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To save Lake Chad

By Editorial board
19 August 2015   |   3:00 am
THE directive by President Muhammadu Buhari to the Federal Ministry of Environment (FMoE) the other day to revert to a 1920 report on the Lake Chad for solutions to the water body’s endemic problems underscores the worry over the lake’s near extinction, with possible catastrophic human and ecological outcomes. 


THE directive by President Muhammadu Buhari to the Federal Ministry of Environment (FMoE) the other day to revert to a 1920 report on the Lake Chad for solutions to the water body’s endemic problems underscores the worry over the lake’s near extinction, with possible catastrophic human and ecological outcomes.

Something urgent certainly needs to be done to salvage what remains of the water body to save the lives of the over 20 million riparian populations in the surrounding countries as well as stop the threat to ecological biodiversity.

Though belated, considering the extent of depletion and degradation already evident, the recourse to the 95-year old report, itself an incredible work of foresight, reflects a dramatic confidence in the document and the fact that diligent implementation of its recommendations before now could have saved the now severely depleted lake.

That the report is being exhumed now, while supposed efforts over the decades by different local and international concerned stakeholders to salvage the Lake had been without a mention of it, speaks volumes about the scourge of poor governance on the African continent.

Lake Chad, according to the Federal Ministry of Environment, is believed to have receded from about 33,000 km2 to about 300 km2 within two decades. As a matter of fact, records indicate that Chad, once Africa’s fourth largest lake, is in such a very bad shape that it is now classified more as a pond than a lake.

Over the last four decades, it has fallen victim of increasing variability and irregularity in rainfall, dry spell, excessive evaporation and sandstorm that have impacted negatively on the water body. With aggressive and largely unregulated utilization of the Lake’s water resources by the riparian communities for farming, fishing and animal husbandry, it is inexorably facing what is known as “tragedy of the commons”, a phenomenon whereby a commonly owned resource is overused and abused to the point of irreversible depletion and degradation.

Interestingly, an attempt to prevent such ecological disaster as is being witnessed now from occurring led to the 1920 assessment and report with recommendations on how to use and manage the water for sustainability. Unfortunately, the report was not implemented by the careless governments in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon which jointly share the Lake as all watched the tragedy unfolds over the years.

With 21 per cent of the Lake’s original conventional basin within Nigeria’s territory, the remaining 79 per cent is shared by the other three riparian states, with Chad having 42 per cent, Niger 28 per cent and Cameroon 9 per cent. Nigeria’s side of the Lake has indeed virtually dried up leaving only sand dunes and marsh. There is, therefore, a need to review all existing management actions that have been proposed over the years to revive Lake Chad.

In this regard, the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), established in 1964 by the four principal basin countries should come into the picture. LCBC is the oldest and most visible body widely recognised as being responsible for the management of the reservoir. This body, which has also admitted Central African Republic (CAR) and Sudan into its fold, is there to regulate and control the utilisation of the water and promote the settlement of disputes and regional cooperation. Though the Commission has been active to some degree, its activities have not yielded any appreciable result as far as the Lake’s replenishment is concerned.

The Commission should rise to the challenge and implement its strategic Master Plan adopted in 1998 for multi-donor approach in project implementation. The Commission has been working in collaboration with relevant multilateral agencies such as the World Bank (through the Global Environment Facility – GEF) and the European Union through its Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) programme which gives it technical and financial muscle to implement programmes. Its most urgent task now is to replenish the lake to prevent a massive ecological disaster and too many refugees to cater for should Chad dry up.

The poor economic fortune of the member-states of the Commission has made it difficult for the countries to meet their financial obligations. Besides, the war in Northeastern Nigeria around the Lake region has frustrated efforts and diverted attention from the Lake. Now, Nigeria should act as a rallying point for the battle to save Lake Chad. Interestingly, the Commission has reportedly earmarked the sum of N13 billion to tackle some of the problems affecting the lake’s region, especially the insurgency. There must be stability in the area before any project can be successfully implemented.

The most ambitious solution ever proposed for Lake Chad is the inter-basin water transfer initiative by the member-states of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, which involves transferring water from the Oubangui River in CAR and channeling it through a navigable canal of about 150 km to Lake Chad. Conceived in 2002 in Yaoundé, Cameroon, its goal is to restore the lake’s water and ecosystem.

Of course, replenishing the lake’s water is the most critical solution and such water transfer is one option which the Commission should explore. Apart from this, it may also be necessary to carry out an in-depth geological investigation to explore productive aquifers within and around the lake from which water could be sourced. The cost may be high, but that would serve as an alternative to the inter-basin water transfer option, which has even become contentious given the drought currently threatening the countries within the Oubangui Basin.

Lake Chad is a closed drainage basin that retains inflow of water but allows no outflow to other bodies such as rivers or oceans. The only outlet of water accruing into the lake drainage basin is by evaporation or underground seepage.  Its waters seep into the Soro and Bodele depressions. The Lake is believed to be a remnant of the ancient sea, Mega-Chad, that shrunk in size with changes in climate over a long period of 13,000 years.

The fate of Lake Chad is a clear evidence of what happens when man refuses to regulate natural resources’ exploitation. Today, a large part of Nigeria’s ecosystem is being abused and degraded right from the Niger Delta to the northern fringes bordering the Sahara Desert. The evidence is there, yet little is being done to stem this assault on nature and indeed on life.

Again, the same negligence that brought Lake Chad to its current state is already taking its toll on the River Niger. A view from the Benue and Niger Bridges at Makurdi and Onitsha now shows huge sand bars and swamps that have silted sections of the river. This is the time to dredge the River Niger to sustain it. Nigeria should begin to take seriously the management of its water resources in order for the nation to have a future.