On the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert in north-central Africa, Lake Chad extends over the territories of Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. It is the largest wetland in the Sahel region and the second largest in all of Africa. And it provides water to over 30 million people.
But due to irrigation usage, global warming, reduced rainfall, damming of inlet rivers and other human activity, the lake is shrinking; and could all but disappear in as few as two decades. Fishing and utilization of the lake for irrigation of crops is becoming increasingly difficult. Forty years ago the lake was 25,000 sq miles, roughly the size of Maryland, and today it is merely 310 sq miles. This has given the UN Food and Agricultural Organization more than enough reason to label it an ecological disaster.
If a radical change in water management isn’t implemented to help remedy this colossal problem, ecological disaster could quickly turn into a humanitarian nightmare.
Competing for Water
Lake Chad has a long, rich and important place in history. The early Holocene years, between 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, brought much rainfall to the lake creating a “Megachad” that would overflow into the Atlantic. It had an expansion rate of up to 20 times greater than it did a few decades ago.
The area around the lake has been inhabited since at least 500 B.C. Berbers and Arabs began arriving to the area as early as the 8th century and numerous rival kingdoms including the Kanem-Bornu and Baguirmi have flourished. In more recent history, the Sudanese conqueror Rabih al-Zubayr ruled the region in the late 1800’s. Much of the last century has been tumultuous, with colonization and coups occurring frequently. Through it all, Lake Chad has provided the people of the region a constant and abundant source of water. It has also provided them with access to a region of great ecological diversity and beauty. Today, numerous factors greatly threaten the size and quality of the lake.
The most significant factor is the use of the lake for irrigation of crops. Until the late 1970’s, irrigation had limited impact on the water level of the lake. But ever since, water diverted from the lake for use on crops has quadrupled due to decline in precipitation. Irrigation has radically reduced the surface of Lake Chad and inflow of water from other primary sources is down nearly 80 percent. The shallow lake is now extremely sensitive to changes in climate. A further reduction of precipitation could easily put the lake and its ecosystem in jeopardy. Add increased human activity around the lake into the mix and you have a recipe for even greater disaster.
The competition for the little water that is left, coupled with the fact that the lake is rapidly shrinking, is leaving an opening for a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.
With fish production experiencing a 60 percent decline in the last decade, degraded pasturelands and an increasing shortage of biodiversity, the ecological disaster of Lake Chad is on the verge of turning into a humanitarian disaster.
The demand for fresh water in the region and the limited supply provided by Lake Chad could put human populations at significant risk. The lack of a sizable catch of large fish is also a major problem for people who have depended on fish from the lake their entire lives. One fisherman, pointing to a net full of miniscule fish says, “I remember the days when we would go out early in the morning and catch fish the size of a small man. Today, we get next to nothing. We can’t live on this.” Another huge problem is the lack of biodiversity and the loss of pasturelands, animal and plant life.
Locals used to farm extensively in the region, utilizing the rich soil and abundant water provided by the lake to grow crops. Those days are pretty much gone due to the drying of the region. Hunting wild animals for survival was also common practice, but now even the animals are dying off. Things have gotten so bad that now there are arguments and fights over fishing and hunting territories. Fishermen’s nets often get seized and they have to pay just to get them back. Arguments often lead to violence – people have even gotten killed over such issues. If the lake dries up completely, there is no doubt mass migrations will take place leading to even further conflicts and violence.
Ignoring this immense problem could result in the displacement, starvation and death of many millions of people.
Lake Chad was once one of the greatest and most dynamic wetlands in the world; today it pales in comparison. But despite its ecological downfall, it is still very much worth saving.
Currently, feasibility studies are in the works to determine the best course of action to stop the lake from receding into a lake bed. A plan to channel in water from another body of water has been discussed, but lack of funding has been a significant roadblock. So has a lack of policy and technical work on the problem. In order to be truly successful at taking on such an ambitious project as diverting water, some form of public-private partnership would be needed.
As with many of the problems Africa is facing, the consequences of inaction at Lake Chad are dire. The livelihoods of millions of people are at stake and the window of opportunity to provide them with safety and support is quickly running out.