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Saving Lake Chad

Lake Chad is 1963
Lakes Chad in 1963 (UNEP)

The Lake Chad Basin is shared by five countries. Its rivers used to feed into one of Africa’s largest lakes. However, the waterway has been drying up and is now just a fraction of its former size. Reversing that trend is the aim of the member countries of a commission created 39 years ago to manage the shared waterway.

At the World Water Forum, held in Kyoto, Japan, on 16-23 March 2003, member countries of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), made an urgent appeal for financial support for their efforts to save the lake, including a project still on the drawing board, the “Projet d’Approvisionnement du Lac Tchad”.
The project - in English ‘Lake Chad Replenishment Project’ - would entail damming the Oubangui River at Palambo in Central African Republic (CAR) and channeling some of its water through a navigable canal to Lake Chad. “It’s a large-scale project which requires heavy resources,” according to Niger’s Minister of Environmental and Hydraulic Affairs, Adamou Namata.

“Six million [US] dollars are needed for feasibility studies alone,” he told journalists at the 50th ordinary session of the LCBC’s ministerial council, held in Niamey, capital of Niger, from 27 February to 1 March 2003.

Just a shadow of its former self

The size of Lake Chad has gone from 30,000 km2 to 3,000 km2 in 40 years, according to some sources - from 25,000 km2 to less than 1,500 km2 between 1966 and 1997, say University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Michael Coe and Jonathan Foley.

"If nothing is done the lake will simply disappear," Niger’s Namata, who is also acting chairman of the LCBC, told IRIN at the Kyoto Forum. "Certain villages do not have a border with Lake Chad anymore.” N'guigmi, 1500 km east of Niamey, used to be a lakeside town up to about 20 years ago, he said. Now it is 100 km from Lake Chad’s shores.

The lake is shared by Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger which, along with CAR, make up the LCBC, whose name in French is the Commission du Bassin du Lac Tchad (CBLT). Its basin extends over 967,000 km2 and is home to about 20 million people, according to LCBC. These include 11.7 million in Nigeria, 5.0 million in Chad, 2.5 million in Cameroon, 634,000 in CAR and 193,000 in Niger.

The lake is less than seven metres deep. Its size has always fluctuated between seasons and between years, but over the past four decades it has become progressively smaller. A dryer climate and a higher demand for water for agriculture are the reasons for the decrease in its surface area, say researchers Coe and Foley, quoted in the 19th issue of World Climate News, a periodical published by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

They calculated that the lake’s size decreased by 30 percent between 1966 and 1975, with irrigation accounting for only five percent of that reduction. However, irrigation demands increased fourfold between 1983 and 1994, accounting for half of the additional decrease in the lake’s size, according to the researchers in a paper titled ‘Human and Natural Impacts on the Water Resources of the Lake Chad Basin’, published on 27 February 2001 in the American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research.

Drought, irrigation projects did the damage

According to Emmanuel Asuquo-Obot, a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) consultant in Nigeria, failed rains and drought between 1992 and 1994, the diversion of water from the River Chari to irrigation projects and the construction of dams on the Jama’are and Hadeja rivers in northeastern Nigeria are among factors that hastened the shrinking of the lake.

This, in turn, led to loss of plant and animal habitats, he wrote in ‘The Great Lake that nearly vanished’, an article published by WWF on its website. Animal populations have plummeted, and many larger mammals such as giraffes, striped hyenas, western kob, bushbuck and sitatunga are now considered extinct in the area around the lake.

Agriculture has become precarious, while surface water for fishing has decreased, prompting some fishermen to change their methods. The more adaptive ones, Asuquo-Obot said, now practice a form of “enclosure fish culture” in which canals leading to dry depressions in the lakebed are dug. Water flows into the depressions, fish move into the relatively deeper water, the canals are blocked off and the fish allowed to grow. They are later harvested, but fish diversity is reduced as the fishermen's catch is dominated by mudfish, a hardy member of the catfish family that survives in dried-up river- and lakebeds. Moreover, the average size of the fish shows that the resource is being severely exploited, the researcher said.

Irrigation’s unwanted spinoffs

While irrigation has hastened the drying up of the lake, the dropping water levels have in turn affected irrigation projects. A case in point is the Southern Chad Irrigation Project (SCIP) developed by Nigeria’s government.

