At one time considered to be the sixth largest lake in the world, Lake Chad is said to have shrunk by a staggering 90% between 1963 and 2013.
Currently estimated at about 500 square kilometres in size, it may disappear in the next two decades if measures are not taken to forestall this disaster. The dramatic shrinking of the lake has had far-reaching consequences. The populations of the Chad Basin countries, and beyond, have traditionally relied on its waters and those of its source rivers for survival.
Following on from decades of efforts to address the ongoing environmental decline, which has led to mass migrations and wide-scale insecurity in the sub-region, the three-day, International Conference on Saving Lake Chad took place in Abuja, Nigeria in late February.
It was organised by the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), with the support of UNESCO. This included a high-level meeting of leaders of member states of the LCBC. The aim of the conference was to create global awareness of the socio-economic and environmental challenges arising from the dwindling of Lake Chad and the resulting threat to livelihoods that has seen increased insecurity; as well as to discuss ways of stopping the lake from drying up any further.
Among those who attended the conference were the President of Chad, Idris Déby; the President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou; the Central African Republic’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra; Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba and the host, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari. Cameroon was represented by Prime Minister Philémon Yang and Libya by a State Minister, Saleh Ali Abourigigha.
At the culmination of the conference, all the heads of state, alongside the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat signed the Abuja Declaration. It was described by President Buhari as a landmark document containing the principles that can be used as a yardstick for holistic development of the Chad Basin.
Principal sustainer of life
The conference highlighted the strategic importance of the lake to the economies of a number of sub-Saharan countries and also drew attention to the social challenges that the lake’s continuous drying up has caused.
Lake Chad is the principal sustainer of life in the Sahel, a semiarid band that spans the width of Africa and separates the Sahara, in the north, from the savanna in the south. It has large tracts of marshland and is a home for migratory birds. Some experts say that, by moderating the weather in the region, considered among the hottest on earth, the lake acts a bulwark to keep the encroaching Sahara desert at bay.
The lake has been a source of livelihood for over 40m people living in the Basin, feeding a vast farming, fishing and livestock network. Shared by Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, the lake is also of vital importance to countries beyond its boundaries, such as Algeria, Sudan, and Libya. These eight countries combined have an estimated population of 373.6m, with 12% of this population living around the lake.
Until the lake began to dry up rapidly, the farmers, fishermen, herdsmen and traders in the area enjoyed good standards of living as business was booming. This contributed to the stability of the sub-region.
However, as Lake Chad has shrunk, food insecurity has risen dramatically, with more than 7m people in the sub-region facing the threat of famine and half a million children suffering from malnutrition. Fishermen have been left without a means of earning a living with the depletion of fish varieties and farmers and herdsmen have struggled to make a living due to the little water left in the lake. This has led to large numbers of herdsmen migrating in search of greener pastures, resulting in conflicts.
The insurgency by the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, has also led to a catastrophic decline in agricultural production, a mainstay of the region. The insurgency has forced tens of thousands of people to cross borders in search of food and safety, creating a major humanitarian crisis. In all, the UN estimates that more than two million people have been displaced.
Political commitment required
In tune with its theme, Saving the Lake Chad to revitalise the Basin’s ecosystem for sustainable livelihood, security and development, the conference set out to develop a comprehensive programme of action to save the lake from total extinction.
Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari said that leaders of LCBC member states “must treat the issues of the Lake Chad with the urgency they deserve and show the needed political commitment towards reviving the lake.”
International co-ordination on the ground already exists especially through the military alliance formed to fight the Boko Haram insurgency. Troops from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria are fighting against the terrorists in the region in a conflict that has gone on for over eight years, and several key successes have been recorded.
President Buhari continued, “Together, let us share this mission of rescuing the Lake Chad Basin with renewed vigour, determination and international collaboration, as our inaction or delay will continue to accelerate the deteriorating standards of living of millions of our people. The time to act is now. The time to bail out the region is now. The time to show our humanity is now.”
“It is time to go beyond mere intentions,” urged Chadian President Idris Déby. Niger’s President, Mahamadou Issoufou, concurred: “The irreversible degradation of the lake leaves us with no option but to implement the decisions taken at this conference, which others consider too ambitious, but are indispensable for the survival of the lake.” President Ali Bongo of Gabon promised to establish a monitoring system for the lake and the surrounding landscape.
President Buhari’s statement drives home the importance of a coordinated effort in reversing current trends in the Basin. He reiterated that the shrinking of Lake Chad and the intensification of desertification has caused the displacement of a large population who were dependent on the lake for irrigation, farming and drinking water for their cattle.
The problem, he added, has led to clashes in Nigeria between farmers and herdsmen, who have moved further south into farmlands in search of grazing lands for their cattle.
The North-East, where Nigeria borders the lake, has become the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency as the insurgents are able to draw recruits from the desperate population, which now finds itself idle.
