The Niger River

The Niger - Learn about the great river that feeds many nations.

The mighty Niger River is a source of food, water and drainage for five nations of West Africa. For the more than 20 African tribes who rely on it, the Niger is a vital source of life. For hundreds of years the tribes used the river at various points of its course. Yet it wasn't until the Nineteenth Century that the River was traced all the way to it's source.

By the dawn of that century it had been established that the Niger originated somewhere in the Highlands of Guinea, not far from the Atlantic Coast. Explorers managed to follow the course of the river northeast through the lush tropical forests of Guinea to the land of Timbuktu. From here they found that the River wound around vast areas of savanna and the arid sand dunes of the southern Sahara. Geographers of the time speculated as to whether this was a tributary of the Nile or even if it was the Congo River.

After several attempts explorers were, in 1834, able to follow the river all the way to it's outlet to the sea. After following the river for some 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) they discovered that the Niger enters the Atlantic Ocean a relatively mere 1,700 kilometers (1,000 miles) from it's source. It was now possible to properly map the route of the River and, subsequently, open it to use by foreign merchants. From this point onwards the Niger began to take on a level of importance far exceeding it's previous limited use.

By 1878 four British companies were operating on the Niger River. Commercial Shipping Vessels were navigated far inland. The river traffic contributed to the development of a timber industry as well as oil palm and rubber plantations in Nigeria. It also allowed for the easy and cheap outlet for other exportable products as well as the importation of various goods. The way of life for the dwellers of the river country was changed forever.

With the increasing demands for cheap transportation today, focus has come on the Niger. Projects are currently underway to improve the navigability of the Niger River system. The provision of adequate river ports and places for the handling of freight are also underway.

During the Rainy Season, heavy rains in the highlands of Guinea feed the Niger. Gradually the waters swell until they flood the flatlands of Mali. These floodwaters spread out into connected streams and lagoons, from where they spill out into sodden marshes. It is this that becomes the "╦ťInland Delta.' This freshwater marshland area covers a 34 by 425 kilometer area, with the upper limit at Timbuktu. In these marshlands rice fields are plentiful. Millet and sorghum are also well represented, being generously watered from the flood waters. Areas beyond the marshlands are irrigated by carrying water in bowls made of skin. Agreements on land and water have made it an impossible to create irrigation canals. The advantage, however, is that the spread of water borne parasites are reduced.

During the flood season fish like the Nile Perch enter the marshlands to spawn. During the period from December to March the waters recede and the fattened are fish are left to flounder in the shallow waters. This makes then an easy catch for fishermen. Along the main course of the Niger, fishing is, of course, also plentiful. The Kainji Dam at New Bussa in Nigeria is an instrumental part of the fishing industry. Though built to provide a constant water supply to the massive Kainji Hydroelectric Plant that provides electricity to Nigeria and the Niger Republic, the Dam has become a major fishing ground.

The Niger River loses itself into the complex delta system in Africa, and supplies life to remote villages and town. An unexpected bonus from the river in these areas has been the supply of oil. It's yield has, in fact, made Nigeria one of the world's top ten producers of petroleum. Apart from this the raffia palm also grows in this region. This provides the locals with valuable material for building houses and for making brooms and mats. The sap from the tree also is used in the making of a local gin.

The Niger then is truly a river of waters of life that feeds and replenishes the harsh lands of West Africa. Like a ribbon winding it's way across the land it enters and nourishes some the most remote areas on this planet. And how grateful it's neighbouring inhabitants can be for that.

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