Salvaging The Lake Chad

Efforts are on to start the inter-basin water transfer from the Congo Basin into the Lake Chad Basin, and the construction of canals to boost fishing activities for over 20 million communities around the lake in the next decade. But will the plan succeed?

As late as the 19th century some European explorers to the Lake Chad said the shorelines of the Lake Chad are only a stone’s throw from Baga town in Kukawa local government area and Wulgo in Marte local government area of Borno State. These lakeshore communities were important fish markets. But within the last 40 years, the lake has gradually receded to a very long distance away from the mentioned areas. In place of the water, clusters of communities have sprouted as they follow the shrinking waters.

Another account has it that during the Nigerian Civil War, before one could see the banks of the lake from the other end, one must travel a long distance by canoes. Today, at the shores of Dam village, a popular marine transport terminal at Doran Baga ward in Kukawa local government area, people can communicate across the narrow water body between them. “This is one of the worst disasters I have ever seen,” said a 74-year-old man, referring to the area covered by the lake when he first came to the area over 40 years ago compared with what obtains today. The shores have moved from Baga to Doran Baga, 20 kilometers apart, and later to more than 10 kilometers from Doran Baga to where is now called Dam village.

The 74-year-old Alhaji Baba Garba, married to three wives and father of 10 with many grand children at Doran Baga, a multi-ethnic settlement for fishermen, fish processors and fish dealers, said, “During the good old days, on one single outing, our small group of fisher men would make a catch of about 30 to 40 large baskets of big fishes. But gradually it became 20, 10 and five baskets over the years. Now, you have to travel long distance along the lake by canoe, motorcycle and on foot to get fish in the various pools of waters along the lake.”

Garba said his only fear is the fate of his children and grand children when the lake disappears completely. “The local and state governments think that most of the communities around the lake migrated from distant places to fish there and as such schools, hospitals and other developments are only meant for indigenous settlements. That was why we never had any development here, and our few educated children are either those that their parents took them to the northwest where most of us originate or those that can afford the schools in the nearby townships,” he said.

Mohammed Auwal, son of Baba Garba said, “We are treated as if we don’t pay taxes. In fact, the tax from fish trading in Borno remains one of the major sources of revenue for the state apart from the federal allocation to the state. Yet, because over 80 per cent of the population around the lakeshores is not indigenous, the government at local and state levels refused to provide us with schools and other amenities.”

Auwal, a 25-year-old father of four, said though he was not born when the water was at its peak level, while growing up as a young fisherman “I make over N2000 catch a day. But today, I have to stop fishing and resort to the saturated business of buying and selling fish while many of my peers have become political touts or are engaged in other negative acts to fend for themselves.” He said the larger part of his life was spent on fishing than schooling, making him contemplate migrating to the cities for better opportunities.

“Doran Baga had a booming human population and a vibrant economy that would have made it one of Nigeria’s commercial towns. Because from there, trucks loaded with fish in thousands left for various parts of the country and overseas,” said an observer.

Hajia Sa’adatu, a renowned Hausa settler, said population alone cannot make a city. There has to be basic amenities like water, electricity, roads, schools, hospitals, she added.

The lack of fishing activities, which was complemented by crop and livestock farming in the region in the past, has made many to lose their source of livelihood, giving way to idleness and its effects such as, high rate of divorce, high crime rate, prostitution and HIV/AIDS.

“Even the law enforcement agencies that are here to patrol the borders have been caught up in the poverty of the lake and everyday they are extorting money from us on each cartoon of fish or subject us to all forms of assaults,” said Auwal.

“Idleness has increased the population in the Lake Chad area because the men spend more time with their wives and girlfriends resulting in indiscriminate births,” said Sa’adatu. She said if the planned dredging takes place “our men will be engaged in fishing, while we, the women will be busy processing the fish for onward packaging and transportation to the south.”

From Doran Baga to Dabban Masara, and to Marte local government areas, all fertile Lakeshore communities in the Borno area, the stories are the same. “We are impoverished yet around us are vast potentials for agriculture, and under our feet lies large quantities of oil,” said Auwal.
According to some critics, the failure of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) to regulate the use of the lake by its member nations is to blam for the recession of the Lake, from 32,000 square kilometers at one point to less than 2,000 square kilometers now. “Let us not put all the blame on climate change and other environmental factors, alone,” Auwal said.

Reports said the Chad Republic had commenced export of oil from its own part of the Lake Chad, while the Nigerian side remains unexplored till date.

Many experts accounts show that fishing contributes nearly half of the protein intake in Africa and fresh water fish are more important than marine fish in the region; the former contributing up to 90 per cent of the total consumption. According to Sama’ila Sanusi, a Professor of Environment and Ecology with the University of Maiduguri, in Nigeria, inland artisanal fisheries, chiefly on Lake Chad and Kainji Lake, contribute to about 33 per cent of the fish production and supports the livelihood of millions of people, particularly rural dwellers, where government’s presence or interventions are absent.

Sanusi said fishing activities have declined tremendously in recent years due to several factors including over exploitation and increasing demands on the aquatic resources in the Lake Chad and across Africa. “Drought periods have resulted in the reduction of open lake water surface from about 25,000 km2 in the 1990’s and as little as 1,42 km2 in 2003 resulting in the drying up of the northern parts completely during the dry season,” said Sanusi.

