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ICE Case 108, Roots of Conflict Between Senegal and Mauritania,
by Bremmer Kneib, 2003



1. Abstract This case study aims to present the facts of the water dispute between Senegal and Mauritania. In 1989 there was a violent uprising between Senegal and Mauritania due to an announcement made by the Senegalese government that a project named the “Fossil Valley Rehabilitation Project” was to be implemented. Mauritanian people were threatened by the thought of reduction to their water supply and its missuse. Over 400 people died in the fighting that ensued, causing Senegal to drop the program that year. However, in June of 1999 the Senegalese government again announced plans to take up the Fossil Valley Rehabilitation Project. This announcement caused tensions between the two countries to be renewed. These tensions further escalated when Mauritania gave Senegalese nationals a fifteen day deadline to leave their country. This case will look at the reasons why the Senegalese government, even in the face of war, insisted its rehabilitation project was so vital.

2. Description

Mauritania and Senegal have been at odds for the last fourteen years over the same issue. The Senegal River, which sits at their border, has been the reason for this great conflict, that has relocated thousands of people and killed hundreds. Senegal and Mauritania were formerly colonies of France until the 1960’s. Since that time they have both tried to establish democratic governments. Mauritania has become a republic, ruled by a military, who bases their law on Islam. Senegal has developed and maintained its democratic government and several parties have blossomed with its free and honest election system. Being that these two countries are neighbors and relatively small countries, they share many of the same geographical and weather conditions. Both countries inhabit desert and semi-desert regions with the majority of their populations residing around their fertile river valleys.

The first reason the Senegal River is important to both Senegal and Mauritania is that each country's populations is based around the River Valley. Many people from both countries enjoy the agricultural careers and fresh water resources the river brings with it. Fishing is an important and stable industry in both countries. Although most of the fishing is done from the Atlantic Ocean, some of it is done in the Senegal River. Fish products are one of the largest exports for the people of Senegal and Mauritania. Many people live and raise their families off the abundance of fish in the area.

The second, and most important reason why the Senegal River is important to both countries is because it is used to irrigate the crops of farmers. In Mauritania, more than 47 percent of the country's labor force, is employed in the agricultural industry. This is an amazing percentage by any comparison; however, it is more startling since less than 1 percent of the country’s territory is arable. Mauritania’s northern region is part of the Sahara Desert, it is relatively uninhabited because it is too dry to grow crops. Mauritania is without a major river other than the Senegal River to irrigate the land. For this reason the majority of Mauritanian’s live on the ocean or in the Senegal River Valley.

Likewise, Senegal is primarily an agricultural state. The geography of Senegal is more conducive to agriculture. Geographically the country is positioned in less of a desert area then Mauritania. Senegal only contains a semi-desert region, and even that is only in the north. In the south, Senegal is rich with vegetation and forestry. Senegal’s agriculture not only benefits from its location to the Senegal River Valley but also because of its rather extensive river system throughout the country. The river system of the country is its life blood. Rivers are used to irrigate the land for farmers, while fishing is also important to their economy. Without Senegal’s river system the country would be much worse off.

The third and more obvious reason why the Senegal River is important to both Senegal and Mauritania is that it provides each country's population with fresh water. This makes the Senegal River more important to Mauritania because they lack the extensive river system Senegal enjoys. Without the access to the Senegal River, Mauritania would be without fresh water for many of its citizens, while the same does not apply for Senegal.

It can be seen that the importance of the Senegal River is skewed more toward Mauritania than Senegal. While the river is essential to each country's economy, it is altogether essential to survival in Mauritania. Without the Senegal River the people of Mauritania would be without their primary source of fresh water, while the Senegalese could turn to other river sources. Likewise, without the river Mauritania would not be arable enough to maintain the countries agriculture, an industry that employs close to 1 in every 2 working citizens. Without the Senegal River, Mauritania as a country and as a people would have to struggle, even more, for their lives. With 50% of the country living below the poverty line, a loss of water supply to Mauritania, would mean the loss of more jobs in the agriculture industry. This would be unacceptable to the Mauritanian Government.

