Two years ago when I came for the first time to Timbuktu, I had heard about a garden in the desert that the American missionaries had made 10 km away from the city.  They irrigated the desert  sand with the underground water which was pumped by two windmills.



I went to see for myself what they had done and was stupefied. I saw an oasis where fruit, trees and vegetables of all sorts were growing.
In fact, all the vegetables sold at the market in Timbuktu came from here.


I had then asked the Americans how much the windmills costed and where they bought them, but they strongly advised me against using them because the water of that area was very sandy and the immersed part of the pump gets damaged very quickly. Then every 6 months you have to pull the pump up with all the 100 meters of piping in order to change the worn out pieces.

In fact their two windmills are not in functioning at the moment and the pumping is done with Diesel pumps.


The first one was even knocked down by the wind and is now broken.

The blades of the second one are flailing around helplessly in the wind and the pump is missing.

They brought me to a well inside the compound where they had installed a prototype of “Timbuktu’s pump of the future” (in their opinion).  It is made of rope with discs acting as washers. The rope and washers pass through a tube, pulling the water up.  “It’s all done with local materials.” says the inventor very proudly, as he starts the demonstration by turning a big crank. After 3 minutes, it had pulled up a few liters of water but he had become all red, breathless and sweaty.

I could not take any photos because his invention is still a secret but I have drawn the design below..

The Flintstone pump

His pump may have some advantages over modern mechanics, but it seems even more difficult to pull the water up from a well in this way than manually with buckets. You would have to connect this pump to an engine just like other ones to get some amount of water.

In a poor country such as Mali it is the cost of gasoline and Diesel that will move any type of pump. Here, one liter of diesel is equal to the price of a worker’s daily wage.
This Flintstone pump is made in Mali but it does not resolve the problem at all.

The wheel of a windmill is able to drive their Flintstone pump system exactly as it drives mechanical pumps. Why do they advise me against the wind mills?  I am wondering.

In reality, the problem of the sand does not even exist.  They have a problem because they have chosen to drill a hole 100 meters deep  (the missionaries are  so proud of this depth) instead of building a big diameter well 25 meters deep, equipped with a filtering column of gravel. In a well of such high outflow (11 m2 / hour) the water settles quietly, and a normal windmill pump with a maximum flow of 400 liters per hours never gets sandy water inside.
Any repair on the pump will just require someone going down into the well without pulling the piping out.

It just seems that they do not want others to imitate them, and I do not understand why.  I do not understand why there are not windmills pumping water all over the region and why the little farming that is done is situated exclusively alongside the river.As far as 20 km away from the river, the whole region of Timbuktu is sitting over an ocean of sweet water, only 15 to 20 metres deep. It is an inexhaustible reserve that renews itself continually, supplied by the Niger River.


Timbuktu Farming

Moreover, in this region, the wind blows all the year round, except for two hours in the early morning.  Why should one buy Diesel for pumping the water when the energy is free?  The Americans of the last century have built their farming economy on the windmills. Constructing and maintaining a windmill is much less complicated and expensive than constructing and maintaining a Diesel pump.  Windmills are a pre-industrial technology. The first pumping windmills were constructed in Persia 1200 years ago.


Reproduction of a Persian Windmill


What’s more, the sand of this region is such that everything that is planted in it grows, if it is watered…


Cabbages, tomatoes, mint and onions, mangos and apples…


Just behind the trees that surround the garden, on top of the photo, you can see  the dry sand where only thorns grow.

In brief, the windmill water pumps could transform Timbuktu and the whole region in a verdant oasis and restore the city with the abundance, wealth and luster of the past.  You don’t have to be a wizard to understand this concept, so I am wondering what malefic magic has prevented men from building windmills here which would raise Timbuktu out of its sands into prosperity again.


Previouse episode: Back to Timbuktu                                                       Next episode: The orchards of Timbuktu


1 reply
  1. Mike Leta says:

    Reclaiming the desert and turning it into gardens and orchards is truly a wonderful thing. I’ve seen areas in morocco that have a similar look. Water is the key. These farmers deserve tremendous respect. Maybe some of the new drip techniques for forming will help save these farmers backs. They should put up a go fund me page to help them get tubing to carry the water to their plots. The fringe of the Sahara is waiting to be reclaimed.


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