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Friday, December 8, 2023

Trans-Gambia bridge project and remaining political ecology issues of Gambia River Basin development

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By Abdoukarim Sanneh,
London, United Kingdom

Adaptation to Climate Change in the Gambia River Basin-Socio-Economic Analysis was the theme of my postgraduate research at University of East Anglia, School of International Development. The former APRC Government levy on Senegalese transport the border closures and lack of political will for decades were key political ecology complexes that impact on the development of Gambia River including building of Trans-Gambia Bridge in Bambatenda that will enhance movement of people economic development and wider SeneGambia integration. The aim of the article is to deconstruct how key political ecology issues undermine and retard progress for Gambia River Basin Development, including Trans-Gambia Bridge Project and what position should the present and future governments of the Gambia take in its part of the bargaining in the interest of environmental diplomacy, to reactivate and strengthen regional economic integration and development cooperation.

Infrastructural development of a bridge in Bambatenda is one of the key hydro-political complexes between Gambia and Senegal. With the bridge currently under construction closer cooperation between two countries with historical commons and cultural affinities. We cannot continue the business of colonial implanted nationalism and the politics of narrow-minded nationalism if we want to politically and economically integrate the two countries. For three decades, Trans-Gambia Bridge Project and Hydro-power development of Gambia River Basin have been constrained by both ecological and economic interpretation and nationalist framing of winners and losers. Failure to realise that trans-boundary nature of some of our environment problems requires utilising the ecosystem services of the river Gambia – a unique natural resource endowment of our country to improve the wellbeing of our people.

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With weaker and insecure governments in our region, coupled with lack of space for democratic participation and competition between governments are among the key factors resulting to failures in building sustainable and lasting partnership to confront our shared trans-boundary development issues which continue to further increase development crisis.

It is only through political and economically empowerment that we can build the resilience and adaptive capacity of our people in the advent of shock. Financing the economics of climate change is very expensive, our governments have to take the lead building regional, and international partnerships and cooperation as stipulated in Millennium development challenge and now sustainable development goals, among which includes the goals such as environmental sustainability and global partnership. One fundamental example of that partnership at regional level and a driver to our development challenges of environmental sustainability is Organisation for the Management of Gambia River Basin (OMVG). This is an institution created to champion environment development cooperation for sustainable management of the Gambia River Basin. But lack of political commitment has turned it to a docile and ineffective institution, thus lack developmentalist state vision.

The Trans-Gambia Bridge Project and Hydro-electric development of Gambia River Basin has been a developmentalist state vision of Gambia, Senegal and other OMVG member states. For many years, this vision was constrained by economic nationalism of who are the gainers and losers. The development of Gambia River, since after Independence from United Kingdom have been a policy vision of Gambia Government. The trans-boundary nature of the Basin, which geographically, is shared by four countries, requires an international agreement between Basin countries for its development. It is that vision that led to the genesis of OMVG in 1978. Positive steps were taken for the formation of this organisation and its mission is for integrated water resource management and development of the Gambia River, including hydro-electric-power development to meet the region’s chronic shortage of energy and Agricultural development through Irrigation for food production.

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But political bickering at national and regional level has translated to reluctant donor financing to its regional development plans. Our new generation of post-independent leaders failed to realise that our regional economy is contracting in the face of global environmental and climatic change.

In 1970s the government of the Gambia has requested help from the United Kingdom’s 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. Earlier study financed by the United Kingdom was the land resources study of the Gambia. 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 hydroelectric power, and the second dam site is in Kekreti for irrigation development. In 1985, with Financial and Technical Assistance from USAID, another study was conducted by the University of Michigan on the terrestrial ecology of the Basin, Socio economic and Health related impacts in the event of dam construction. This study has identified hydro-power potential of the Basin and the dam sites at Sambangalou and Kekreti in Senegal.

On the issue of the bridge barrage in the Gambia, the 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.

Since the USAID study was conducted in 1985, it does look into issues such as river flow, salt-water intrusion, sea level rise and decadal change of trend and pattern of temperature and rainfall in the region. With the current trend of climatic change and sea level rise, upstream flow of salt water further along the River Gambia is a threat to Gambia’s national policy vision of food self sufficiency and livelihood strategies. One fundamental challenge to our national development paradigms for adaptation to climate change should be to contain the flow of salt water in the lower stream of the Gambia River and utilise middle and upper stream for agricultural production. The solution lies on hydrological development, such as the dam to change the natural flow of the river or a bridge barrage project. Significant runoff that flows into Basin comes from Senegal, and observed climatic data for both Gambia and Senegal from Climate Research Unit (CRU TS) at University of Anglia shows a trend of decrease (spatial and temporal variation).

There are lots of issues surrounding hydro-political complexes, which citizens of both countries need to know for the interest of democracy and freedom of information.
Energy and food security is imperative to development of our region. For years, economic investment and human development in the region cannot take sustainable footings due to energy shortage. Our major dependent on fuel power generators for power supply is constraining potential economic expansion into lighter manufacturing sector and reduction of the size our economic growth and GDP per capita. To make our democracy responsive to our development challenges which have to address our chronic energy problem.


There is a greater demand for alternative of source energy that means development of hydropower potential of Gambia River. Multinational conservation groups such as International Union of Nature Conservation with their green neoliberal agenda are also very critical with a big dam project facing Niokola Koba National Park, located at the edge of Gambia River, which is now a UNESCO world heritage. But a democratic and transparent environmental impact assessment with stakeholders and community participation will address critical areas of nature conservation with Environmental Management statement; action planning and well define corporate social responsibility from National Utility Companies of Member States. 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 needs 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, it can rapidly deploy military troops and easy movement of people and goods.

For years, Senegal continued to pressure the Gambia government for the Trans-Gambia Bridge Project while showing no commitment for the hydropower component of the OMVG regional agreement between the member states. Another 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. According to investigative research conducted by DeGeorges and Reily (2007), the 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 imperial nature and the rise of green hegemony.

In 2006, another study commissioned by OMVG with finance from African Development identified dam sites in Sambangalou in Senegal and Keléta in Guinea. 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. Now that the government of Gambia had yielded to the pressure from Senegal and agreed to sign bridge development project, what are we to gain and lose? We should take a nationalist stand as an independent and sovereign state since we have seen the attitude of successive Senegalese governments.


More should be done to inform our citizens about the issues. A year ago, Senegalese transport union were boycotting the ferry crossing in protest for the new tax levy and that should not be a deal for the construction of the bridge project. Our government should also be aware that Bambatenda ferry crossing is an important revenue arm of our small economic and so requires cost and benefit analysis. In building a bridge, that revenue-generating venue should be maintained after successful completion of the project. The government of the Gambia should introduce a form of toll charges, if the bridge project is financed through a development loan from donor institutions. The structure of the bridge should also be put into consideration. River Transport is another section of Gambia economy that could open to future private sector investment to reduce to the pressure on our Road transportation. The bridge in Bambatenda ferry crossing should be build in such a way that will not prevent or constraint or serve as a barrier for future river transportation.


Finally, there is a need for both member states of OMVG to realise the complexity of environmental, social and political context of the Gambia River Basin. Senegal in particular, should show leadership and stop behaving like sole gainers, while others as loser. For Gambia under the leadership of Yaya Jammeh should also stop his paranoid erratic behaviour and reduce his irrational securitisation of unjustified border closures. 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. With looming threat of climate change, there is a need to diversify our energy and food supply. Gambia should not disregard and abandon earlier studies of the bridge barrage project, transboundary hydro power development and other ECOWAS sub-regional agreements, given that the threat to environmental and climatic change will continue to constraint to our national and regional economic development. 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.

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