A Look At The Economics

Water is an important resource, not only because without it humans would perish, but also to fuel some of the industries countries survive on. Some industries that count on a supply of water are fishing and agriculture. Demand for water is very stable because it is such a necessity. In some countries that have high population and a limited source of water, people become desperate and conflict can be the result. Such a situation has occurred between the people of Senegal and Mauritania. The following data will form a picture of the desperate situation caused by the demand for water between these two countries. Though it will not be discussed in this paper, this is a problem taking place throughout much of Africa and East Asia.
Senegal is a country of 9, 979, 752 people, 60% of which are employed in the agricultural sector. This is a large portion of the Senegalese economy. Their technologies and industrial infrastructure are years behind that of industrialized countries. For the most part Senegalese exports are focused on natural goods. The amount of processed or manufactured goods is about zero. Goods that are produced in the agricultural sector are numerous: peanuts, millet, corn, sorghum, rice, cotton, tomatoes, green vegetables; cattle, poultry, pigs, and fish. The processed goods Senegal does make are based on their agricultural sector, for example, ground nuts (peanuts), petroleum products, phosphates, fish, and cotton are five of the biggest exports from the country.

With only 12 percent of their 196, 190 sq km being arable land, it is extremely important that all of this land is used for agriculture. Products that are produced by this land make up almost all of the exports that leave Senegal. Exports amounted to about $959 million USD in 2000, which would sound like a lot until one realizes that imports amounted $1.3 billion during the same year. Senegal has been trading their agricultural and fishing goods for processed goods from abroad (peanuts for automobiles) a trade that does not work in their favor since land and production are so limited.

The demand for water in Senegal is very high. With more water supplies the country would be able to irrigate more land, leading to greater levels of agricultural production. If the supply of fresh water increased Senegal might be able to increase exports enough to compensate for the trend of indebtedness in recent years. As grim as the picture is in Senegal, right across the north border, in Mauritania the situation is just as bad, if not worse.

Mauritania is a country of 2, 828, 858 people, which means their demand of water for soley survival purposes is higher than in Senegal. Agriculture in Mauritania is surprisingly important to the country. Surprisingly in the sense that naturally 0% of their land is arable. Only because of irrigation are 490 of their 1, 030, 700 sq km conducive to farming. Yet, in 1999 47% of the country's people worked on farms. Exports from Mauritania are iron ore, fish and fish products, and gold totaling about $333 million USD. As is the case in Senegal, Mauritania also does not have an infrastructure to support the manufacturing of finished goods. For the most part they only produce raw materials leaving them to trade iron ore (which accounts for half of their exports) for computers and other goods. Products imported the most in 1999 were machinery and equipment, petroleum products, capital goods, foodstuffs, and other consumer goods totaling $305 million USD.

While indebtedness is not so much the issue in Mauritania as it is in Senegal, there is one extremely critical problem unique to Mauritania--very limited natural fresh water. The Senegal River is the only perennial river within Mauritania’s reach. At one point Mauritania was rich with nomadic farmers but due to recurring droughts many were forced into the cities. Mauritania does not even produce enough food on its farms to feed its people; consequently, it is unable to export much of its food products. With a more abundant source of fresh water, Mauritanians would be able to move out of cities (where 50% of the people live below the poverty line) and back to farms. Furthermore, there would be more food produced for the people to eat. Their infant mortality rate, which is 3 times that of the United State’s, could decrease; and, with a surplus of food supply to export the country could earn money to build a better supporting infrastructure for finished goods.

Knowing the importance of the Senegal River to the Mauritanians, Senegal in 1989 proposed a policy they called the, “Fossil Valley Rehabilitation Project.” The project proposed that some of the water from the Senegal River be redirected deeper into Senegal to help irrigate land for farmers. The Government of Senegal proposed to do this because they felt it would boost the production of some of their farms, increasing exports and bettering the lives of the Senegalese people.

