The Gambia river bridge/barrage: The undiluted story

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Suruwa B. Wawa Jaiteh

The Gambia River originates from the Fouta Jallon Highlands (known as the West African water tower), specifically 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 the river represents a very important natural resource. The needs and management of this very scarce natural resource went through very careful study 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.

The River Basin has a catchment area of some 77,000 square kilometers. The climate of the Basin is characterized 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. During the dry season, the river discharge is very low. Flows of less than three cubic meters per second have been observed at Gouloumbo, which is 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 subregion, 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. This situation was presented by the Government of The Gambia at the conference of donors. The 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.
During 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 organization.

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In the belief that harnessing the water of the Gambia River and its tributaries would help to develop their respective economies, the governments of the Republic 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 Organization (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, in addition to the Gambia River Basin.


The organizational structure and objectives of OMVG
The organizational structure of the OMVG at the time was composed of the Conference of Heads of State and Governments, as the supreme body of the organization that develops its policies. The Council of Ministers is responsible for the conceptual approach and supervision of the organization. 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 organization’s policies. The indicative plan of the organization 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, composed of:
· 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 United Nations in 1972 commissioned the consulting engineers Howard Humphreys and 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 rice production, mainly from mangrove swamp rice which depended on tidal action of the estuary. 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 TransGambian 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 kilometer 130 from the mouth of the Gambia River was formulated in a attempt to satisfy both needs.

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 recognized 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 barrage decided to drop the barrage component and continue with the bridge option. The organization also 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, 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.

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. We need to understand that the river called The Gambia River is a joint resource emanating from Fouta Jallon Highlands in Guinea passing through Senegal and emptying in The Gambia.

The bridge that was built and inaugurated recently was initially an OMVG programme. The most important macroeconomic impact of the bridge, which apparently is everybody’s concern, will come from the toll benefits of the river crossing. Given the analysis of our assumptions at the time, in the 90s, the bridge will create large benefits in terms of economic efficiency, that is, less time spent waiting for the ferry, and more time spent carrying passengers and goods. With the assumed rates of traffic growth, the bridge would increase total national wealth (NPV) by many million dollars annually. Some 80-90 percent of this revenue will come from the Senegalese transport users. In case they boycott the bridge or 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.

As far as our water controlled agriculture is concerned, we are at the mercy of our riparian partners. The issue of the name of a bridge, should not matter much, no matter where it is located. We are enjoying what we are privileged to enjoy now, bridge across the joint Gambia River and year round fresh water irrigated agriculture, simply because we have considerate and tolerant upstream neighbours. This bridge could have been called “Kassa Gambie Bridge” and the country renamed the Republic of Kassa Gambie.” Let us thank Allah (SWT) that this has not happened. When things were rough for the country, was it not our tolerant neighbour who took up the challenge to free us from bondage?
Let us cultivate the spirit of give and take within our culture of tolerance and good neighbourliness. In the final analysis, such issues should be seen as the prerogative of tolerant and accommodating neighbours.

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