The Gambia Gambit

The Gambia is in some ways an unusual country, with particular problems. It is a small country in west Africa (in fact the smallest on the continental mainland of Africa), basically a long strip of land on either side of the Gambia river, completely surrounded by Senegal, save for an Atlantic Ocean front about 30-40 miles long. It is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, and by African standards is fairly heavily urbanisedi.

Someone at the Guardian seems to have decided that The Gambia is to be a showcase for its climate change alarmism just now. I think of it as The Gambia Gambit.

Taste this, it’s salty’: how rising seas are ruining the Gambia’s rice farmers

This is the title to an articleii that appeared on the Guardian website on 27th November 2021. The headline usefully summarises the gist of the article, which is very much that rice farming is suffering from increasing salinisation, which in turn is caused by rising sea-levels and reduced water flows in the River Gambia, and that it’s all the fault of climate change. The key paragraph is probably this one:

Here in Kerewan, on the north bank of the Gambia River, they are battling the climate crisis on two fronts. Rising sea levels are pushing saltwater further and further along the river, which snakes its way across the length of the low-lying country, and prolonged dry spells mean less freshwater to flush out the salinity. The result is that the water in the fields that used to produce rice is now too salty, and the [sic] much of the land – more than 30 hectares (74 acres) – has had to be abandoned. For women such as Jamba and Kassamah, that is a disaster.

According to the Guardian, “In the past 10 years, this [a shortened harvest, resulting in rice farmers having to buy rice to eat] has become the norm across the Gambia.”

It’s a very sad story, and it conveniently fits the “climate crisis” narrative. I have no doubt that rice farmers are having a hard time of it in The Gambia, and I’m perfectly prepared to accept that increasing salinisation is, at least in substantial part, behind the problems they are encountering. Unfortunately for the Guardian’s narrative, however, life is rarely that simple, and while – given its “climate crisis” agenda – it might look like a great story with which to fan the flames of alarmism, the reality is that the situation is a little more complex than the Guardian would have us believe. It’s also unfortunate for the Guardian that apparently nobody there bothers to check stories for consistency from one day to the next.

Blowing the house down: life on the frontline of extreme weather in the Gambia

This articleiii, which appeared in the Guardian on 26th November 2021, i.e. the day before the article about problematic rice harvests, is also part of the Guardian Gambia Gambit. The only problem is, it cuts across, and arguably undermines, the argument presented in the other article – rising sea-levels and falling precipitation rates. Reduced rainfall is critical to the argument, as we will see shortly. However, the “Blowing the house down” article not only fails to refer to reduced rainfall, it refers instead to floods:

The windstorm arrived in Jalambang late in the evening, when Binta Bah and her family were enjoying the evening cool outside. “But when we first heard the wind, the kids started to run and go in the house,” she says.

First they went in one room but the roof – a sheet of corrugated iron fixed only by a timber pole – flew off. They ran into another but the roof soon went there too.

As torrential rain followed the wind, the family huddled together in the ruins of their home: they didn’t have anywhere else to go….

…The windstorm and flash flooding that hit parts of the Gambia that night in July killed at least 10 people, injured dozens and affected thousands. …

…“I am 50 years old and since I was born I have never seen such winds. Now every time there is the rainy season there are heavy floods,” she says…

…Had the soil not been depleted of minerals by torrential rains and deforestation, the tomatoes from which she once made a meagre income would probably still be growing.

It seems that floods are an increasing problem over the last few years, rather than drought. This is confirmed by an articleiv which appeared on the Republika website on 28th July 2015, under the heading “Heavy rains with flash floods wreck several villages in Gambia”:

Heavy rains with flash floods have wrecked several villages in Sandu and Wuli in Gambia’s Upper River Region since Sunday night, local disaster management officials told Xinhua on Monday.

The main crossing point connecting Diabuku, Darsilameh Jindeh and Bajonkoto in Sandu is completely cut off, while a similar scenario is also happening from Demba Wandu and Diabuku to Basse….

…The heavy rains are continuously causing family displacements and destruction of farms in the region, the officials said.

More flash floods have been warned in the area this year, and officials fear that other parts of the region may also be at risk….

Significantly, though, these are not isolated events:

The Upper River Region has been plagued by floods and heavy rains in recent years.

It’s all a bit of a mystery. Is The Gambia’s “climate crisis” caused by floods or droughts? What lies behind the salinisation of the land adjoining the Gambia River? An academic study might help.