Lake Chad is 2001

The outer blue line marks Lake Chad in 1963, while the area in blue shows the water remaining in 2001
Lake Chad is 2001
Friday, March 21, 2003
Nigeria offers funds for study to save Lake Chad
Lake Chad is 2001

Photo: UNEP
Lake Chad in 2001

The goal of the SCIP was to irrigate 67,000 hectares, but as water levels in the lake fell in the late 1980s, no irrigation could take place. The SCIP had an unintended spinoff. Its dried-up canals have been taken over by the Typha australis bulrush, said Asuquo-Obot, who has been doing research on the macrophytic vegetation of large lakes. Typha australis is an emergent rhyzomatous plant that can survive long spells. It happens to be a preferred nesting ground of the Quelea bird, the avian world’s equivalent to locusts.

Quelea infestation put additional pressure on the already unstable livelihood systems of the lake basin, according to Asuquo-Obot. The regular loss of rice and other grain crops to large flocks of quelea led Nigeria’s government to begin spraying the area with chemical control agents whose long-term effects on other life forms have not been determined.

No water leads to displacement and sometimes conflict

In addition to fishermen and farmers, pastoral communities have also been affected by the recession of Lake Chad since pasture has become very scarce around it. Cattle herders have been burning the sparse, coarse vegetation that is left in the hope that new plant life will sprout and provide a more palatable diet for their livestock, but there is no evidence that this works. Instead, the process seems to loosen the dry soil and make it more susceptible to erosion, Asuquo-Obot noted.

As areas dry up, farmers and cattle herders have had to move southward towards greener areas, where they end up competing for land resources with host communities. This has led to some of the conflicts between herders and farming communities reported in recent years in northeastern Nigeria, according to Mike Adewale, a Nigerian agricultural economist.

Some of the farmers forced to migrate from the Lake Chad area have gone to cities, as far south as Lagos, where they take up menial jobs or swell the ranks of the jobless, adding to the social crises there, Adewale told IRIN in Nigeria.

Repairing the land and bringing back water

One of the initiatives on which the LCBC has been concentrating seeks to reverse land and water degradation trends and regenerate the lake’s ecosystem. Its implementation, expected to cost US $ 10.6 million, is due to start in May with funds provided by the World Bank through the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

This initiative falls within the LBCB/GEF Project on the Integrated Management of Lake Chad that aims to integrate projects carried out in the Lake Chad basin and avoid duplication. According to the World Bank, it is one of three GEF projects under development in the region. A separate project in the Niger River Basin in cooperation with the Niger Basin Authority covers nine countries, including two members of the LBCB - Niger and Nigeria. A third project - in the Senegal River Basin - is being run in collaboration with the governments of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and Guinea.

The replenishment project is another major initiative to help save Lake Chad. Sources said it has already been approved by the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo, which share the River Congo, into which the Oubangui flows. The replenishment project "will be the first of its kind in Africa," Martin Gbafolo, the LCBC’s director of water resources and environment, told IRIN in Kyoto.

The LCBC has submitted requests for funds to donor countries, both directly and through the New Partnership on African Development (NEPAD). It plans to start feasibility studies soon that will examine the social, economic and environmental impact the proposed project would have. They have put together one million US dollars in counterpart funds and are waiting for donors to contribute the remaining US $5 million that the studies will require.

Electricity, jobs, better transport expected to follow

LCBC officials fear that unless their plans to save the lake are supported, the waterway is doomed.

"The important thing is to bring in more water because there is not going to be water in Lake Chad in the next thirty to forty years," Muhammad Sani Adamu, executive secretary of the LCBC, said in Kyoto.

Other expected benefits include generating about 702 megawatts of electricity from the proposed dam on the Oubangui which, along with oil produced in Chad, would contribute towards meeting the sub-region’s energy requirements.

"It will be an opportunity to rebuild the ecosystem, rehabilitate the lake, reconstitute its biodiversity and safeguard it because people will no longer see the need to cut wood for energy," a delegate from Niger said at the Forum.

The canal to be used to transfer water from the Oubangui is also expected to help facilitate the transport of goods and services within the region. And, said Adamu, “when there is enough water, irrigation will boost agricultural production, fishing as well as reforestation".

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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