Garba Dogo, the chairman of Fishermen Association of Doran Baga, said the shrinking of the lake has made many of his members to resort to subsistence farming. “Ever since we started fishing, we were never given even a hook by government to help ourselves but we managed through and our lives were better off then. But in the case of farming, you need fertilizers, seeds and other equipment government at subsidized rates in order to facilitate the cultivation of large fields,” said Dogo.

“All our lives we have known only fishing and the only thing we we can easily take to is farming but the prospects in the latter are no different from the former,” said Dogo, who confirmed the exodus of many fishermen to the townships to take up employments as laborers and commercial motorcycle riders.

Lake Chad, a trans-boundary lake, is located between latitudes 12o 20 and 14o 20N and longitudes 13o 00’ and 15o 20E in borders land south of the Sahara desert within the Chad Basin. The Chari-Logone systems originating in mountains of the Central African Republic is its largest source of water, providing over 90 per cent of the lake’s water.

According to Sanusi and E. D. Oruonye, two environmentalists who studied the lake over the years, the remaining inflow of water into the lake is contributed by the Ebeji (El-Beid) and Yedseram rivers. The lake has no apparent outlet but its waters percolate into the Soro and Bodele depressions. They said the hydrological contributions and biological diversity of the Lake are important regional assets shared by Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon under the management of the LCBC. Although, the Central African Republic and Libya have joined the LCBC recently with Sudan sitting as an observer nation awaiting ratification of its membership into the sub-regional organisation.

The Lake Chad region is fragile with high climate variability and extreme of weather, said the two environmentalists. They added that the weather is strongly influenced by the seasonal migration and interaction of the dominant air masses of the region. Such fragility may intensify food insecurity where already crop production, per capita income are declining and population growth is doubling for demand for food.

“Climate change is not only about global warming but also changes in the frequency and extreme weather events like pressure from wind systems and temperatures, causing floods, drought and other weather-related famines,” said Sanusi. The concomitant effects of all these problems in the eco-system, across Africa are affecting the livelihood of over 200 million Africans that depend on fishing and the income of another 10 million people in the continent.

Fishing supports economic growth through exports and provides environmental services such as increasing the value of the water. The New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) in an attempt to revamp the full potential of aqua-culture on inland fisheries and coastal/marine launched a fishery and aqua-culture progamme in August 2005, which was adopted by a lot of African countries.

Sunday Trust learnt that the LCBC with headquarters at N’Djamena, Chad, is calling for expression of interest from eligible companies to undertake feasibility studies on the Oubangui rivers in the Congo to the Lake Chad Basin, to be funded from donations the LCBC receives from its members. The study will look at the urgent need to open up the lake, the cleaning, unclogging of its water channels from wild grasses and other hurdles.

“This will translate to high income and a lot of activities for us,” said Musa Abba, chairman of Maritime Union Workers of Nigeria in the Lake Chad. Abba said most of his members were fishermen but the fizzling of fishing activities made them to resort to maritime transport to eke out a living. “We used to take passengers or goods to Chad, Cameroon and Niger in recent years but now, during the dry season the water in most parts of the lake dries up and our business comes to a standstill.”

Around Dam, Madayi, Mari, Kangallan, Dogori, Doran Baga and Dabban Masara and other lake side communities in Borno, people were jubilant because of the new greater marine transport. Garba said, “We don’t mind if we lose everything because when the water was here there were no communities anywhere near.”

However, Sanusi said the water-transfer project will have far reaching consequences than what people can imagine. “Getting water into the Lake is not the most important thing. It is going to displace millions of people, which will cost major ecological and environmental impact on areas that are not even part of the Lake Chad,” he said.

He said the “water extraction will be more than what the lake can cope which will lead to unprecedented flooding that has never happened in this part of the world.”

Sanusi added: “Climate change has changed the equation of the lake, the rate of evaporation has increased because of the increase in temperatures, the rate of procreation has increased the demand for fishing and irrigation activities. Therefore such an intervention will be very difficult.”

Some critics of the water-transfer project argued that the project is a reminder of man’s vestigial self to destroy himself. Such critics cite the Katrina that devastated New Orleans in the United States of America as an example of a man-made disaster. According to them, the canal that would link up the Chari and Lagone river to Mayo Kebbi and Benue rivers to facilitate marine transport from Port Harcourt to Bouca, in Central African Republic may backfire.

New Orleans was said to be built in a bowl between the Mississippi river and Lake Pontchartrain, nestled into what was essentially a Lake bed, but when the hurricane Katrina came, the water was so much for the levees to bear; lives were lost and good worth billions of dollars were destroyed. These critics claimed that water transfer would be more than what Lake Chad can bear and worst still, if the construction works are not properly handled, like building a stronger higher levees and shore up the possible disintegrating coastline like in the case of New Orleans, when high wind speed, which is common here comes, a disaster may unfold.

Sunday Trust made several attempts to get the Lake Chad Research Institute to comment on some of the fears but bureaucracy sabotaged these efforts.

However in June 2006, Engineer Wakil Bukar of the Chad Basin Development Authority CBDA said the receding of the lake “seriously affected economic activities.”

Accounts from the LCBC states that Nigeria has the highest population within the conventional basin with about 18 million followed by Chad with 7 million. According to the 2006 report, the CBDA which has the mandate to accelerate food and cash crops production in the basin through the development of large scale modern irrigation and drainage infrastructure has crumbled in the face of years of neglect.

Whether or not the planned water transfer will be executed to the latter remains to be seen. What is for sure is that the communities are concerned about their livelihood. Auwal sums it thus: “What bothers me most is what me and my family will eat tomorrow and the school to take my children so that they don’t end up like me.”

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