The Impacts of Saline-Water Intrusion on the Lives and Livelihoods of Gambian Rice Growing Farmersv

This is a study by Bagbohouna M’koumfida, Yaffa S and Bah A. I note in passing that the first two of the three authors are from the West African Science Service Centre on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use (WASCAL), University of the Gambia, while the third is from the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, University of the Gambia. The study was received by the Journal of Ecology and Environmental Sciences on 20th November 2017, accepted on 14th January 2018 and published a week later, so is just four years old, and is therefore reasonably up-to-date and topical.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given where two of the authors are employed, the study puts a lot of weight on climate change and rising sea-levels. In view of the real-world evidence adduced above from both the Republika and Guardian websites about recent flooding events, it is a little surprising to find the study attributing part of the problem (as does one of the Guardian articles) to reduced rainfall levels. I concede, however, that it is possible to have both increased incidences of severe flooding and an overall lower level of rainfall. If there’s less rain, but such rain as does fall occurs in short concentrated bursts, that would fit a narrative of both flood and drought. Most references to flooding in the study are to coastal or tidal flooding, though again I concede that two flooding references might fit the narrative – one to “increased extent and severity of storm flooding” and one to “occasional riverine flooding”.

Nevertheless, two things struck me about the study. The first is that despite 24 references to climate change or climate variability, they are all, so far as I can see, to speculation as to the effects of putative climate change, modelling, and so on, without any hard evidence in support of the claims. From the Abstract, for instance:

Climate change is projected to undermine agricultural production and exert more stress on the livelihood of many farmers, including in The Gambia.

It is noticed that with increased climate change, the tributaries of River Gambia will become more saline.

From the introduction:

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change precipitation will decrease in the sub-tropics and extreme events will become more frequent. In addition, sea-level rise is projected to extend areas of salinization of groundwater and estuaries, resulting in a decrease of freshwater availability for humans and ecosystems in coastal areas. Climate change predictions, including sea-level rise suggest further exacerbation of salinity problems in the future. Moreover, anticipated impacts of climate-induced sea-level rise include direct inundation (or submergence) of low-lying wetland and dry land areas, erosion of soft shores by increasing offshore loss of sediment, increasing salinity of estuaries and aquifers, raised water tables and exacerbated coastal flooding, storm intensity and storm damage.

And so on. Thus the study presupposes that climate change is causing problems, rather than proves that it does so – at least that is my reading of it. Nevertheless, it is a serious study, and honesty underlies it. The second point that caught my eye was the paragraph that follows:

Literature indicates that saline-water intrusion is a multi-casual [sic – causal] phenomenon resulting from many factors. Besides low rainfall resulting from climate variability and change which can exacerbate the natural-balanced saline-water intrusion, factors related to groundwater resource abstraction can contribute to incremental salinization of ground water and further to surface waters. It is established that water demand for pump-irrigation in The Gambia accounts for more than 70% of the total demand in water. Taking into account the increase in demand for domestic use, thanks to the population growth, the salt front is possible to move further and prolongs the saline zone for some more kilometres upstream. The dramatic increase in saline intrusion in the dry season at higher abstraction rates is self-evident in the country. Therefore, current and future human activities, especially extensive and unplanned groundwater abstraction will contribute to create depressions in the ground which will be filled by saline water from the Atlantic Ocean. If the rates of groundwater abstraction exceed the recharge capacity of aquifers (through infiltration and percolation), the interface saline-water and freshwater aquifer moves further upstream. This will possibly deteriorate the available groundwater resources and increase saline areas around coastal, delta, estuaries and in inlands.

Perhaps it simply suits me to alight on that explanation, but in a country with a rapidly increasing and urbanising population, it does seem to me that this is a rather more convincing explanation of the increasing salinisation problem, than an explanation based on modelled and putative effects of climate change, especially given that claims of reduced rainfall are at least in part countered by real evidence of increased floods.

And make no mistake, just as is the case in much of Africa, The Gambia’s population is increasingly very rapidly indeed. Around 500,000 people lived there in 1970. Today the population is estimated to be around 2.3 millionvi. Small numbers by the standards of many countries, but then it’s a small country, and that represents significant population density. An almost quintupling of the population in half a century is bound to cause problems.

Historical climate information

Given that a four-year old study and a current Guardian article both claim that rainfall is reducing in recent years and that this is climate change in action (and the implication is that it’s climate change induced by greenhouse gas emissions, since “climate change” is now universal shorthand for just that), it’s worth looking into the history of rainfall in the region to see if those claims stand up.

