Africa is a very big place. While much of its land is arid, it has vast areas that hold plenty of water. When you can say you are one of Africa’s largest lakes, that’s no small claim. Lake Chad was once a member of that club. Located in northern central Africa’s Sahel region where Nigeria, NIger, Cameroon, and Chad share borders, Lake Chad supported large fisheries and provided a water-rich environment for wildlfe and a large population of people. While at times its surface area could rival that of Lake Erie, the lake has always had seasonal and year-to-year variations that were dramatic. The basin in which it sits is a depression in the African Shield which at one time held a sea known as Mega-Chad. Though Lake Chad is internally draining, it is a freshwater body, fed mostly by the Chari-Logone river system as well as a few others. The volume of input has historically been adequate to replenish losses due to evaporation, so it has not gone to the saline condition found in many other lakes that have no outflow.
Lake Chad’s former footprint, as large as 10,800 square miles in 1870, could easily be seen on maps of the entire African continent, and could even be noted on world maps. It went through periodic episodes of shrinkage and expansion thanks to years of drought or abundant rainfall, but by the 1970s and ‘80s the annual changes became quite marked. As things stand now, Lake Chad is on a seriously downward trend. Climate change and rainfall rates are definitely having their effects, but the construction of ill-planned dams, and overtapping the inflowing rivers for irrigation is choking off the lake’s supply to the point that it is a tenth of its former self, and waning.
As the lake shrinks and desertification claims more and more of the Sahel, former shoreline settlements are now long distances from water. Fishing as a source of livelihood, agricultural production, and a basic fresh water supply for millions are dwindling, if not yet extinguished. And as if these unfortunate developments weren’t enough, the region is rife with political turmoil and aggression. Boko Haram, a murderous Islamic fundamentalist movement, has plagued the area, feeding on the desperation of people who are poor, hungry, and scared. Other factions also stir the pot. The climate is shaping the politics in this rapidly changing region. The governments of the countries comprised by the Lake Chad Basin are searching for answers and may be considering one that could bring more harm than good.
Since the 1980s, a plan called the Transaqua project has been floated to replenish the shrinking waters of Lake Chad by importing it from elsewhere. A canal contouring across many tributaries of the Ubangi River and flowing by gravity into the Lake Chad basin could provide enough water to rebuild the stocks of the lake, rejuvenate the fishing industry, re-energize agriculture, and alleviate some of the poverty and unrest of the region—if it all works. This canal would be nearly nine times as long as the Suez and Panama Canals combined, making it far and away the world’s longest. It would require twenty dams to be built to back up the flow of the Ubangi’s tributaries and others enough to fill the canal, whose northwestern end would empty into the Chari River, which continues to Lake Chad. The deep canal itself is designed to be navigable by ships, but to what end is unclear, given that it does not connect to either Lake Chad or the sea. The dams are planned to generate massive amounts of hydroelectric power, but in a region that is far from places needing such a huge resource. Major water projects always promise miraculous results, because water is so transformational when it is plentiful. But the plan has not gone anywhere substantive in the past decades because the cost of building those dams and the 1500-mile-long canal to transport 15 trillion cubic feet of water would be very, very high.
Originally proposed by an Italian company, such a project would face not only financial hurdles, but environmental pushback and the inevitable political complications and potential for corruption inherent in any high-value, 12-nation, cooperative endeavor. And that cooperative spirit could be strained. Neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo has plans to dam the Congo River for hydroelectric power and may not look kindly on diversions from the Ubangi, a major contributor to the Congo. Italian engineers claim the captured water will be less than eight percent of what the Congo River lets flow into the sea, so effects are promised to be minimal. Even if everyone can just get along, the staggering pricetag remains. To the extent that a lack of money is holding things up, though, a new partner has emerged who could bankroll the Transaqua project and move it forward. Unsurprisingly, that helpful hand would come from China, whose development campaigns in many parts of Africa have grown significantly as the country’s substantial cash reserves seek places to invest. China’s easy money offers struggling African nations solutions. Long-term, however, that help comes with obligations that could include political pressure as well as high debt.
Plans for this gargantuan waterworks project are still in their infancy, and even preliminary planning costs millions, which the Chinese are willing to spend. Billions could follow, but costs other than monetary ones may be involved. Flows into the Chari-Logone system would increase dramatically, with unknown levels of environmental damage. The economic benefit envisioned is tempting, but unforeseen damage to ecosystem balance can negate such gains. Still, any of those possibilities are way in the future—perhaps too far in the future. It has been estimated that in the time it would take to complete the epic infrastructure of the Transaqua project, Lake Chad would be long since dried to dust, with the local inhabitants scattered to other areas. And that first-step feasibility study, at a minimum, needs a country at relative peace while research is done, something that is not now the case. Whether the unrest of the region can be smoothed out before any improvement in the economic conditions there occur remains to be seen.
Two other schemes for re-watering Lake Chad have been proposed. One dams the Ubangi and then uses the hydroelectric power produced therefrom to pump water up and over higher ground to the Chari-Logone system leading to Lake Chad. It has less of a footprint than the Transaqua project, but still has major impacts. Least invasive is a solar option. A huge solar array in the sun-drenched Central African Republic could produce enough power for similar pumps to push water from the Ubangi toward Lake Chad in four huge pipelines. The advantages of this plan are the dramatically lower expense due to solar power’s ever-diminishing cost, and the avoidance of the environmental damage of a dam—water would be sucked up directly from the flowing river. The Transaqua plan, as noted earlier, touts its gravity-fed transport, designed as it is to flow at a very slight natural incline. But the route is through very remote country, whose topography has not yet been fully analyzed. Pumps could be required in places, complicating the plan, or making it infeasible. The solar approach would seem the best option, using clean energy with far less infrastructure and environmental gouging than the other scenarios. Whatever the eventual route, water would still flow from one basin to another, bringing unknown environmental effects.
Africa is a continent undergoing destructive changes, as climate shifts take away formerly productive lands and waters. Desperate governments are often swayed by the promises of transformational engineering projects, projects so big that they could either save a region or bring on crushing debt and mixed results. Considering the human and environmental disaster at Lake Chad, the risk may have to be taken.
Want to get the big picture on Africa’s topography, including the shrinking Lake Chad? Find a spot on your wall for this beautiful satellite-image-based wall map of the continent, available from Maps.com.
caption: The Lake Chad basin is shared by four countries, although not all have access to its diminished water content.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Blank_Map-Africa.svg: Andreas 06, derivative work: Chaosdruid (talk) (Public domain)
caption: The Lake Chad basin.
source: Wikimedia Commons: United Nations (Public domain)
caption: Lake Chad in better days, as seen from Apollo 7 in 1968.
source: Wikimedia Commons: NASA (Public domain)
caption: Satellite photo shows dust storms distant from Lake Chad, but also fires (labeled “hospot”) within the lake basin burning vegetation where water once stood.
source: NASA Earth Observatory: NASA (Public domain)
caption: A generalized depiction of the route the Transaqua canal could take. A very long and expensive project.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Classical geographer (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)