The Vanishing Lake Chad & Why You Should be Concerned about Global Warming

When asked to define global warming, everyday Africans who bother to try would describe a situation they believe to be denoted simply by everyday getting hotter while others would explain other issues rallying around ozone depletion (anyway you could find a good enough description here).

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This is the transition of a lake in California, a State in The US that has been in drought for about five years to date.

To many everyday Africans, the primary effects of global warming are: the world is hotter so they sweat more; have to stay longer indoors and they may have to use air conditioners for longer – and maybe higher electricity bills. However, when asked to give a description on what climate change is, they usually just go back and give the same definition they understand global warming to be with more emphasis on ozone layer depletion. The stated effects in this situation are largely the same although; a few people mention the imminent threat of melanomas due to UltraViolet Rays exposure. So in all, many everyday Africans do not know that much about climate change or global warming and their effects but how about this for a plot twist? What if you were told that the biggest threat climate change poses to the world today has very little to do with the ozone layer and everything to do with the availability of fresh water – the water you drink, use in growing and preparing your food, etc.?

The importance of water in day-to-day living cannot be understated but when the importance of water is further considered with respect to geography, politics and economics; water begins to seem more like a blessing we have taken for granted for too long.

There are two main sources of terrestrial fresh water on earth; they are either from surface sources like rivers and lakes or from underground sources: aquifers – the places from which boreholes work their magic. Anyway, fresh water on earth isn’t infinite, there is only a limited supply of it and nature keeps it in a cycle flowing between the seas and oceans, the ice caps, evaporation and rain. Freshwater is used for a lot of purposes but there is arguably none as important to human life as agriculture which, is known to use more than 70% of all freshwater resources on earth primarily for irrigation (watering and providing water for plants to grow) and this bring us to Lake Chad.

Lake Chad is surrounded on four sides by Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad and as at 2011; it catered to the water needs of some 70 million people who live around it. The region around Chad is semi-arid for a lot of the year with rains coming in usually between July and September yet, the area is prone to periods of droughts that underscore the level of importance of this lake especially on political and economic issues. However, Lake Chad has shrunk by about 96% of its size around 1960s to the level it currently stands at and this has raised issues for concern globally and regionally.

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Chad as country has some crude oil reserves. The US estimates it to be around 1.5bn barrels – Rivers State alone has at least five times more and they have a daily output of just over 150,000 bpd. They also export cotton, cattle and gum Arabic – three largely agricultural commodities. 85% of Chad’s approximately 13 million citizens depend solely on agriculture for their sustenance and almost all the water used in irrigating their agricultural sector comes from the Lake Chad.

The reasons for the lake’s shrinking have been blamed on influences from understandable increases in population pressure on the limited water resource to poor irrigation practices and overgrazing. The one issue that lies outside the realm of debate however, is change in climatic patterns that comes with global warming.

Loss of irrigation water from the lake results in lower agricultural productivity especially to the poorer Niger and Chad and increased dependence on ground water sources, this could also mean food shortages; a possible increase in levels of hunger, malnutrition, diseases and  also an increase in import dependency for food. On the economic scene, as long as the lake continues to shrink in this semi-arid region, it spells successive losses of income for farmers who can find no other way to irrigate farms and grow commercially viable produce. In a country where 85% of the population relies on agriculture, what effects do you think this would have on the employment situation? Idle hands and hunger rarely spell good but putting this in the politically relatable context that is violence that springs from terrorism and the radical ideals that are readily adopted (usually for monetary gain) by people who have been affected by these unfortunate series of occurrences, things take an even more unfortunate turn.

The regional militaries of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad formed a coalition in 2015 that has been tackling Boko Haram in operations that cost tens of millions of dollars annually. Although BH began in Nigeria, it could be argued that their sustenance has been fuelled by the economic impacts and the “availability of manpower” brought about by the imperatives of the shrinking Lake Chad; corroborating Nigerian Intelligence claims that in fact, many of Boko Haram’s fighters originate from Niger and Chad.

Follow the series of developments: the lake shrinks – water become less available – agriculture becomes less productive – more people become even poorer, more idle and hungrier – threat of violence arises – the idle and hungry become paid soldiers in someone else’s war. If one were to solve the issue of terrorism in North East Nigeria, starting at efforts to quell the threat of violence is at least four long steps away from the real roots of the problem.

Situations like these aren’t exclusive to Chad, they are happening in lakes, streams, rivers and dams all over the world with another famous example being the shrinking of the Aral Sea. Highlighting the political importance of fresh-water as a resource away from terrorism, the prospects of countries literally going to war over water isn’t entirely unlikely as freshwater becomes increasingly scarce and reservoirs; more valuable an example, we see between Ethiopia and Egypt.

About the relationship between climate change and freshwater, this is just one however specific instance. While it gives a broad picture, it is not by any means conclusive. The climate is changing and now we have to rise up to the humanitarian challenges or bury our heads in the sand while we unwittingly suffer long periods of ill effects. The great Fela said “water has no enemies, the only reason one would fight it is because they have a death wish” what if you were at full-fledged war with water and didn’t even realise it?

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