Mauritania on the other hand was not so eager to see this policy implemented. The Senegal River is extremely important to the success of the agriculture industry and, to a lesser degree, the fishing industry in Mauritania. Being that they do not have many fresh water resources to turn to other than the Senegal River they felt a need to express their dislike for the proposed policy. Exports from Mauritania would be so greatly affected that it would put the lives of many people at risk. The government would no longer be able to fund some of the programs aimed to help the lower class, a program which is minimal to say the least, but vital for some to survive. Many Mauritanians already live impoverished lives in the southern part of the country, as slaves on their master’s farms. Without these farms many people would go without food or shelter. Another issue concerning the Mauritanian people was that the change the “Fossil Valley Rehabilitation Project” would bring to the wildlife of the area. With the Sahara Desert only a few hundred miles away there are several species of animals that migrate to the river’s shores as their source of water during extremely dry times. Removing some of the supply would put the animals’ lives in danger. These issues led to the uprising in 1989 of Mauritanians against Senegal. The uprisings ended with Senegal deciding not to move forward on the proposed policy, but only after hundreds of lives were claimed.

Roots of Slavery and Ethnic Difference in Conflict Resolution Between Senegal and Mauritania

The reason Senegal and Mauritania are so reluctant to negotiate foreign policy issues, is due to their ethnic differences. Beginning with the Arab conquest of western Africa in the eighth century, Mauritania experienced a slow but constant infiltration of Arabs and Arab influence from the north. The growing Arab presence pressed many people to move farther south into Mauritania, forcing out the black inhabitants. By the sixteenth century, most blacks had been pushed to the Senegal River. Those remaining in the north became slaves cultivating the oases. Slavery still exists in Mauritania, in fact, it is estimated that at least 100, 000 people are still held as property, and another 300, 000 freed slaves still serve their masters. Mauritania has a government that is more or less a one party system; though they have elections the process is seen by many to be severely flawed. The country continues to experience ethnic tensions between its black minority population and the dominant Arab or Maur populace.

In contrast, Senegal has a democratic multiparty system. The country has a long history of participating in peace keeping. Senegal consists of many groups of people, the majority being black Africans. Since Senegalese independence from the French in 1960, ethnic differences between Senegal and Mauritania have at times cause tension and conflict between the two countries. This was the case in 1989 when over 400 people died in an uprising along the border these countries share. The cause of the uprising was a difference of opinion the two countries’ governments had over the usage of the Senegal River.

3. Duration

1989 to 2001

4. Location

Region: Northwest Africa
Countries: Senegal and Mauritania

5. Actors


The WTO will be looking at Mauritania and Senegal for several reasons during this round of negotiations. Mauritania was a topic of interest at the 2002 WTO negotiations for the following reasons:

  • Mauritania's foreign trade remains highly concentrated, especially in terms of products; iron and fisheries products account for almost all exports.
  • Bridging the gap between bound tariff rates and those applied, while maintaining the current level of openness in the market, would enhance the predictability of Mauritania's tariff regime.
  • The export regime has also been liberalized. Mauritania does not impose any bans or quantitative restrictions on exports and does not require export licenses.
  • In the past, the Mauritanian Government pursued a food self-sufficiency policy, but the agricultural sector has now been liberalized. One of the principal features of the reform has been the development of agricultural credit, formerly reserved for rice production, and subsequently made available for other activities.
  • Fishing is one of the key sectors of the Mauritanian economy. The Government's policy in the sector is focused principally on the protection of resources, improvement of the sector's performance, and the withdrawal of the State from production and marketing activities.
  • The mining sector is considered to offer great potential for Mauritania. It is also one of the key sectors, and iron ore exports account for around 60 per cent of Mauritania's total exports.
  • The Mauritanian manufacturing sector is comparatively undeveloped. The processing of fisheries products excluded, the sector contributes about 4.2 per cent to GDP (8.4 per cent including the processing of fisheries products).
  • The tourism sector is largely open to foreign participation and, since the adoption of a new law in 1996, investment in the sector has increased.
  • The liberalization and privatization of services such as financial or insurance services was initiated at the end of the 1980s and almost all the banks have been privatized.
  • The liberalization of air transport and basic telecommunication services got under way in the early 1990s. Air Mauritanie and Mauritel were privatized in 1999 and 2001 respectively.
    From a WTO report

