Nine West African countries have agreed an $8bn, 20-year plan to save Africa’s third-largest river, the Niger.

The programme, which aims to prevent the river silting up completely, was approved at a meeting in Niamey, Niger.

Since the 1980s, there has been a 55% fall in the river’s flow, due mainly to climate change, industrial waste and problems caused by population growth.

The meeting was told fish stocks had declined and that navigation for river vessels was increasingly difficult.

The 4,200km (2,600-mile) long Niger is Africa’s third longest river, after the Nile and the Congo, and 110m people live in the river’s basin.

Covered by sandbanks

A Nigerian fisherman told the BBC that the river had become shallower, making it harder to catch fish.

“The flow of the river is not like before,” said David Seitimibowei in the Niger Delta.

“Now, most of the place is covered by sandbanks.”

Ashok Subramanian, a water expert from the World Bank, told the BBC that the river could dry up.

“If there is no concerted action, there is that risk,” he told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.

But he said the countries which share the river were working together to save it, through the Niger Basin Authority (ABN).

He said this institution provided a forum for them to decide how to share out the water and resolve any conflicts over its use.

The BBC’s Idy Barou in the Niger capital, Niamey, says the plan includes building dams, hydro-electric plants, transport and fishing.

Just 19% of the required money has been raised so far, the ABN’s Seyni Seydou told the AFP news agency.

However, he said he hoped the rest of the money would be raised at a donors’ conference to be held in June.

The ABN will then aim to find the 1.4 billion euros which would pay for the first phase, from 2008-2012.

Source: BBC