Actueel weer
Zondag 30 september
Do 1 okt 33°regenachtig
Za 2 okt 33°regenachtig
Zo 3 okt 33°regenachtig
Actuele waterstand
Zondag 30 september
WeersvoorspellingPeak flow level (cm)
Minimum 660
Mean 663
Maximum 666
Table of contents
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Agriculture is the dominant type of land use in much of the Upper Niger Basin and Inner Niger Delta. It is essential for the national food production in Mali and Guinea. This applies to rainfed agriculture as well as for rice cultivation through irrigation and flooding.

Types of agriculture

Terrestrial, rainfed agriculture occupies by far the largest area in the Upper Niger Basin, but for the national food production in Mali and Guinea, river-fed agriculture – via irrigation or flooding - is of great importance. The following types of agriculture can be distinguished:

  • Rainfed agriculture – The dominant type of land use – in terms of surface area and production - for growing cereals and cotton in the terrestrial part of the Upper Niger Basin (moist and dry savanna zones). Millet, Sorghum and Maize are the most important crops. Other crops are peanut, cowpea (beans) and cotton, the latter in particular in Mali. The estimated surface area for agriculture as a whole is 8 mln ha (excluding tree plantations as Mango, Cashew and Shea), based on satellite mapping (CILSS 2016, data 2013). The harvested area of cereals was 5.5 mln ha in Mali in 2016 (www.faostat.org). For Guinea these figures are 2.3 mln ha and 2.9 mln ha respectively. For Guinea, the global estimate, based on satellite images, underestimates the real surface area (see below).
  • Flood recession cultures – this type of agriculture is carried out for growing rice and other cereals (most Millet) and vegetables along the Niger and tributaries, in particular in the upper parts of the basin in Guinea where these cultures profit from the relative high rainfall. In the lower Bani there are hardly flood recession cultures but most of the upper reaches of the tributaries of the Bani are cultivated. These may also be categorised as rainfed cultures. There is little quantitative information on surface area and production. CILSS (2016) estimates the surface area of agriculture, on a country level, in shallows and recession at 79,000 ha in Guinea and 56,000 ha in Mali, both in 2013.
  • Flooding – The Inner Niger Delta is one of the last floodplains in West Africa where (mainly) rice is grown on the floodplains without management of the water level (‘submersion libre’). According to Zwarts & Kone (2005) this surface area in the delta exceeded 100.000 ha in 2003.
  • Controlled flooding and/or passive irrigation – This form of agriculture – where flood waters are used to flood the polders (‘cassiers’) along the river and the water level is managed afterwards - is practiced mainly in the Inner Niger Delta for rice growing (‘submersion contrôlée’). These polders are under direction of Opération Rix Ségou (ORS) and Opération Riz Mopti (ORM). Also some large polders along the Niger upstream Bamako and downstream the Sélingué dam are managed in this way. In the figures of the FAO and CILSS this category is included in ‘rice paddy’ and ‘irrigated agriculture’ respectively.
  • Irrigation – Small scaled irrigation for rice growing and vegetables (onions, tomatoes etc) is partly practised along the Niger and tributaries in Guinea and Mali, but flood recession is still the main type of culture in the upper parts of the basin. Also in the Inner Niger Delta small scaled irrigation becomes more important, especially in the north. Large scale irrigation zones are situated in Mali, in particular downstream Sélingué and in the irrigation zone of Office du Niger. New irrigation zones are planned near dams in development (Djenné, Fomi). According to the FAO, the harvested area of rice paddy in Mali between 2010 and 2016 ranged from 570,000 to 843,643 ha. As this is much higher than the area under irrigation (see below), this probably also includes the harvest of off-season crops.

The surface areas given by CILSS (2016) are based on satellite images with a resolution of 250 m. The allocation of land use is done on a very global level, and small patches of agriculture or narrow bands of flood recession culture are therefore omitted on this scale. The total area of flood recession cultures along the river is, therefore, probably much larger than the figures suggest. As to the FAO figures, these are not always based on official figures but for some crops based on ‘imputation technology’ (www.fao.org). Also these figures refer to the harvested area, which means that double crops may be included. On country level it is clear that the surface area of ‘river-fed’ agriculture is only marginal compared to rainfed agriculture. In terms of production this type of agriculture is, however, far from marginal, as can be illustrated with the data from the ‘Enquête Agricole de Conjoncture’ from Mali (Zwarts 2012). As an example the harvested surface area and the production of cereals for the season 2008-2009 is presented in the diagrams below. Rice covers 11% of the harvested surface area of cereals in Mali in that year, but nearly one third of the national production.

