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Powerless Plight As Lake Chad Shrinks

Sweep of Lake Chad, February 2001: Located on the edge of the Sahara and bordering four countries--Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger--the immense area of this land locked lake has nearly disappeared in recent years. Persistent drought has caused the lake to drop from its former sixth place position in the list of world's largest lakes; it is now one tenth its former size. The basin of the lake is not naturally deep, so the surface area of the lake tended to spread out, keeping the total depth to little more 23 feet (7 meters). In recent years, rainfall patterns have begun to change, and tributaries to Lake Chad have not been refilling the basin as rapidly as they used to. The lush, productive flora and fauna fed by the wetlands of the shallow lake have suffered as a result. This has led to significant changes for various communities of people that live in the vicinity of the lake. While for some the now exposed lake bed has enabled new land to be cultivated, much of the available fresh water that might have been used for irrigation is no longer dependable. As rainfall rates appear to be declining year after year, people living nearby develop even greater dependence on the lake, draining it even faster.
by Sonia Rolley
Bol, Chad (AFP) March 22, 2007
For 40 years, people living along the shores of Lake Chad have watched helplessly as it vanished before their eyes. Stark warnings, grand pledges of action and prayers have failed to make a difference -- Africa's fourth largest lake has been drying up like snow melting in the sun since the 1960s, experts say.

"You see, last year the lake came to here," Isaac Bikhat, an official in the office of the Chadian environment minister said, anxiously drawing the river in the sand. "Today, it is five metres (16 feet) lower."

Lake Chad, which lies in hot and arid territory on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, shrunk from 25,000 square kilometres (9,650 square miles) in 1964 to less than 2,000 square kilometres in 1990 -- the sort of problem that will be in the spotlight on World Water Day on Thursday.

Designated by the UN General Assembly, the day has been observed internationally every March 22 since 1993 to focus on problems surrounding this precious commodity. This year's theme is water scarcity, notably as global warming begins to bite.

For Lake Chad, climate change and increased human use of its waters for fishing and agriculture are blamed for the fall in the water level of what is the world's third largest totally landlocked lake.

However, older residents of Bol, a town about 150 kilometres (90 miles) north of the capital N'Djamena, say the lake's rise and fall is a cyclical phenomenon which occurs every 40 years.

"Children of today don't believe us but, we, who have seen the two eras, are surprised," Youssouf Bodoum Bani, the head of Bol's highest traditional regional authority said.

"Grandparents say to us that it's a cyclical phenomenon, every 40 years. The last rise in water level dates from the 1960s, at that time everything was under water. And since, the water has vanished little by little.

"We are awaiting the next rise but I admit that today I am sceptical."

Two years ago, the lake's fate, as well as the plight of fishermen and farmers whose livelihood depends on it prompted a summit of African leaders in Abuja. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said at the time that the lake's problems and the consequences for the health and well-being of the local people had been phenomenal.

Some 20 million people depend on the lake and its resources, according to Anada Tiega, a technical adviser to the Lake Chad Basin Commission, which also involves Chad's neighbours Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger and Central African Republic.

Ironically, the immense patches of greenery that break up the desert monotony around Bol by providing agricultural land to sustain the local population also contribute to the lake's reduction.

"They are polders," said local official Abderahim Adoum, of the zones cultivated by farmers on what was once sandy terrain but is irrigated by the waters of Lake Chad via a dam and pumping system.

"I have only been able to have water for farming thanks to this polder. If it didn't exist, life would be really difficult," 42-year-old farmer Ali Boukar commented.

Local authorities insist that as well as providing people with the means to stay in the region, the permanent irrigation system allow farmers to reap two harvests a year. "With the lowering in the level of the lake, the state decided to do the irrigation to keep the populations in these areas and to give them something to live on.

"If these polders were not laid out, they (the people) would have to move to find farmable land," said Abakar Mahamat Khaila, technical director of Sodelac, a state company which develops the Chad lake area.

But experts closely following the shrinking of the lake in this central African nation say the development of agricultural activities are also partly to blame. "Farming is of course a factor in the lowering of the level of the lake," said Tiega.

Officials play down the impact of the irrigation. "We only take water for the needs of farming," Abakar Mahamat Khaila said. "These needs are markedly less than the effects of evaporation."

For Adoum, who has been navigating the lake for 17 years as a fisherman and boatman, the effect of the drop in water level is very clear to see. "With the fall of the water level, the grasses overrun everything. It's very difficult to pass."

"It's barely three metres wide. Two outboard motors cannot even pass each other," he said, just as two Nigerian dugout boats laden down with goods appear in front of him.

Despite exchanging signals, the vessels cannot avoid bumping each other.

earlier related report
Two-thirds of world population could face water shortage in 2025: FAO
Rome (AFP) March 22 - The head of the FAO said Thursday that two-thirds of the world's population could be threatened by water shortages by 2025.

Jacques Diouf, director-general of of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization, said in a speech here on World Water Day that 1.2 billion people currently live in areas with insufficient water.

An additional 500 million could soon face shortages, he said.

"The international community has the means to greatly improve the management of our water resources and to allow more people access to water," Diouf said, addressing an FAO conference on the issue.

Climate change and the pollution of a large number of rivers used for irrigation are making it increasingly difficult for southern countries to provide themselves with food, he said.

Ugandan Environment Minister Maria Mutagamba said at the conference that Africa has nine percent of the planet's water resources, but uses only 3.8 percent.

Water resources on the continent are not well-distributed geographically, she said. Mutagamba also noted that the level of Lake Victoria, Africa's largest freshwater reserve, fell two meters (seven feet) below normal in 2005.

"Because of common measures taken by countries with water access, we were able to increase the level by 70 centimetres (28 inches) in 2006, but we are worried about next season," she said.

The European commissioner for development, Louis Michel, sent a message to the conference detailing Europe's efforts on water access.

Since 2002, Europe has committed 400 million euros (535 million dollars) for short-term water-access projects, as well as 475 million for long-term projects, he said.

Italy's deputy foreign minister, Patrizia Sentinelli, said access to water should be viewed as a basic and legal human right and not be subject to private interests seeking to profit from it.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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