    These are the issues that will be discussed regarding Mauritania. As can be seen the WTO is taking a great interest in the development of this state. One major reason for this is that the narrow breadth of their exports has created a very dependent state. The WTO hopes to change this through negotiations. Senegal is a much more independent state. Its exports are diverse enough to provide some stability to their economy. They trade with many more states and are economically more sound than Mauritania. For this reason the WTO has not focused on Senegal for many years and probably will not do so in the negotiation rounds this year.

    An issue which will not be able to be overlooked, nor an issue unique to Mauritania and Senegal is that of Water Trade. The demand for water in Mauritania is very high, much higher than in neighboring Senegal, and supplies are becoming increasingly scarce. Some countries are looking into the privatization of water, that is to say the exporting of water from states where it is abundant to states that are in need of a larger supply. There are many people protesting this at the present time, (for example the IMF/WolrdBank protests in downtown Washington D.C.) because essentially the charges would be placed on dying people for this life saving water. However, when demand is as high as it is for fresh water, businesses will want to see high profits. This is a problem for poor states without water resources because people will be forced to choose between food, water, clothing, and shelter more than ever before. The ethicacy of this issue has led to many heated debates; still the matter remains unresolved.

    Another issue which will eventually be taken up by the UN, or some other actor, is slavery in Mauritania. Mauritania is a state of Caucasian people of Arab decent. They rule the government of Mauritania and have yet to pass any legislation outlawing slavery. It is because of this that slavery still takes place within the state. About 90, 000 black Africans are slaves to masters who use them either for farming or for sex, according to US State Department figures. This is an ethical issue that has left Mauritania without the financial backing of many western powers, the United States and France for example. This is an important issue of human rights that must be dealt with immediately.

    II. Environment Aspects

    Senegal’s proposal in 1989 and again in 1999 to build a dam along the Senegal River to better irrigate their country was an act of self interest. In Mauritania 490 sq km of land is capable of being farmed for food crops such as corn, wheat, oats, potatoes, and other such foods. The relationship is displayed in the following pie charts:

    The economy of Mauritania is extremely volatile. As can be seen in the second figure only a sliver of Mauritania’s land can be irrigated by the Senegal River, however, that land accounts for 25% of the State’s economy by means of agricultural production. The majority of Mauritanians (47%) work on farms, so this sector is extremely important to the survival of many people. If Senegal is allowed to build the dam they continue to propose to build, the average Mauritanian will lose his job and the country's economy would be in turmoil.

    In Mauritania life for farmers and the workers of those farms is pretty good. At least for workers who are not slaves, they make just enough money to pay for a home and food. Production levels are at full efficiency and still there is not enough to produce a surplus. Those who live and work around the Senegal River are fortunate, for at least they have some fresh water supply. A decent size of the Mauritanian population, about 15% has been forced to live without a fresh water supply for economic reasons. The only fresh water these individuals have is gathered by digging deep holes into the ground. When rain falls, the water collects in these holes and provides the only fresh water for miles. This is not the most efficient or sanitary way of collecting fresh water. It is brought up using a bucket and is usually a brown color from the mud at the bottom of the hole. Insects such as mosquitoes and flies lay larva in the water and bring bacteria and disease with them. Many people have died in the past from drinking water supplied from such sources. This occurs because the amount of water in the Senegal River is not enough to meet the demands of Mauritania.