Relative harvested surface area and production of cereals in Mali, 2008-2009. Relative contribution of different crops in the surface area and production of cereals in Mali in the season 2008-2009 (data from Enquête Agricole de Conjoncture – Zwarts 2012). Note that rice covers 11% of the surface area but 28% of the national production of cereals in that season.

Irrigation zone of Office du Niger

Irrigation in the Sahel developed in the first half of the previous century, in the years 1930-1950, when attempts to grow large-scale cotton in suitable areas failed. The first irrigations for rice cultivation in the Sahel started in the irrigation zone of Office du Niger (ZON) in Mali and in the Senegal delta. From the 1980s, following the great droughts, irrigation agriculture has increased considerably to improve national food security. Nowadays, especially in Mali, an important part of the national food production is realised through irrigation agriculture with the ZON as the main producer (Keita et al. 2002).

The administrative boundaries of the ZON cover a large part of the regions of Ségou and Mopti, nearly encompassing the southern half of the Inner Niger Delta. The current production zone is largely developed around main channels in the Delta mort (Canal du Sahel, Fala de Modolo, Canal Coste-Ongoïba), an ancient tributary of the Niger, and partly situated between west of the Inner Niger Delta (Canal du Massina, Fala de Boky Wéré).

Production zone of Office du Niger Current production zone of Office du Niger.

The development and extension of the irrigated areas of Office du Niger has a long history and, even recently, the area has expanded significantly. In 2000, the cultivated surface area of the irrigated zone was 74,000 ha with a production of 320,000 tonnes rice (Zwarts et al. 2005). Since then, the irrigated cultivated zone has grown to 127.000 ha in 2015 (BRLi & BETICO 2015), thus with an average extension of 2.700 ha/year. The recent development from 1980 to 2015 is shown in the graph below.

Office du Niger, surperficie (ha) Development of the surface area under irrigation in the Irrigation zone of Office du Niger between 1980 – 2015. Data Office du Niger.

Planned extensions
Recently, the Malian government initiated the PAPAM-project (Project d’Accroissement de la Productivité Agricole au Mali) to stimulate the agricultural production in the country in order to raise food security. Within this framework the PAHA-program (Étude du Programme d’Aménagement Hydro-agricole de la zone Office du Niger, 2014-2016) was developed to elaborate the extension of the Office du Niger (ON). Already in the development plans in 1998 (Schéma Directeur de Développement) it was envisaged to expand the irrigation zone into the Inner Niger Delta.

In the current development plan, Schéma Directeur de Développement pour la Zone de l’Office du Niger (SDDZON), adopted in 2008 by the Malian ‘Conseil des Ministres’, these future plans are elaborated and became more definite (BRLi & BETICO 2016). These plans are further elaborated in the PAHA Programme, supported by the World Bank. Within the PAHA process several scenarios were developed.

In Phase IV the ‘consensual scenario’ was chosen to be elaborated (BRLi & BETICO 2016). In total and on the long term, 330.000 ha will be added to 120.000 ha already being irrigated. The new extensions will partly be situated next to the existing irrigation schemes (Kala supérieur and Kala inférieur) and partly be developed as new areas of extensions (Malybia, Méma, IND). According to the Phase IV-report the extension will encompass 185.000 ha of small producers (agriculture familiales et aux petits privés) and 145.000 ha of large perimeters including innovative irrigation methods. The extension plans are shown below on the map (see also viewer 'Hydrology and land use').

2541_118a_riverine agriculture_OdN_web6.jpg

Existing and planned extensions of the Irrigation zone of Office du Niger. Note that the extensions are planned on a middle (2025), long (2035) and very long term (2045). Source BRLi & BETICO (2016).

Crops and production
Rice is, in terms of surface area and production, by far the dominant crop in the ZON. The surface area with Sugar cane today amount to 8,000 ha, which is predominantly cultivated in Kala Superiéur. Already for years, the diversification of crops has been an important policy of Office du Niger (Keita et al. 2002). This resulted in an increase in the growing of vegetables (‘maraichage’) and legumes, today covering a significant surface area of >8,000 ha. Important crops are amongst others tomatoes, beans, onions/eschalot and potatoes.

The rice cultivation – and also of other crops - starts with planting in June-August and the harvest is in January-February. In a part of the ZON this first crop is followed by a second crop – off-season, double culture or contre saison – during the dry season. These are most vegetables. The surface area of off-season crops is limited by the availability of water. Even with the realisation of the Fomi dam and the envisaged extension, the area with a double crop will be limited to 35.000 ha (BRLi & BETICO (2016).