President Buhari stressed the need to put greater effort into the inclusion and integration of local communities and civil society groups in the design and implementation of efforts for the restoration of Lake Chad. Nigeria’s Minister of Water Resources, Engineer Suleiman Adamu, also stressed the need for the collaboration of all relevant stakeholders if Lake Chad is to be revived in a sustainable manner.
President Buhari, however, made it clear that the efforts of the member countries of the LCBC would be more productive with international support. This point is salient, as the support of international organisations has always provided a lifeline for LCBC programmes.
He particularly expressed appreciation for the efforts and immense technical support of the UN and its agencies, including FAO, UNDP, UNEP and UNESCO, for their invaluable contributions towards the Integrated Water Resources Management of the Basin and the organisation of the conference.
He also commended the African Development Bank, the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the China-Exim Bank for their support in promoting the socio-economic well-being of the member countries of the LCBC.
He also thanked the African Union, the European Union, ECOWAS and ECCAS, for their immense contributions to the sustainable development of the sub-region, while also pointing out the indebtedness of the member states to the governments of the Netherlands, Hungary, France, China, Italy, Japan, US, Canada and Britain.
UNESCO’s Director General, Audrey Azoulay, represented by her deputy, Getachew Engida, reiterated that the organisation would continue to provide support and assistance to the efforts by LCBC members.
The conference consisted of five plenary and syndicate sessions and a high-level round-table meeting, side events and an exhibition that addressed the Lake Chad issues in five sub-themes. These were: Restoration of Lake Chad: Scientific and technical innovations; Lake Chad water transfer: Prospects, challenges, and solutions; Social, environmental, cultural, and educational aspects in the current context; Security and regional cooperation aspects with a view to restoring peace in the Lake Chad Basin; and, Funding of approved options.
The recommendations endorsed by experts and resource specialists included: The installation of a monitoring programme that can generate reliable data to facilitate planning and decision making; the implementation of integrated measures such as afforestation, biotechnology, drip irrigation, etc, to minimise water evaporation from the Basin; and the Member States of the Lake Chad Basin, through the LCBC, adopting viable solutions such as Integrated Water Resources Management.
The recommendations also asked member states of the Chad Basin to establish a mechanism for the mobilisation of domestic resources to raise funds; the LCBC to upgrade the reservoir management practices to respond to problems of reservoir operations and management; member states to be encouraged to adopt climate change mitigation measures to improve the level of resilience of the environment; member states to ensure adequate governance and provide efficient policing of Lake Chad-
related water bodies; member states to adopt a biosphere reserve as a governance tool to promote peace between the diverse people of the Lake Chad Basin and to ensure inclusiveness for supporting sustainable economic activities in the Basin.
There was also consensus that provision should be made for building institutional and human capacities between the countries for decision making and negotiation; that Lake Chad Basin member states should establish an Economic Free Zone in the region to serve as a hub for trade, thereby creating jobs and alleviating poverty; that member states of the Lake Chad Basin should demonstrate high political will and commitment to save the lake from extinction; and finally, there should be regional cooperation in tackling the Lake Chad Basin problems and other water issues in Africa.
The Abuja Declaration
The conference culminated in the launch of the Abuja Declaration (see box). The document endorses the Inter Basin Water Transfer (IBWT) project, first proposed in the 1960s, which involves transferring water from the Congo-Oubangui-Sangha Basin to the Lake Chad Basin. The IBWT plan aims to divert water from the Congo River watershed, more than 1,300km away, into the Chari River that feeds Lake Chad. The $14.5bn project involves construction of a retention dam at Palambo, upstream of the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, to serve as a catchment area. Water from the catchment will be pumped into the Fafa River through a 1,350km-long feeder channel, then into the River Chari in Cameroon, and then finally to Lake Chad.
The project will also generate electricity and allow river transportation. Even with its challenges, the most pressing being finance, experts say this is the most viable option to revive the lake.
Other key objectives of the IBWT are “to generate 700MW of electricity via the Palambo Dam; to increase the navigability of the Oubangui River upstream of Bangui; to provide transportation of goods from Central Africa to the sea, opening up a landlocked region to international commerce; improve the economic integration of central African nations; re-establish fisheries and agricultural irrigation; and promote poverty alleviation through drought mitigation and control of desertification”.
A $50bn Lake Chad Fund, which would be facilitated by the African Development Bank, was also endorsed. The IBWT would be financed from this fund. Among other strategies that were put forward is a $6.5m (5.3m euro) research and conservation programme that will involve Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, whose borders meet on the lake, as well as the Central African Republic.
The political commitment and the determination to save Lake Chad have generally been accepted by all stakeholders. There have been meetings and research before this conference, but there has been nothing on the scale of the passionate commitment demonstrated by President Buhari.
The Minister of Water Resources of Nigeria, Engineer Suleiman Adamu, and the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Dr. Musa Ibrahim, both of whom served on the Local Organising Committee, reflect Nigeria’s commitment to drawing international attention to the implementation of the recently adopted plans to save Lake Chad.
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