    If Senegal were to build another dam several things would happen which would change the lives of Mauritanians. First, the countries ability to irrigate land would greatly decrease, due to a diminishing of water supply. Considering that Mauritania does not produce a surplus this would mean there would be starving people in Mauritania. Most Mauritanians fish the Senegal River, when they live too far from the Atlantic Ocean, as a source of food. It has been proven in the past that when dams are built fish supplies decrease. This has been the case when the last two dams were built along the Senegal. If the new dam were built the species of smelt (Osmerus mordax) and mullet fish (Upeneus molluscencis, Mullos surmuletus) that have been harvested from the River would be negatively effected. There are many negative effects of the damming of the Senegal, in the past:

  • The amount of food production in the basin has declined
  • The costs of irrigated perimeters have exceeded their benefits
  • Clean drinkable water is hard to find
  • Disease is increasing
  • People have been forced from their land
  • Social cohesion has suffered

    Farmers and farm workers have been negatively affected by the building of dams in the past. Their food production has gone down while their expenses have increased. This makes it tough for the 47% of the population which is employed by the agricultural sector to survive, which is why fighting occurred in 1989 and 2000 when Senegal announced its intent to build another dam.

    As for the general effects of dam building, there are negatives as well as positives. For Mauritania the negatives are much more than for Senegal. Senegalese would gain a fresh water supply from the new dam. For Mauritania they would lose rights too much of the fresh water they once used. Since the country’s fresh water supply is already less than what its optimal demand levels are many people would likely die from the lack of drinking water.

    Dams collect water behind them, which means a great deal of both Mauritanian and Senegalese land would be flooded. Most of the good farming land is by the rivers, due to centuries of mineral deposits from the rivers waters. If this land is flooded over it will be lost, and it will take centuries for nutrients to enrich the new water fronts. This will hamper food production for the already hungry people in the area.

    Deforestation would have to occur more rapidly, in what small forests Mauritania does have. The build up of water behind the dam would flood the forests and kill many of the trees. This would most likely leave many species of plant and animal without their natural habitat and would kill off many of them. The Golden Pagoda (Mimetes charysanthus) and Ethiopian Wolf (Canis simensis) are already endangered species that would be negatively effected. Deforestation already takes place for wood supplies but would increase if swamps and forests were to be flooded by dam water.

    A third general effect of damming the Senegal River would be to the fresh water fish Senegal River. Many species would be able to survive and thrive in the still waters behind the dam, however, there would be an unknown effect for the differences in how species would flourish in their changed habitat. Smelt, millet, tetra, and sucker fish would all see changes in their populations as well as food supply. It would take many years to see some balance come about in their numbers.

    Building dams has serious effects on habitats of animals, plants, and humans. Senegal would see more positives than Mauritania would from the building of a third dam, their infrastructure for distribution and their agriculture are more developed. Mauritania would most likely see more of the negative trends they have seen in the past. Senegal’s desire for another dam and the negative effects of previous dams on Mauritanians has left the two countries at odds over the issue of whether or not to build another. This has been the cause of conflict between the two countries for a decade now.

    6. Type of Environmental Problem


    7. Type of Habitat


    8. Act and Harm Sites:


    III. Conflict Aspects

    9. Type of Conflict


    10. Level of Conflict


    11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

    ABOUT 400

    IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

    12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

    Causal Diagram

    No solutions can be found because decisions are made in a world of ethnic tensions and limited resources.

    13. Level of Strategic Interest


    14. Outcome of Dispute


    V. Related Information and Sources

    15. Related ICE Cases


    16. Relevant Websites and Literature

    Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases
    CIA Senegal Data
    CIA Mauritania Data
    Renewed Tension With Mauritania
    Travel Document Systems
    Water, the Looming Source of World Conflict
    Water row in West Africa
    International Freshwater Conflict
    Copyright Anna White

    December, 2002