The available data on the production of rice in the ZON, shows that the annual production grew from 4000 ton in the 1930s to nearly 600.000 ton rice in 2015. The graphs below shows, that the production is still growing, not only because of the larger cultivated area but also through a higher yield. The yield per ha today amounts to 7 ton/ha; in the SDD-ZON an even higher efficiency is reported (up to 10 ton/ha, BRLi & BETICO 2016), but in this figure the off-season yield is probably incorporated. Since 2000 a relative high efficiency is realised. This has been made possible through an intensification of the cultivation, in particular through the application of fertilizers, advice to farmers, and a smaller size of the cultivated area per family.

ON, production de riz, ton Annual production of rice in the Irrigation zone of Office du Niger between 1980 – 2015. Data Office du Niger.

ON, yield and taille/famille (ha)Annual yield of rice in the irrigation zone of Office du Niger between 1980 – 2015 and the average area under cultivation per family. Data Office du Niger.

Rice cultivation Inner Niger Delta

Agriculture in the Inner Niger Delta is mainly based on rice cultivation, although near villages other crops may be cultivated on a small scale. Today, the Inner Niger Delta delivers a substantial part of the national rice production. The production has increased since the 1980s, due to (1) the higher flood level and more rain since 1993, (2) extension of the cultivated rice fields (area with ‘submersion libre’ but mainly irrigated land).

The map below shows the distribution of rice cultivations in the delta. In general terms rice is cultivated on the southern floodplains, along the Bani and Niger and on a local scale – although the areas still may be large – in the northern half of the delta. Here, agriculture – again most rice cultivation – is limited to the lakes (moist clay soils) and small irrigation polders in the north.

Existing and planned agriculture Inner Niger Delta

Existing and planned cultivations in the Inner Niger Delta and surrounding. Cultivation of rice on the floodplain is limited to the southern half of the delta where soils are suitable. In the northern half of the delta small scaled irrigation can be found, often as PPIV. Planned expansion of irrigation is situated in the irrigation zone of Office du Niger and around Djenné.

Systems of cultivations
In the delta in general three systems of rice cultivations can be distinguished.

Flooded – submersion libre
Clay soils in the southern half of the delta permit to grow rice on the floodplains and profit from the seasonal flooding. The surface area being cultivated by farmers has increased from 180 km2 in 1920, 645 km2 in 1935, 790 km2 in 1952, less than 1648 km2 in 1952 (IGN maps), 1590 km2 in 1987 and at least 1040 km2 in 2003. In the last decades, about 1600 km2 in the southern half of the Inner Delta (5.1% of the total floodplains) are cultivated by farmers growing rice on the floodplains. It occupies a larger area than the controlled and semi-controlled submersion system in the delta.

Farming is not easy in the Inner Delta, and rice farming especially so. Oryza glaberrima, known as riz flottant is well-adapted to grow as the water rises during the flood. Ideally, the seed should germinate before the flood arrives. Farmers have to sow before the first rains, in the hope that the rain will precede the flood, allowing rice to sprout before the flood arrives and before the water starts to rise with several cm a day. Because rice plants can grow up to 3-4 cm per day, they do not drown. The stems may attain lengths of 5 metres, but usually only 2 metres of growth suffice. After a 3-month flood period, the rice is harvested when the floods recede. Much can go wrong in such an unpredictable cycle, and annual rice production therefore varies between 50,000 and 170,000 tons.

Floodplain rice yield is low (1.0-1.5 ton/ha) when compared with that of irrigated rice fields (5,0-5,5 ton/ha), but the latter incur high costs related to investments and irrigation schemes. Farmers on the floodplains have few if any overheads. There are however may constraints, such as the variability of rainfall and floods, predation by rhizophagous fish and grain-eating birds, and the straying of animals. In years with a high flood, the floodplains are entirely flooded and retain water for a long time (8 to 10 months), while in years with a low flood the floodplains remain dry or are only flooded shortly. As shown by Zwarts & Kone (2005), farmers have displaced their rice cultivations to lower altitudes in the delta in response to periods with prolonged droughts (as in the 1980s).

Controlled flooding – submersion contrôlée
A surface area of about 680 km2 are managed as rice fields by Opération Riz Mopti and Opération Riz Ségou. Both areas lack active irrigation but employ dikes and sluices to delay flooding, and to manage the water level during deflooding. These polders are typically characterised as ‘controlled flooding’ or ‘passive irrigation’. This system with controlled flooding is applied to medium and large size perimeters (400 to 800 hectares). The level of control may differ per polder system, depending on the height of the polders and the possibilities to manage the water level.

