A long-shelved megaproject to replenish Lake Chad using water diverted from the Congo River is getting another look, as policy-makers struggle to stabilize a region torn apart by conflict and climate change.
Thirty-six years ago, the Italian engineering company Bonifica Spa “came up with Transaqua—a plan to construct a 2,400-kilometre (1,500-mile) canal to transfer water from the upstream tributaries of the mighty Congo River all the way to the Chari River basin, which feeds Lake Chad,” BBC reports. The plan called for “up to 100 billion cubic metres (3.5 trillion cubic feet) of water a year” to be redirected, with “a series of dams along the route to generate electricity.”
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When “500 copies of the plans were sent out in 1985 to government representatives of every African country, as well as international financial agencies,” the only response was “a deafening silence,” project engineer Marcello Vichi recalled in a recent interview.
But times have changed, and BBC says the megaproject may now be back on the table—with a different motivation. At the recent International Conference on Lake Chad in Abuja, Nigeria, government ministers and engineers “agreed that Bonifica and PowerChina, the company that helped build the Three Gorges dam spanning the Yangtze River, would complete a feasibility study,” BBC states. Delegates also “announced that the effort to raise $50 billion for the Lake Chad Fund should begin immediately.”
That sense of urgency reflects the reality that a lake which provides water for 20 to 30 million people has lost 90% of its volume since the 1960s, a result of population pressures and poor irrigation planning as well as climate change. The immediate result is that “10.7 million people in the Lake Chad basin need humanitarian relief to survive,” the BBC writes, citing a United Nations report.
The region is also in dire need of peace, and—especially for a generation of young men—a sense of hopeful purpose, writes BBC Africa Editor Will Ross.
Recalling his 2014 journey to the northeast Nigerian village of Kirenawa, one of the places hardest hit by drought, climate migration, and Islamist militancy, and at the time “the latest village that the marauding Boko Haram jihadists had terrorized,” Ross describes a “long-neglected area” where young people had “nothing to dream of except getting out.”
Places like Kirenawa “had become a perfect recruiting ground for the Islamist militants,” he writes. “The offer of a little cash and the promise of some training and a gun persuaded many to join.”
And, “as if the delegates gathering in Abuja last month needed reminding of how dire the security situation had become, more than 100 schoolgirls had just been seized from Dapchi, Nigeria,” he writes.
“Of course, Lake Chad’s decline is not the sole reason for the rise of violent extremism,” BBC notes. “A number of factors including poor governance have also played a role—but there is clearly a link.” So “more than three decades later, minds are finally focusing on the lake’s shrinkage.”
The report acknowledges that environmental campaigners will oppose a gargantuan effort to return Lake Chad to its “former ocean-like glory”. In response, Bonifica maintains that “its plan will use less than 8% of the water the Congo River discharges into the Atlantic, and would not be a threat to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s continuing Grand Inga Dam project, which would create the world’s largest hydropower generator if it is completed,” BBC notes.
The other major obstacle to the project is that “even carrying out the feasibility study properly requires peace.”
But Transaqua sees the project as a response “to the never-tackled infrastructural needs of the African continent,” Ross writes, while African policy-makers “know life is likely to get ever tougher for the people who live around Lake Chad. That’s why they are paying attention to the plans to bring it back to life.”
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