia’ given to the bridge, located at the Bamba Tenda – Yelli Tenda crossing point can elicit the sort of comments that I read in some of our newspapers. We have to attempt to understand the geography of the river basin, within the context of its environment and hydrology, as a basis for making certain comments. We cannot eat our cake and have it at the same time!
There are many things in a name, specifically the name of a bridge over a shared natural resource like the Gambia River built in an OMVG member state. The bridge could have been justifiably named the OMVG Bridge, Gambia River Bridge, Bamba Tenda – Yelli Tenda Bridge, or the TransGambia Bridge and each name would stand on its own merit, just like the current SeneGambia Bridge name. We have in a name, if you will, especially the current SeneGambia name: goodwill, tolerance, interdependence, togetherness, sub-regional harmony and, above all, an unshakable faith in sub-regional development through cooperation, within the context of live and let live. The narrative that follows should provide an understanding of the critical nature of this shared resource as a basis for an informed decision.

The Gambia River originates from the Fouta Jallon Highlands (known as the West African water tower), at Horee Dima, in Guinea. The river meanders its way through Guinea, Senegal and finally to The Gambia. The River Basin encompasses virtually the entire land surface of The Gambia, the northernmost portion of Guinea, and much of southeastern Senegal. The water of this unique sub-regional river represents a very important shared natural resource. The needs and management of this very scarce natural resource went through very careful studies and planning by sub-regional and international experts. Decisions made as a result of the studies and outlined plans concerning the various options for water management and infrastructural development could affect the relationship and the value of the water to the people of the four riparian countries and of West Africa for generations.

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The River Basin has a catchment area of some 77,000 square kilometers. The climate of the basin is characterised by a seven-month dry season from November to May, followed by a five-month wet season from June to October. During the wet season, mean rainfall ranges from 1,400 mm in the south to 800 mm in the north and, during the dry season, the river discharge is very low. Flows of less than three cubic metres per second have been observed at Gouloumbo (location of the first bridge over the Gambia River), about 526 kms. from the mouth of the river, during periods of three to four consecutive months.

During the drought years beginning in the 1970s in The Gambia and elsewhere in the sub-region, and the resultant lower flows of the river, salinity front in the estuary moved further upstream. Small-scale community pump irrigation along the river, introduced by the Taiwanese Agricultural Technical Team in 1966, extracted water from the river, which has accentuated the movement upriver of the salinity front. One result of the change in salinity regime has been that, mangrove swamp rice production has decreased along that portion of the river which has experienced increased salt levels (see my reports on the mangrove rice ecology in The Gambia, 1984/85). This situation was presented by the Government of The Gambia at the conference of donors in the 1980s. This unfortunate situation further stimulated officials in The Gambia and OMVG to intensify efforts to find ways to contain the salinity from more nearly to its former position and to capture more of the river’s flow for irrigated farming, specifically rice cultivation.
In the decades of the 1960s and 1980s, several missions explored the potential for development of the Gambia River Basin. These efforts identified most of the dam and barrage sites that were later included in the study and planning activities of the organisation.

In the belief that harnessing the water of the Gambia River and its tributaries would help to develop their respective economies, the governments of Senegal and The Gambia established a coordinating committee in 1976 to prepare the basin documents to establish a permanent intergovernmental institution. The two countries created the Gambia River Basin Development Organisation (Organisation pour le Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Gambie, in French, with the acronym OMVG) in 1977 to coordinate planning and development activities for the basin. Guinea was formally admitted in 1980, and Guinea-Bissau in 1983. With the latter event, the programme of the OMVG was defined to include the Kayanga Geba and Koliba Corubal river basins.

The Organisational structure and objectives of OMVG
The organisational structure of the OMVG, was composed of the Conference of Heads of State and Governments, as the supreme body of the organisation that develops its policies. The council of ministers is responsible for the conceptual approach and supervision of the organisation. The high commission includes a general secretariat and four directorates, including the directorate of studies and planning, which has been the direct recipient of technical and financial assistance for the implementation of the organisation’s policies. The indicative plan of the organisation then, had the following objectives:
· Achieving food self-sufficiency;
· Increasing per capita income;
· Promoting industrial development;
· Improving national balance of payments;
· Enhancing the quality of life;
· Promoting environmental quality and public health.
After extensive studies and planning, the high commission of the organisation was restructured and scaled-down to an executive secretariat composed of an executive secretary, director of administration, director of studies and planning and director of agriculture. As a result of the institutional restructuring and scaling-down of operations, a minimum programme of activity was adopted, as follows:
· Integrated development of the Kayanga Geba and Koliba Corubal river basins
· The Gambia River Bridge study; and
· Electric energy generation and distribution in the OMVG member countries.
As a result of the identification of large dam and other infrastructural sites during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, the UN in 1972 commissioned the consulting engineers Howard Humphreys & Sons (HHS) to do hydrological and topographical studies to establish a data base for the Gambia River Basin. This data base was considered a necessary precursor to an integrated river basin plan. A reconnaissance report on the potential dam sites in the continental basin and a bridge/barrage in the lower reaches in The Gambia was published in 1973.