Also this system depends on rainfall (for sowing the rice) and flooding (for the phase of growing). When the flood is not high enough, the areas remain dry. This means that rice production, as elsewhere on the floodplains, depends exclusively on local rain and the river floods; pumping occurs locally, albeit on a small scale. The yield in these areas with submersion contrôlée is not higher than on the floodplains (submersion libre) and the depression (bas fonds). In areas where the water management is optimal, higher yields may be realised (1.5 to 3.5 t / ha).


Active irrigation – maitrise totale
Active irrigation for rice cultivation in the Inner Niger Delta is mainly applied in the north, where rice growing on the floodplains is not possible. In contrast to the irrigation under gravitation in the irrigation zone of the Office du Niger, irrigation is realised through pumping. In the past decades the area with active irrigation has grown in the delta, in particular through the active development by the Programme Mali-Nord (http://delta-mali-nord.org/). The system promotes small polders (PPIV - Petit périmètre irrigué villageois) with a surface area of 20 to 50 ha approximately) suitable for the practice of transplanting and double culture. Larger PIVs (between 200 and 500 ha and even more) also with motorized pumping units are in progress (ORM area).

The active irrigation avoids all major disadvantages of the first two systems and ensures very high yields (4 to 7 t/ha), provided that all factors other than 'irrigation’ are under control. However, the use of motor pumps (GMP) has the disadvantage of being very expensive to invest and have very high recurrent operating costs (large consumption of hydrocarbons for the operation of the pumping station, depreciation and renewal of the pumps or the GMP, expensive maintenance of the irrigation network). All of this also leads to very high water charges.

Production and yields
The total rice production in the region of Mopti and Tombouctou has increased from 50,000-100,000 tonnes in the 1980s to more than 300,000 in most recent years. This increase is partly due to the better flooding and more rainfall, but for a much larger part due to a shift to cultivation with a higher yield and a further extension of the area being cultivated for rice. According to the annual Enquête Agricole de Conjoncture, the cultivated rice area in Mopti and Tombouctou amounted to 50,000-80,000 ha in the1980s, about 100.000 ha in the 1990s and 150,000-200,000 in the early 2000s.

The irrigated rice fields in the Inner Niger Delta have a more stable harvest of 40,000-60,000 tons per year. Floodplain rice yield is low (1.0-1.5 ton/ha) when compared with that of irrigated rice fields (5,0-5,5 ton/ha), but the latter incur high costs related to investments and irrigation schemes. Farmers on the floodplains have few if any overheads.

Data on the production and yields of the rice cultivations are collected on an annual basis by ORS, ORM and the Direction Régional d’Agriculture (DRA). The summarised data for ORM and DRA are presented in the table below for the period 2007-2016. It shows, that the total harvested area for ORM and DRA combined amounts to 234.556 ha in 2016, excluding the area of PPIV’s and the area under direction of ORS (estimated at 30,000 ha). The production of DRA and ORM together amounts to 440.000 tonnes in 2016, also excluding the production in the PPIV’s and ORS (estimated at 70.000 tonnes).  This clearly shows the importance of the Inner Niger Delta for rice production at present.

Annual harvested area (ha), production (ton/ha) and total production of rice in the polders under direction of Opération Riz Mopti (ORM) and the Direction Régional d'Agriculture (DRA). The data are given for three cultivation systems, i.e. active irrigation, submersion contrôlée and submersion libre. Also the rice cultivation in depressions and lakes is given, relevant to the lakes in the north. Data ORM, DRA.