An interesting articlevii on the Gambia Standard website, when combined with the information above from the Republika website, suggests that in fact there were drought problems in the 1970s going in to the 1980s, but that since then the situation has reversed, and that if anything, rainfall levels have resumed. It also reinforces the idea that reducing water levels are due to human activity:

During the drought years beginning in the 1970s in The Gambia and elsewhere in the subregion, and the resultant lower flows of the river, salinity front in the estuary moved further upstream. Small-scale community Pump irrigation along the river, introduced by the Taiwanese Agricultural Technical Team in 1966, extracted water from the river, which has accentuated the movement upriver of the salinity front. One result of the change in salinity regime has been that, mangrove swamp rice production has decreased along that portion of the river which has experienced increased salt levels. This situation was presented by the Government of The Gambia at the conference of donors. The unfortunate situation further stimulated officials in The Gambia and OMVG to intensify efforts to find ways to contain the salinity from more nearly to its former position and to capture more of the river’s flow for irrigated farming, specifically rice cultivation.

The tragic irony implied by that paragraph is that water extraction to service rice-growing has caused the very salinity that is now causing problems for rice-growers.

The Britannica also has a sectionviii on The Gambia which reinforces the view that drought was a problem in the 1970s and the 1980s, but less so subsequently:

The production of peanuts has increased with the wider use of fertilizers and ox-drawn equipment and the introduction of better seeds. In order to diversify the economy, the government has encouraged the production of rice. A pilot scheme was begun in the mid-1960s to introduce plantation oil palm production, but this has had little impact on the national economy. Stock farming, always a factor in the Fulani culture, has also received government support, but factors such as insufficient animal husbandry techniques and the scarcity of suitable pasture and water have limited the size of herds. The drought years of the 1970s and ’80s seriously damaged agricultural production, particularly upriver. The country was not as hard hit as other countries in the region, however, and recovery has been steady.

Finally, a water charity websiteix suggests that droughts in the region are nothing new:

Nema village is a community of about 3,000 people located in Kiang Central District along the Trans Gambia Highway. Its inhabitants are the Mandingo tribe “Farabo’’ (traditional leather workers) who migrated from the southern Senegal Cassamance region in the late nineteenth century. According to history, they migrated in search of pasture, water, and arable farmland as Cassamance was in a drought at that time.

Sea-level rise

Well, that’s all very well, I hear the Guardian’s climate-concerned readership say, but that still leaves sea-level rise, and if sea-level rise is accelerating due to climate change, that leaves low-lying countries like The Gambia with a real problem, and surely that explains the increasing salinisation of the rice fields bordering the Gambia River.

Unfortunately I can find no convincing evidence of this either way, but the lack of evidence in favour of the assertion rather undermines it, to my way of thinking. If the case was clear, surely the Guardian (as is its wont) would have provided a link to a study or tidal gauge that proves it? Tidal gauges might answer the question. Unfortunately the nearest one I can find with a recent history is at Dakar in Senegal, not in The Gambia. Still, if sea-level rise is accelerating in The Gambia, one would expect to find evidence of something similar at Dakar, I should have thought. But we don’t. Take a look at the graph end-noted below (from the Permanent Service For Mean Sea Level website)x and see if you can find evidence of accelerating sea-rise. I can’t.

Conclusion

The Gambia Gambit has failed. Quoting climate activists who were part of the Gambian delegation (of 151 representatives – one of the larger delegations) to the COP 26 climate conference (as both Guardian articles do) doesn’t cut the mustard, in the absence of real evidence supporting the claims made.

Endnotes

i https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/gambia/overview#1

ii https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/nov/27/taste-this-its-salty-how-rising-seas-are-ruining-the-gambias-rice-farmers

iii https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/nov/26/blowing-the-house-down-life-on-the-frontline-of-extreme-weather-in-the-gambia

iv https://www.republika.co.id/berita/en/international/15/07/28/ns7dt0317-heavy-rains-with-flash-floods-wreck-several-villages-in-gambia

v https://www.rroij.com/open-access/the-impacts-of-salinewater-intrusion-on-the-lives-and-livelihoods-of-gambian-ricegrowingfarmers.php?aid=86662

vi https://tradingeconomics.com/gambia/population

vii https://standard.gm/the-gambia-river-bridge-barrage-the-undiluted-story/

viii https://www.britannica.com/place/The-Gambia/Demographic-trends

ix https://watercharity.com/book/nema-health-center-and-nursery-school-water-project-the-gambia-2/

x https://psmsl.org/data/obtaining/rlr.monthly.plots/1816_high.png

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November 28, 2021 at 02:49AM

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