THE outcry by the Minister of Water Resources, Sarah Ochekpe, recently over the threatened livelihood of over 15 million Nigerians living around the seriously shrunken Lake Chad would amount to nothing unless the Federal Government takes a decisive step to arrest the critical situation in the interest of the vulnerable population.
That the lives of 15 million Nigerians are in jeopardy is worrisome. Also at risk are about 10 million others living outside Nigeria’s shores of the lake. The Lake Chad problem has for long been treated with official indifference, with government paying no more than lip service to the grave issues arising from the lake. Yet, such attitude that has also applied to desertification in the northern part of the country is tantamount to postponing the proverbial evil day. To forestall dreaded ecological refugee situation that is potentially high in the area, the time to tackle the problem is now.
For a start, the Federal Government should, as matter of urgency, seek sustainable ways of bringing succour to Nigerians in the Lake Chad Basin. Lake Chad is historic in Nigeria, and has served as a major source of livelihood to members of the surrounding communities.
Speaking at this year’s 48th Lake Chad Day celebration in Abuja, Ochekpe observed that the lake has receded to 5 per cent of its size in the 1960s. It is sad that more than 30 million inhabitants of the area who solely depend on the natural resources of the lake are seriously suffering from poverty, health problems, as well as insecurity.
According to the minister, the lake receded from 25,000 km2 in the 60s to the present less than 2,000km2, a development that she blamed on climate change, decreased rainfall and increasing water demand for agricultural activities.
It is easy to blame climatic elements for the fate of Lake Chad; but the human dimension to the problem appears to be overlooked. The failure of the authorities over the years to address critical management problems confronting it is damning. The same may be true of the numerous other river basin authorities established by government.
Over time, officials with responsibility for water resources only remember Lake Chad during yearly events, when they queue to make statements that are forgotten as soon as the event ends. No action is followed thereafter, until the next celebration. And what is being celebrated in the case of Lake Chad at this material time when the lake has virtually dried up?
What happened to the Lake Chad Basin Authority (LCBA) that was created in 1976 to manage the land and water resources of the lake? What is the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LSBC), the sub-regional body made up of the Lake Chad Basin countries, namely Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Central African Republic (CAR) doing? Why are these bodies inactive and unable to arrest the ecological destruction going on in the Lake Chad Basin?
For the drastic loss of status suffered by the lake, experts prefer to describe it as a pond. This is hardly an exaggeration as both Nigeria and Niger Republic have lost all the waters on their side of the lake. With only a tiny stretch of shallow water on the Chadian and Cameroonian sides, what constituted the lake surface area is now filled with marsh and sand dunes. This development has pushed the dependent population to the brink of disaster.
The factors that combined to wreck the lake include neglect by government, mismanagement of land and water resources, excessive diversion of water for irrigation, intense fishing activities, overgrazing and deforestation. Unbridled human activities in the quest to maximize the use of the lake resources have contributed in putting it under severe stress. Added to this is increasing variability and irregularity of rainfall, dry spell, excessive evaporation and sand storm.
Being a closed drainage basin that retains inflow of water but allows no outflow to other bodies such as rivers or oceans, the use of the water more than what the lake receives has threatened its existence. The only remedy, in the circumstance, is to adopt a measure that would ensure greater water input into the lake.
A 20-year Strategic Action Plan to restore the lake, adopted by the member states of the Lake Chad Basin Commission in 1998, sadly, produced nothing concrete, 14 years later. This owes largely to the low economic fortunes of the countries, which could not meet their financial obligations.
Perhaps, the most ambitious project ever proposed for the lake is the inter-basin water transfer that would involve transferring water from the Oubangui River in Central African Republic and channelling it through a navigable canal of about 150 km to Lake Chad. The plan was adopted in Yaoundé, Cameroon since 2002 but with little or no implementation.
Funding has remained a major constraint. Feasibility studies have not been done. There are also dissenting voices concerned with the environmental impacts of the project. It is crucial nevertheless for the commission’s member countries to muster political will to turn around the lake’s fortune.
Alternatively, the underlying water deposit should be explored. Any measure that would help rejuvenate the lake’s ecosystem should be pursued. Such measures should be cost effective, sustainable and with less environmental impacts.
The Federal Government should see the restoration of the Lake Chad’s status as priority in the interest of over 15 million people; to curtail desertification, and reduce poverty and social dislocation in the affected areas.