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The Congo River Interbasin Water Transfer: Lake Chad’s Salvation or Its Misjudgement?


Lake Chad is the fourth-largest lake in Africa and the largest in Central and Western Africa. While there are only four states that border the lakeNigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Nigerriver tributaries feeding into the lake pass through other countries such as the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, and Libya. Since 1960, Lake Chad has shrunk to a mere 10 percent of its original size, the result of rainfall variability, drought, and the high number of irrigation schemes around the lake.[i] The surface water on Nigeria's side of the lake has almost completely receded, leaving only small pools of water. It is within this climate crisis that the Congo River Interbasin Water Transfer, a project that would redistribute water from the Ubangui river into Lake Chad, has emerged.

While climate change has had an extreme effect on the lake, recent research suggests that total water storage is increasing with underground aquifers.[ii] Coe and Foley's 2001 article that predicted the disappearance of the lake was based on a mistaken diagnosis, with an incorrect over-estimation of water loss of 11.5 billion m3 per year when the annual loss rate was only 2-3 billion m3.[iii] The narrative of scarcity was born from and reinforced by colonial-era scientific research that ignored local practices of agriculture and water management in favor of large irrigation schemes.[iv] These large projects were a remnant of the British colonial developmentalist approach, which favored large-scale projects as they attracted more funding.[v]

A Nigerian-proposed solution to Lake Chad water scarcity is the Congo River Interbasin Water Transfer project, originally called the Lake Chad Replenishment project. This would re-route water from the Ubangi River in CAR up to the Chari river system through a dam in Palambo, feeding into Lake Chad. The idea of this project stems from a late 1980s Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) diagnostic study that was carried out by the United Nations Environmental Programme and taken up by the Italian firm Bonifica.[vi] The project gained more attention in 2004, when Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo pledged USD$2.5 million to fund over half the cost required for feasibility studies. Spearheaded by Nigeria, the LCBC has focused its efforts on drawing international attention to the project.

The goals of the project are to ensure river transportation, produce electricity, and develop irrigation in the region. Fuelled by the belief that Lake Chad is on the brink of "extinction," the project is also envisaged as a solution to the environmental crisis plaguing the lake basin. Regaining community livelihoods through increasing the lake's water is seen as the fix for the natural crises of climate change and water scarcity. In policy papers and press releases, the LCBC describes the project as a method for "halting the shrinkage of Lake Chad."

The large scale of the project makes it more accessible to major donors. Current Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has gone as far as to call it the greatest investment Europe and the United States could make in Africa. In declaring the project as a solution to the natural climate crisis, the Nigerian government is also portraying it as a solution to the security crisis caused by the Boko Haram insurgency in the country's northeast. In short, Nigeria characterizes the project as a way to "abate water conflict and instability in the Lake Chad region."[vii] This is demonstrated through Buhari's view that the project will "guarantee future security of the region," and that the "region is secured by the program."

The development of northeastern Nigeria, through this "recharging" of the lake, is seen by the government as a way to regain control of the region. The project can be likened to the Nigerian legacies of irrigation in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a technical solution focused on water as a method to regain control and legitimacy in the northeast, but does not alter the structural dependence of local communities on water. This highlights the uneven power relationship between the state and the communities in the northeast, as the local voice is silenced in favor of a state-led technical solution. This approach neglects the population hit hardest by the crisis: the lakeshore communities whose livelihoods depend on the water. Crucially, this has become more important in recent years due to the perception of the root causes of conflict in the basin. Therefore, Lake Chad basin conflict resolution efforts need to take into account the legacy of the Nigerian state's marginalization of the northeast as well as Nigeria's historical view of the lake as a scarce and insecure resource. In sum, using water scarcity as a referent to understand community/state relations is fraught with difficulty: by prescribing technical methods to solve socio-political inequalities, community vulnerability is heightened and community reliance on lake resources is undermined.

Quinn Higgins is a recent graduate at Durham University and an incoming MSc candidate studying African Studies at Oxford University. 

Photo sourcePhoto of the Lake Chad Basin in February 2015. Photo courtesy of GRID-Arendal via Flickr Commons.

[i]  Gao et al, "On the causes of the shrinking of Lake Chad," Environmental Research Letters 6, no. 3 (2011): 1-7.

[ii] Janani Vivekananda, Martin Wall, Chitra Nagarajan, Florence Sylvestre, and Oil Brown, Shoring up Stability: Addressing Climate and Fragility Risks in the Lake Chad Region (Berlin: Adelphi, 2019)

[iii] Géraud Magrin, "The disappearance of Lake Chad: History of a myth" Journal of Political Ecology 23, no. 1 (2016): 204-222.

[iv] Abdul Raufu Mustapha, "Colonialism and environmental perception in Northern Nigeria," Oxford Development Studies 31, vol. 4 (2003): 405-425.

[v] James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: "Development." Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[vi] Magrin, "The disappearance of Lake Chad."

[vii] Federal Government of Nigeria, Federal Ministry of Water Resources, Immediate and Long Term Strategies for the Water Sector, Abuja, 2016, p. 35.

About the Author

Quinn Higgins

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more