Niger: Tough questions posed by the Kandadji dam development

A new dam in Niger could generate electricity, create thousands of hectares of irrigated land and guarantee water for domestic use and fisheries. But making sure the dam benefits everyone is a complicated business. 

People from Kandadji village, which is due to be flooded, meet to discuss resettlement plans.

2700 people live in the village and hamlets of Kandadji in western Niger. They mostly get by farming millet and rice on land that their parents and grandparents have farmed for generations. Livestock rearing and fishing in the floodplains of the Niger River provide them with essential protein.

Kandadji is typical of the 240 settlements that will be flooded to create the Kandadji dam reservoir in Niger. 38,000 people are being displaced in the process, losing their houses, fields and grazing land to a dam intended to generate 565 GWh of electricity, irrigate 45,000 ha of land and control the flow of the Niger River, restoring downstream ecosystems and guaranteeing drinking water supply to the capital, Niamey.

IIED and IUCN have been working with the dam developer since 2008 through the Global Water Initiative, funded by the Howard G Buffett Foundation, to empower small holders, support the respect of their rights through secure land tenure arrangements and promote benefit sharing from the dam’s new resources and revenues.

What is ‘just’ compensation?

Niger Law requires everyone to receive ‘just’ compensation for their lost assets, but this is easier said than done. The government has decided to offer government-owned land that can be irrigated (referred to as ‘improved land’) in “like-for-like” compensation for the loss of privately-owned traditional land. While their existing land is much less productive than the improved land, it is privately owned, and they can rent, inherit, divide or simply leave it fallow if they wish.

The question is how best to create new livelihood opportunities for those affected by the dam. Resettled people will need to transform their production systems away from risk-averse, low-yielding subsistence farming into intensive cash-rich production methods on new irrigated land systems that have cost the state anything up to (US) $20,000/hectare to build. Such systems require cash for up front investments in seeds and fertiliser, as well as to pay an annual water management fee to fund the operation of pumps and the maintenance of canals. 

The new irrigation schemes are legally on public land, while people have lost private assets – the traditional land they farmed for generations, and which they could essentially do with as they pleased, including renting or dividing the land to pass on to the next generation. How many of these intrinsic rights will be applicable on the public land? And what happens if someone can’t or doesn’t pay their water fees, which are essential to maintaining the irrigation system – should they lose their land? What if people prefer to grow maize or cash crops rather than the rice the government expects? Will they be free to do so?

These are some of the issues that the Global Water Initiative and its partners are addressing at the request of the dam developer and will report back in June.

The meeting of the steering group for the project in early April showed there is still a diversity of views. Some feel that the government’s huge financial investment should create constraints for resettled smallholders who should be required to produce rice to satisfy national food security, as this is why the dam is being built. Others see resettled people as having exactly the same status as all people in Niger and undeserving of any particular special treatment.

Others see the defence of the smallholder farmer’s rights as key to long-term conflict-free development. The concern voiced is that these people will lose their traditional rights. If they become unable to pay the annual water fees and are thrown off the irrigation scheme as a result, they will be unable to support themselves and their families. Land is a major intergenerational capital asset that once lost is impossible to recover.  

Loss of cultivation rights is exactly what happened to resettled people who were given intensive irrigated plots at Sélingué Dam in Mali in the early 1980s. The shift from rain fed millet to rice cultivation proved too challenging, yields were low, revenues generated did not cover the cultivation costs and water fees, and many lost their plots in consequence. Read this publication for more detail on this and other dam-building examples in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal.

The World Bank-led planners of Kandadji Dam have spent millions of dollars on all the feasibility studies and compensation and mitigation plans. Operational safeguards have been applied, thick documents and plans scrutinized to the last comma, nine donors and nine nation states of the Niger River have agreed the plans. The first wave of around 5,000 people who inhabit the dam construction site are currently being moved, and as of 31 March 2013 some 111 out of the 749 families concerned have already received compensation and rebuilt their houses in new sites.

A study undertaken by the Global Water Initiative in December 2012 showed that those people who had been resettled felt well informed about the project and most said that their physical assets (houses, granaries, latrines etc,) had been properly compensated for, and they awaited compensation proposals for land. Some 140 households refused the compensation package offered for housing and some went to court. But independent assessment of the compensation rates showed those offers to be generous and the judge recently ruled against increasing them.

Compensation for land, however, can only begin when the legal status of the new land is clearly defined. There are some key questions to be answered. Will farmers accept the proposal to replace 1 ha of less productive traditional rice field with around 0.3 ha of land that will be intensively irrigated?

Consultations have been undertaken in fixing these rates but it is unclear who “accepted” that proposal on behalf of the affected communities and to what degree individual farmers now feel bound by it. Government experts argue that the production potential of the irrigation scheme is much higher than traditional land, so they replace the area of lost land with an area that produces an equivalent yield. Is this the “just” compensation the law demands ?  

Determining real market values for the land

Replacement value for a house is fairly easy to calculate and cost, but agricultural land is held in trust from generation to generation and only rarely ceded, so real “market” values are hard to determine.

Equally the government only knows what it costs to build new improved irrigation systems, not what the market is prepared to pay for them, as no such market exists. So agronomists calculate the area of improved land theoretically required to grow the same amount of food as on the traditional land. Communities will be offered compensation for their land over the coming months and only then will we know whether the compensation ratios offered are fully acceptable to them.

The Global Water Initiative is now focussed on drafting a legal act for each plot that will provide tenure security for resettled people on public land, codifying under modern law as many of their traditional rights as is required to ensure “just” compensation. When the land is finally allocated to people it will be the expropriating judge who will have to decide whether the amount of land offered, and the tenure terms of that agreement are indeed “just” in legal terms. Local people will be free to challenge this in court, as was the case mentioned above for financial compensation for housing.

Equally unknown is whether the irrigated land and the smallholder farmers’ productivity will indeed meet the agronomists’ predictions. To do so, farmers will have to raise 250,000-300,000 CFA ($500-$600) in cash to invest in a single hectare of intensive rice cultivation. Financial credit will be available, but resettled farmers will need to be very productive in their first few years to avoid falling into debt.

From the farmers’ perspective he or she needs to re-establish a livelihood after resettlement in order to feed and clothe his or her family. Resettlement is not an exact science, but the scale of displacement in Niger means a lot of very frustrated and impoverished people if land compensation proves insufficient, or if people can’t access and repay the financial credit they need to carry out intensive irrigation.

The Global Water Initiative is helping to ensure secure land tenure for those being resettled. But this is only one step in the transition to agricultural intensification in Niger. Nobody really knows whether the people of Kandadji will be able to make the transition to intensive farming, and whether those thick volumes of plans prove viable or not.

Read this briefing to find out more about IIED's work with the Global Water Initiative to improve the development outcomes for people affected by the construction of the Kandadji Dam.

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