Trouble Arising from Lake Chad’s Disappearance

By Chukwuma Ngwu –

Many are aware that Lake Chad is drying up and that its gradual disappearance has indirectly given rise to Boko Haram and “Fulani herdsmen”. What many don’t know is that, more than a century ago, a great writer who later became British prime minister, Winston Churchill, had predicted what is now happening to the great lake. In his book, The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan published in 1899, Churchill stated expressly:  “Altogether France has enough to occupy her in Central Africa for some time to come: and even when the long task is finished, the conquered regions are not likely to be of great value. They include the desert of the Great Sahara and wide expanses of equal profitless scrub or mash. Only one important river, the Shari, flows through them, and never reaches the sea: and even Lake Chad, into which the Shari flows, appears to be leaking through some subterranean exit, and is rapidly changing from a lake into an immense swamp.”

Churchill’s opinion on the “Great Sahara” has been proven otherwise due to the turn of events brought about by global warming/climate change. It is, however, understandable that things were very different 117 years ago when he published his book.

At present, solar energy companies (Desertec Industrial Initiative, German Utility RWE), Morocco’s Noor 1 Project, Forbes and international agencies (such as International Energy Agency) and academics (Tony Pratt, Daniel Egbe and so on) are of the view that the Great Sahara would solve the world’s energy problem, especially renewable energy utilisation.

Desertec has predicted that a square as big as 300 x 300km of solar power station could power the entire world with clean energy. Desertec hopes to generate 100GW by 2050. Forbes also estimated that Great Sahara can make enough power for all of North Africa and Europe. The Great Sahara may actually turn out to be one of the most important places on Earth.

On the issue of Lake Chad – which this write-up is about – the lake is a remnant of Mega-Chad (a former inland sea). Chad by the way means “large expanse of water”. The lake is 34ft (10.5metres) at its deepest and it is at the western part of Chad, northeastern Nigeria and equally shares borders with Niger, Libya, Sudan, Algeria, Central Africa Republic and Cameroon. In 1963, the lake covered 25,000 square kilometres of land.

Lake Chad has vegetation mainly made up of wetland grasses and more than 44 species of algae, 80 species of fish (such as the Nile Perch and Charachin) of which about 60,000-85,000 tons were caught yearly. There are bird species such as ruffs, garganey, pintails, river prinia, ducks, marbled tea, rusty lark, crested cranes and glossy ibis, and so on. Also, animals such as cheetahs, lions, red-fronted gazelles, crocodiles, patas monkey, hippopotamus and striped hyenas are found in and within the lake.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), based on a 2003 data, approximately 37.2 million people from 70 ethnic groups in eight different countries live around Lake Chad and utilise the freshwater for sustenance and for agricultural purposes such as irrigation. The vegetation and ecosystem also constitute other sources of livelihood. In Nigeria, Sokoto, Borno, Kebbi, Yobe states and so on are beneficiaries.

Today, due to shift in climate patterns such as increased hot weather and drop in rainfall (1,500mm in the southern part to less than 100mm per year in the northern parts of Algeria, Chad and Libya); major overgrazing resulting in serious deforestation and loss of vegetation (Coe and Foley, 2001); and unsustainable irrigation projects ventured into by Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, which diverted water from the Logone and Chari rivers and the lake, Lake Chad has shrunk. It is very sad to admit that Winston Churchill was right 117 years ago. According to UNEP:

*Between June 1966 and January 1973, the surface area of Lake Chad shrunk from 22,772 square kilometres to 15,400 square kilometres

*In 1982, the lake’s surface area was estimated to be about 2,276 square kilometres

*In February 1994, Meteosat images measured it at just 1,756 square kilometres

*By 2001, which is the most recent measurement data , the lake covered 1,350 square kilometres according to Scientific American.

These changes have resulted in the lack of water locally, collapsed fisheries, livestock deaths, crop failures, soil salinity, increased poverty and major impact on the floras and faunas in the region. If nothing is done to put a stop to the disappearance of Lake Chad, the following situations are imminent:

*Increase in insecurity amongst the settlers and nearby rural and urban areas due to shortfall in food, water and other basic resources

*Migration of birds and animals

*Migration of the settlers/inhabitants

*Famine leading to hunger and eventually death

*Loss of biodiversity, and

*Extinction of rare faunas and floras (the oryx, addax and the black rhinoceros have almost disappeared – Global Water Partnership, 2013).

According to UNEP, “as drought and expansion of the Sahel continued, so also has the southward migration, mainly of people searching for fundamentals of survival for themselves and for their domesticated animals”.

It is public knowledge that, over the years, Nigeria has been experiencing increased immigration from North African countries – it is much more now that the Lake Chad region is also experiencing insecurity. During my Law School days in Bwari, FCT, Nigeria, I had a Nigerien as a gateman. It is not only humans that have immigrated; they have come with their domesticated animals also. There is high probability that some of the cattle herdsmen causing menace in Nigeria are immigrants. Imagine one-third or half of 37.2 million people migrating southwards to Nigeria and Cameroon.

However, it is worth mentioning that the eight affected countries have been holding summits in an effort to put up workable remediation, mitigation and adaptation strategies through projects such as sinking boreholes in the region and lots more. However, the Nigerian government needs to strengthen the northern borders to ensure that immigration from other countries is completely checked as a way to contain the already affected Nigerians and mitigate the impending impacts.

Let us hope they bring a lasting solution because, if they do not, “winter is coming” – a popular expression in the “Game of Thrones” series. But, in this situation, I wonder what is coming…#climatechangeisreal.

  • Ngwu holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Law and Policy from the University of Kent, Canterbury, United Kingdom

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