Northern Mali covers 827 000 km², approximately 66% of the total national territory. With a population of 1.3 million in 2010, the region is home to about 8.6% of the country’s total population, down from 17% in 1960 and 11.5% in 1990. Still, the population is not shrinking; rather population growth in the north is slower than in Mali’s overall population growth rate. Between 1960 and 2010, Mali’s population grew 3.2% while the northern population grew 1.9%. It is therefore a region of net emigration, linked as much to the harshness of the environment as to the chronic security problems.
The population is highly rural, with just 8% of inhabitants living in agglomerations of more than 10 000 residents. The two main cities – Gao (population 50 000) and Timbuktu (30 000) – are situated in the south of the region along the Niger River, as are some towns ranging in population from a few thousand to ten thousand: Niafounké, Diré, Gourdam, Bourem and Ansongo. Three hundred kilometres away from Gao, there are two similar towns: Kidal in the northeast, Ménaka in the east. Close to the “towns” and water supply, most of the rural population lives in this narrow valley, bordered by desert. The area north of Timbuktu and Kidal receives no more than 100 millimetres of rain each year, and the average annual temperature is above 30 degrees (The world record is 34 degrees, held by northern Ethiopia). In 500 000 km2, there are only a handful of small villages: Tessalit, Araouane, Taoudeni, separated by hundreds of kilometres of sand or rock desert, including the dreadful Tanezrouft. To the east, the Adrar des Ifoghas massif, roughly the size of Guinea, is a little less hostile; the moderately elevated but rugged terrain receives slightly more rainfall (150mm), nourishing wadis and pastures in July and August.
Transport infrastructure is reduced to the bare minimum beyond the main highway, the “Nationale 16”, which links Mopti to Gao in the far south of the region. Construction is under way on another road, which will connect Timbuktu to Bamako via Niono. If northern Mali were to become a state, it would be twice the size of Germany but with 1.6 residents per square kilometre. It would share with Mongolia the title of the country with the lowest population density in the world.
The cumulative GDP of the regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal today can be estimated at less than USD 1 billion (PPP); a figure that would see northern Mali snatch the position of West Africa’s smallest economy from Guinea-Bissau (1.9 billion in 2011).
Some dream of seeing oil and gas flow from the cross-border sedimentary Taoudeni Basin. For now, the promises repeated for many years have not been fulfilled.
Livestock is present throughout the region and contributes to the livelihood of a large part of the population. Far from the traditional imagery, it is mostly sedentary, although the practice of season transhumance remains very common. Livestock raising is concentrated in the south of the region, close to the valley. At the end of the 1990s, the National Statistics Institute of Mali counted only 60 000 people practicing pure nomadism in the vast northern region. The rest of the agricultural economy, as with the population, is concentrated in the valley.
In recent years, rice production has been booming. By themselves alone, the irrigated perimeters of the Koriomé Daye and Amadia plains, south of Timbuktu, produced 360 000 tonnes of paddy in 2010, about 20% of Mali’s total production. The nearby region of Diré-Goudam produces 80% of the country’s wheat, even if the production is rather marginal (20 000 tonnes). Further into the valley, there are also numerous irrigated village perimeters, of which more than half are equipped with pumps, employ proper inputs and regularly obtain yields of four to six tonnes per hectare. However, the region’s potential is yet to be fully realised. The northern part of the Niger Valley could become a major agricultural centre in Mali and in West Africa. This entire economy is threatened today. Stocks of seeds and inputs are empty. Pumps are not working for lack of fuel.
Tourism used to be one of the most promising sectors. In Mali, the regions most appreciated by tourists are the Niger Valley from Ségou to Gao, the inner Niger Delta, Dogon Country and the deserts of the north. They are all located in the red zone.
In 2004, jobs directly and indirectly linked to tourism were estimated at 13 000 and without a doubt contributed to the livelihoods of more than 60 000 people, not to mention the informal sector. Between 2004 and 2010, Mali’s tourism revenues doubled. In 2010, tourists spent 240 million euros in Mali. Their numbers grew from 40 000 in 1995 to 170 000 in 2008. These figures were expected to double over the next 10 years.
The end of tourism in the north marks the end of tourism in Mali. In Bamako, hotels and restaurants are empty, and the tourist craft industry is collapsing. It is therefore a considerable loss of income and jobs for the entire country. It goes to show that the north is not an economic burden as is sometimes said, but rather the lungs of an industry whose growth prospects are dizzying, provided that peace is restored. Reaching a figure of one million annual visitors is not – was not - a chimera.