Home | Publications | Humanitarian Aid on the move | Humanitarian aid on the move #13 | For a holistic approach to problems and opportunities in North Mali

The Groupe URD Review

Methods and tools

CHS Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS)
Pictogrammme Sigmah Sigmah Software
Pictogrammme Reaching Resilience

Reaching Resilience
Pictogrammme brochure Environnement Training
Pictogrammme brochure Participation Handbook
Pictogrammme COMPAS COMPAS Method
Pictogrammme globe terrestre The Quality Mission
Pictogrammme PRECIS Humatem PRECIS Method

For a holistic approach to problems and opportunities in North Mali
François Grünewald

This article aims to analyse the challenges and difficulties involved in developing a multi-scenario approach in relation to the peace-building process in Mali, identifying the opportunities that exist in order to find solutions to certain problems currently facing North Mali . It looks at the characteristics of the human context and the agro-ecosystems in this area, the major challenges faced in 2013 and at the beginning of 2014 to consolidate the peace process and a certain number of lessons from rehabilitation programmes implemented during previous crises. It explains a number of key points to understand the current situation in North Mali and underlines the importance of an approach which includes both global understanding and well articulated propositions.

 A complex human context and hostile natural conditions

It is difficult to understand the many issues involved in North Mali if you have never immersed yourself in its arid and seemingly empty landscape. In the Sahelo-Sahelian desert, time and distance are not measured in the same way as elsewhere. Though the arrival of 4-wheel drives has partly changed the situation, it is still sometimes necessary to travel on camel back for hours or days before reaching the first neighbours. Until recently the unit of measurement was not the kilometre but the distance that had to be covered without watering livestock in pastoral areas, or between water points along the Saharan roads. Today the unit of measurement is the distance between two fuel stations even though tarmac is replaced by sand and any vehicle that is driven in an inappropriate manner gets stuck. In the desert, everything takes on different proportions.


A very restrictive agro-ecological context

The climatology in these Sahelo-Saharian and Saharan areas is characterized, on the one hand, by very low rainfall, and on the other hand, by great variations in where and when rain falls and how much falls from one year to another. These are extremely arid regions in which the random character of rainfall makes rain-fed agriculture very uncertain. The Niger river and its many branches (backwaters which flow into it or branches which fill at the annual spate) reduce the harshness of the conditions in this vast desert region and create major opportunities for agriculture: irrigated areas, the cultivation of rice during the spate, the system of Lakes in the region of Goundam (Faguibine), etc. During the dry season, this hydraulic network creates water and pastureland resources which determine the movements of herds and replenishes the region’s water table by infiltration.

Even flood-recession agricultural complexes around the temporary pools (west and south of the region of Gao), which usually fill up during the rainy season and can be cultivated when the water level drops back down, are currently in danger. The rate at which the pools fill varies significantly from year to year and is affected by the gradual filling of these clay dips by sand and the silt from wind erosion. The only agricultural systems which are more or less secure are those that can be irrigated, but in such cases the price of pumping water is very high. These irrigated systems, which have been developed in riverbank areas or close to water reserves, have had a profound effect on the relations between farmers and pastoralists, and have led to new social contracts for access to water points, to dry season pastureland and to common pastureland rights with the goal of re-using straw and harvest residues. The relations between farmers and pastoralists have been modified by this, and all the more so since métayage and agricultural wage systems have begun to appear. These have allowed the nomads, who are beginning to sedentarise due to the droughts, to be integrated into agricultural production processes, but have reversed some of the power relations between communities. The herds follow routes which run perpendicular to the river, going from the river banks towards the Haoussa (higher grounds on the left bank of the river) or the Gourma (higher grounds on the right bank) during the rainy season and coming back to the river fringe and its plains where bourgou grows during the dry season. The distribution of herds beyond the river fringe is dictated by the dispersal of wells and drilling sites, as well as that of temporary pools and other traditional water points which are scattered around the region, where there are complex property and forage land management systems.


A diverse human context made up of groups who are often antagonistic, often complementary and always involved in complex and changing internal and external relations.

The Tuareg, Arab, Bellah, Songhay, Peulh and Bozo communities are complex and internally split by power systems and relations of exploitation. They have always had ambiguous relations, with cultural antagonisms that have often been exarcerbated over time, and competition over land ownership, but but they are also mutually dependent. Such is the case, for example, regarding the exchanges between animal products and farm products, the management of local regions, the collective and appropriate use of water points in the Haoussa and the Gourma and access to water and the plains where bourgou grows in the valley of the river Niger. By significantly modifying the agro-ecological and human data of the Sahelo-Saharian and Saharan contexts that are to be found, for example, further to the east in Niger or to the west in Mali, or even towards Mauritania, the river plays a fundamental role in the human geography of the region. It shapes the relations between groups in different places and at different times: scattered across the desert and the pasturelands of the Sahel during the rainy season and gathered together around the temporary pools and riverbanks during the dry season

Trade in salt throughout the Sahara, with the caravans of the Azalaï who transport the salt from Taoudéni towards the south and come back up from Dogon and Burkina Faso with cereals, creates an economic spine which directs how exchanges in this region function. This tradition of trans-Saharan and trans-African trade obviously made supplying North Mali from Algeria and Libya easier. Thus, trucks arrive at the big livestock markets of the Haoussa full of Algerian products (food, drinks, fuels, etc.) and leave again full of livestock. This has obviously facilitated the emergence of illicit economic networks and a lot of trafficking which has taken advantage of the uncontrolled situation in these vast expanses and the complicity at various levels in countries in the area.