Al-Qaeda threat stalls West African monsoon project

Terrorist threats have caused travel bans to some African countries, hampering research Copyright: Flickr/Filskifoto

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A major international research project in Africa will lose vital data because of the suspension of fieldwork in Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, after the French government declared the area a ‘no go zone’ for its nationals.

The African Monsoon Multidisciplinary Analysis (AMMA) project, involving more than 400 scientists from 140 institutions in 30 countries, is led by French researchers in the three countries and depends on sophisticated monitoring equipment. It aims to provide scientific research on the West African monsoon and understand how it affects key issues such as food security and water availability.

But universities and research institutes in France have banned travel to these countries following the French foreign ministry’s declaration of the areas a security risk or ‘zone rouge’.

The ministry’s decision came after French citizens and Africans working for French organisations were targeted by ‘Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ — a group thought to be behind the bombing of a café in Morocco, last month.

Five French nationals and two Africans were kidnapped in Northern Niger last September, sparking initial travel restrictions. In January, two French aid workers were abducted from a restaurant in Niger’s capital Niamey and killed in an attempted rescue operation. By January all areas in the three countries were declared zone rouge and, since the death of Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden this month (2 May), this has been enforced without exceptions.

"Before there were some exceptions on the ground but there aren’t any more," Bernard Dreyfus director general for science at France’s Institute for Development Research (IRD) told SciDev.Net. "The [French] Foreign ministry says at the moment the security situation is such that there are no exceptions for researchers … At the moment all French research institutes have stopped travel to the field."

"The future outlook for this research is catastrophic. Without a complete series of data, all the work will not be usable," Dreyfus added.

Around 100–150 researchers in Africa and Europe are affected; some are having to work from neighbouring countries. And even researchers based in the region are confined to the capital cities, unable to venture out without military escort.

"The projects have not stopped but they have definitely slowed down," said Eric Servat, director of the HydroSciences Laboratory Montpellier. "We have a lot of sophisticated measuring instruments and we need to go into the field to make sure they are working well and to collect the data."

Data collection on the African monsoon began in 2002 and the analyses depend on a complete set of results. "It is important to observe the modifications in the climate over a long period," said Servat. "If we don’t have this information for a year or more then it will be difficult to carry on with the project."

The crucial period for AMMA research — the rainy season of June and July — is coming up.

The organisations involved are stepping up the training of local researchers — but there is a shortage of highly skilled researchers in that part of Africa, according to the IRD.