DRA   2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
irrigated harvested, ha 2174 3046 3846 3461 4563 6913   13464 14019 23133
yield,ton 4721 5925 7266 6300 5931 6544   6320 6274 6381
production,ton 10263 18046 27947 21804 27089 45240   85097 87949 147598
polder (submersion controlée) harvested, ha 1029 2014 9300 12520 1070 8880   40212 22000 20506
yield,ton 1200 1834 1219 2000 647 1990   2000 1639 2429
production,ton 1235 3694 11335 25160 693 17676   80423 36056 49804
floodplain (submersion libre) harvested, ha 128308 197250 192200 209660 111110 197646   197202 195796 142874
yield,ton 754 866 1213 1433 804 1080   927 950 963
production,ton 96798 170829 233240 300393 89349 213552   182819 185986 137649
depressions / lakes (riz de bas fonds /décrue) harvested, ha 9689 12416 11015 12294 9820 14520   10607 12727 14374
yield,ton 610 1596 1443 2000 858 1241   1086 1249 1580
production,ton 5913 19813 15900 24588 8424 18022   11518 15899 22716
total harvested, ha 141200 214726 216361 238295 126590 228204 197654 261585 244635 200887
production,ton 114209 212983 288422 372655 125604 294857 289829 360058 326073 357767
OPM   2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
iriigated harvested, ha 394 383 628 1060 1405 1487     2085 2067
yield,ton 6225 6830 7000 6300 7490 7500     6386 6592
production,ton 2479 2619 4396 6678 10523 11153     13315 13626
polder (submersion controlée) harvested, ha 14627 20307 16267 17155 6955 18535     22689 26298
yield,ton 1476 2017 2500 1500 2140 2820     2463 2447
production,ton 21585 40956 40668 25732 14884 52269     55883 64351
floodplain (submersion libre) harvested, ha 7890 8036 9652 8606 1362 9380     8622 4706
yield,ton 950 957 850 992 840 1450     983 1040
production,ton 7499 7693 8204 8538 1144 13601     8475 4894
depressions / lakes (riz de bas fonds /décrue) harvested, ha 437 474 474 2273 2125 1388     697 257
yield,ton 915 965 2000 2000 1700 1500     1763 761
production,ton 400 457 948 4546 3613 2082     1229 196
total harvested, ha 23348 29200 28127 29104 11851 31093 32987   34093 33679
production,ton 31943 51825 54431 45514 30171 79105 56379   78902 86815
max. flood level Mopti 644 633 631 646 539 652 621 596 618 657

Except for active irrigation, the production and yield of the (controlled) flooding systems depends on rainfall and flooding. As explained above, the yield varies per system. The general rule is, that yield increases with the level of control of water availability, and thus with level of investments. The histogram below shows how active irrigation offers a five times higher yield than rice cultivation on the floodplains, but with much higher costs. The yield in polders with controlled flooding is a nearly twice as high as on the floodplain. The cultivations in the lakes and depressions shows intermediate results.

Average annual yield rice cultivations IND - ORM.DRAAverage annual yield in tonnes/ha (2007-2016) in four rice cultivation systems in the Inner Niger Delta. Data ORM and DRA.

The annual yield per cultivation system shows a lot of variation, which is partly due to variation in rainfall and variation in timing and height of flooding, both highly relevant to the systems without active irrigation. A comparison of available production data from the polders of ORM (with controlled flooding) with the peak flood level at Mopti, clearly shows the influence of higher floods.

rice production and water level, MoptiAnnual rice production of ORM and the corresponding peak flood at Mopti. Data ORM and DNH.

Sources and more information  

  • Bonneval, P., M. Kuper, J-P. Tonneau 2002. L’Office du Niger, grenier à riz du Mali: Succès économiques, tran - sitions culturelles et politiques de développement; Le fil de l’eau et la part des homes. La Librairie de Cirad. Montpellier Cedex.
  • BRLi & BETICO 2015a. Projet d’accroisement de la productivité agricole au Mali (PAPAM). Étude du Programme d’Aménagement Hydro-Agricole (PAHA) de la zone Office du Niger (ON). Rapport de Phase 2. Elaboration de scenarios. Août 2015.
  • BRLi & BETICO 2015b. Projet d’accroisement de la productivité agricole au Mali (PAPAM). Étude du Programme d’Aménagement Hydro-Agricole (PAHA) de la zone Office du Niger (ON). Rapport de Phase 1. Etat des lieux. Volume 2. Aménagements hydrauliques. Janvier 2015.
  • BRLi & BETICO 2016. Projet d’accroisement de la productivité agricole au Mali (PAPAM). Étude du Programme d’Aménagement Hydro-Agricole (PAHA) de la zone Office du Niger (ON). Rapport de Phase 3. Concertation et choix du scenario. Février 2016.
  • Wymenga, E, Kone, B, van der Kamp J & Zwarts L. 2002 – Delta intérieur du fleuve Niger. Écologie et gestion durable des ressources naturelles. Veenwouden: A&W/Wetlands International /Rijkswaterstaat.
  • Zwarts, L, & B. Kone 2005. Rice production in the Inner Niger Delta. In: Zwarts L, Beukering van P, Kone B, Wymenga E, editors. The Niger, a lifeline. Lelystad: RIZA/Wetlands International/IVM/A&W. p. 137-152.
  • Zwarts, L, P. van Beukering, B. Kone & E. Wymenga 2005b. The Niger, a lifeline. Lelystad: Rijkswaterstaat/IVM/Wetlands International/A&W. p .1-304.