Can Lake Chad be saved?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Most Africans probably sometimes just wonder what the fuss about climate change is all about. The planet is getting hotter. So what? What difference does it make to their daily lives? It has always been hot here anyway. What difference would a one to two degrees increase in the temperature make to a people mostly preoccupied with getting their daily bread. Mention the Paris Accord, and some sentiments would probably be jealousy towards the African officials who got to participate in the negotiations while relaxing in the fabled city of love, as opposed to delight at the many laudable measures towards saving the planet in the agreement. But if you start the conversation from the increasing examples of the palpable negative effects of climate change like drought, floods, famine, and so on, on the continent, everyone’s antenna would probably suddenly shoot up.

A striking example is the drying up of Lake Chad in West Africa; which has had debilitating effects on the bordering countries: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria and a few further afield like Libya, Sudan and Algeria. Erstwhile fishermen have had to make do with less or simply change their vocation. Farmers who relied on the lake for natural irrigation of their farms have also suffered ill fortune. Expectedly, as misery tends to beget more misery, criminals and terrorists have stepped in to fill the vacuum. The costs to lives and livelihoods of the more than 90 percent depletion of the Lake Chad over the past five decades is almost unimaginable. But not until the insecurity it engendered began to make life difficult in much distant lands from the banks of the lake did the authorities in the environs begin to take proper notice. Not that action to save the lake was not taken hitherto. After all, the Lake Chad Basin Commission was established in 1964, more than five decades ago. But with myriad killings from terrorist groups in Nigeria, Niger and elsewhere going on unabated, the authorities had little choice, it seems, but to begin to address not just the symptoms of growing insecurity in their domains but the root causes as well.

Most recently, the efforts towards saving Lake Chad is encapsulated in “The Abuja Declaration” adopted at the International Conference on Lake Chad in late February in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Highlights of The Abuja Declaration revolve around restoration of the lake, resolution of the security issues emanating from its drying up, and funding for the initiatives towards its restoration. The most important and perhaps the most difficult is the “Inter Basin Water Transfer” (IBWT) project for bringing the lake back to its earlier much buoyant levels. Incidentally, the $14.5 billion IBWT project was first mooted in the 1960s. Considering how little progress has been made since then speaks to the difficulty of the endeavour. The plan entails diverting water from the Congo River more than a thousand kilometres away into Chari River, which feeds Lake Chad. Transferring water from the Congo-Oubangui-Sangha Basin to the Lake Chad Basin would also have benefits for the communities in between. The feeder dam to be built in Palambo in the Central African Republic (CAR) is expected to generate at least 700MW of electricity, for instance. The dredging of the Oubangui River in the CAR would also allow ships to transport goods from what is ordinarily a landlocked country. And expectedly, irrigation, drought mitigation and desertification control would be added benefits.

It begs the question then of how the longsuffering project would be able to break the seeming jinx on it this time around. On the face of it, the right measures are being put in place. A $50 billion Lake Chad Fund under the auspices of the African Development Bank is refreshingly assuring, for instance. Still, the participating countries have strained finances. With their authorities barely able to address burgeoning infrastructural deficits inland, the Lake Chad issue may become another African project that is never lacking in passionate backers with shallow pockets. Still, one should be hopeful.

An edited version of these thoughts was published in my Forbes Africa magazine column in June 2018

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/columnist/rafiq-raji/article/stopthekillings-can-lake-chad-saved/

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