By 1976 an irrigation plan for The Gambia had been formulated around the concept of controlling salinity in the lower reaches of the Gambia River. Due to lower river flows associated with the drought that began in the early 1970s and some pumping of fresh water from the river for irrigation in The Gambia, saline waters in the estuary intruded further up the river during the dry season than had been the case previously, which caused some reduction in mangrove rice production that depended on tidal action of the estuary (traces of salinity were noted around Kuntaur, SB Wawa Jaiteh, 1984). A barrage was identified as a possible way to control the salinity front and to provide fresh water for irrigated agriculture in the lower basin.

The need for a bridge to carry the TransGambia Highway across the river to replace the ferry services was also considered important, especially for development of that portion of Senegal which is south of the Gambia River. The plan for a bridge-barrage at about kilometre 130 from the mouth of the Gambia River was formulated in an attempt to satisfy both needs – transportation and salinity control.
Shortly after the first surveys of the lower basin, several reconnaissance missions explored the continental basin of the Gambia River in Senegal and the upper basin in Guinea. In the aftermath of the drought of the early 1970s, those missions sought to identify sites for dams with a major objective being to provide irrigation water as a way to reduce dependence on rainfall. It was recognised that several of the sites could provide hydropower as well.

Redefined development objectives
Given the limited resources in the basin, careful consideration was given to defining and redefining development objectives. One of the functions of planning is to review the development objectives of the organization and to suggest for consideration of management possible shifts in objectives, based on results of analysis. For example, the OMVG and member states, based on the negative environmental impact of the proposed bridge/barrage decided to drop the barrage component and continue with the bridge option. Based on this decision, the organisation added the objective of increasing the supply of energy as well as improving its efficiency.

The continuous development of a region’s water resources makes projects increasingly interdependent, especially if the region is poor, arid or semi-arid with scarce water supplies. The taming of seasonal rivers, such as the Gambia, requires a scale of development beyond the capacity of any country, and the rational planning of increasingly interdependent projects requires a basin-wide or systems approach. This was essentially the rationale for the formation of the OMVG and, this is one of the reasons why the newly inaugurated bridge is justifiably called the SeneGambia Bridge.
When large, interdependent projects are built, a stage of basin development is reached where continuous interdependence and tolerance have to be nurtured and allowed to take ownership. There is a fundamental need to understand that the Gambia River is a joint natural resource emanating from Fouta Jallon highlands in Guinea passing through Senegal before reaching The Gambia.

The bridge that was built and inaugurated recently was an OMVG initiated programme, studied and planned under the auspices of the organisation. Overtime, during the dictatorial epoch, it became a national programme; this is an issue above the focus of this paper. However, the most important macroeconomic impact of the bridge will come from the toll benefits of the river crossing. Given the analysis of our assumptions at the time, in the 1990s, the bridge will create large benefits in terms of economic efficiency, that is, less time spent waiting for the ferry, and much more efficient time spent carrying passengers and goods thus generating much needed income to boost our revenue-based budget.
For revenue generation, we looked at two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Gambian vehicles only, which showed an internal rate of return (IRR) lower than the “opportunity cost” of capital and, a negative net present value (NPV).
Scenario 2: High assumption for the initial number of vehicles crossing the bridge (including Senegalese vehicles) showed a positive net present value (NPV) of $4.5 million. Some 80 to 90 percent of this revenue comes from the Senegalese/other transport users. In case these users (clients, Senegalese/others) of the bridge come up with a cheaper alternative transport system, the revenue earnings will drop very significantly, to the point that it will be difficult to sustain the operations of the bridge.
Within the context of live and let live, our tolerant and cooperative riparian partners have not designed irrigation production perimetres that would extract water and affect the hydrologic regime of the river. If they do, the consequences on our national economy and way of life could be devastating.

Unless we have very short memories, we need to cultivate the spirit of give and take within our culture of tolerance and good neighbourliness. Who saved dear Gambia when Kukoi struck in 1981? Who again saved dear Gambia when Yahya Jammeh refused to budge after his defeat in the election? Which country is sharing its reserve electric power supply with rural Gambia?
The new Gambia must continue to prove that our concentrated, political and economic strength can and will be utilised to make fundamental changes in the politico-socio-economic structure of the sub-region. Yet such a change is needed for the achievement of shared and sustained development – to be brought about by a people-oriented sub-regional river basin development cooperation through effective and truly participatory democracy.

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