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From the Nile to the Mississippi: Why Healthy Rivers Make Healthy Communities

August 29, 2019
What I've learned about the benefits of improving soil health and water quality.

As a child growing up in the tropics of Africa, one of my favorite nursery rhymes was Nile, Niger. It went like this;

Seven rivers in Africa

Nile, Niger, Senegal, Congo

Orange and Limpopo, Zambezi

As I belted out the song on the school assembly ground more than two decades ago, there was nothing to suggest to me that I would one day be working at the Walton Family Foundation to help solve threats to river water quality and quantity.

These are issues I have come to care deeply about because of their impact on coastal minority communities – both here in the United States and in my country of birth.

In Nigeria, coastal regions that hold the bulk of Nigeria’s rich geological and human resources are sinking because of over-exploration and subsidence. Coastal residents endure human rights violations – with many forced out of their communities to make way for high-rise buildings as development accelerates.

As the captain of my graduating class in elementary school, I led a tour of Kainji Dam - a hydroelectric dam built across the river Niger in northern Nigeria. As children, we were told that the dam held promise of solving Nigeria’s perennial electricity supply problems.

I believed it then. However, existing (and planned) large dams along Africa’s rivers have done little to reduce the continent’s energy poverty. Instead, the dams have done environmental and economic damage and have left a trail of development-induced poverty in their wake. In my experience, these projects have not put any dent in the huge number of Africans currently living without access to electricity.

Like the seven rivers of Africa, whose economic and cultural relevance span multiple localities across the region, the 2,350-mile-long Mississippi River (and its tributaries) is one of the most consequential rivers in continental United States. Prized for its economic, social and environmental significance, the Mississippi is the waterway through which millions of tons of agricultural products are transported to the rest of the world.

What happens in and to the river as it flows from its origins in Minnesota, and as it gathers water from the 31 states in its basin, can have ecological and life-threatening consequences as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.

Farming activities in the Mississippi River Basin, where 92% of U.S. agricultural exports are grown, rely heavily on the river. Like the rivers in Africa, the Mississippi struggles with pollutants and contaminants (predominantly nitrogen and phosphorus) from these farming activities.

Over the years, excessive nutrient runoff has contaminated drinking water and been carried downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, where it creates hypoxic conditions. These conditions damage the fishing economies in southern states, especially Louisiana.

The Walton Family Foundation is working with farmers along the Mississippi River to implement more robust conservation practices. Through the planting of cover crops, reduced tillage and nutrient-reduction techniques, the foundation and farmers aim to improve threats to water quality in upper basin communities. At the same time, these practices improve soil health and ultimately increase yields for farmers.

Sustainable agricultural practices reduce pollutant runoff and improve water quality in the Mississippi River.

These are difficult times for many Midwestern farmers, who are already getting hit on all sides not only by floods but also trade wars. Some are understandably hesitant to adopt new agricultural practices when economic margins are so thin. There are also knowledge and informational gaps.

But changing climate and recent flooding presents an opportunity for farmers to see the benefits of these practices.

On a recent trip to Iowa, Bill Frederick (of Iowa Cover Crop) a young farmer building a small grains and cover crop business in west central Iowa, told me that the cool wet weather that delayed corn/soybeans planting was very good for cover crops and small grains (especially oats because they thrive in cool wet weather).

The author, Akin Olumoroti, talks to Iowa farmer Bill Frederick about the environmental and economic benefits of cover crops.

Other farmers who used cover crops reported being able to get their corn or soy beans planted earlier than their neighbors without cover crops because improved soil health and soil structure improves water infiltration.

On the whole, the challenge of building thriving, resilient communities along the Mississippi river basin will not be solved by a single intervention with farmers. There is much more work to be done at the municipal, state and federal government levels in finding and using the right supply chain and policy levers to discourage other “non-point” sources of contamination.

Relevant government agencies at all levels must rise to the challenge. Otherwise, agricultural states in the Midwest and coastal communities in Louisiana will face ever-increasing risk. Water pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, threatens the fishing communities that are the economic bedrock of the region.

Couple all these with sea level rise and it becomes obvious this is a humanitarian crisis waiting to happen.

In my time at the foundation, it has become abundantly clear that rivers indeed give us life and it is our responsibility to protect them.

And whether it’s the Nile or the Zambezi or especially the Mississippi, we must also work to protect the people and communities who depend on them for their livelihood.

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