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Lake Chad: The Shrinking Giant
Lake Chad Information and Facts
Lake Chad is a large, but shallow endorheic lake located on the African continent, in the Western part of Chad, on the edge of the Sahara desert. In the 1960’s it was the fourth largest lake in Africa, but due to inadequate ecological conditions, it has been shrinking for more than half a century, endangering the lives of the local population, flora and fauna. The meaning of the name “Chad” is “local expanse of water, lake”.
Geography and Surroundings
The freshwater lake has plenty of small islands, including the Bogomerom Archipelago. There are three major types of landscape in the Chad lake basin area. The Eastern part is dominated by plenty of islands, which match the summit of the surrounding sand dunes of the shores. The bench islands are mostly covered in floating vegetation, representing nearly one-third of the landscape. The third type of landscape is the vast areas of open water, which vary in size and depth, depending on rainfall.
The basin relief is generally flat, with a few volcanic rocks situated in the area. Chad Lake is also surrounded by fossil valleys, grasslands, incises stream- and riverbeds, as well as numerous deltas, either active or relict.
Lake Chad is regarded as the remainder of an inland sea, a paleolake referred to as Mega-Chad, which existed around 5,000 BC. With a surface area of 1,000 000 km2, it was the largest of the four existing paleolakes in the Saharan region. The African manatees which were discovered in the inflows of the lake support this theory. During this time it was the 6th largest lake in the World.
The lake’s main inflow is the Chari River, which provides more than 90% of the lake’s water, coming in from the Southern part, together with another contributor, Logone stream. On the Northern part, the Komadugu-Yobe River feeds Chad Lake. The lake has no important outflows, losing water only through evaporation (95%), and through underground leaking, its waters filtering into the Soro and Bodele depressions.
Because of the strong evaporation (2.300 mm/year), the hotness and dryness of the region, many would think that the lake would have a high salinity concentration, but there are two main factors ensuring the water stays fresh. Firstly, even though only a small percentage of the water leaks underground, it is also accompanied by heavy salt flows, escaping through underground passageways. The second contributing factor is that the lake is continuously fed by large freshwater inputs, coming from the Adamawa Plateau, which is close-by. The lake’s salinity in the open waters is approximately 60-120 mg/L in the South and 700 mg/L in the Northern area.
Lake Chad has a long history of wet and dry periods, shifting through various time scales. In the beginning of the 19th century, European explorers described the lake as a very large body of water. To help follow the inconstant lake, scientists have defined three main stages, depending on the status of rainfall. When the lake was large, it is said to have had a surface area of 24,000 km2. Scientists confirmed that the lake only reached such a big form on rare occasions for short time periods, and the last time it was so huge was in the 1950s. In its normal size the lake has a surface area of 18,000 km2, is made up of a single body of water and features 2,000 dune islands. During the time when the lake is small, it only has a 1,700 km2 permanent body of water; the rest of the area is made up of several smaller lakes. Researchers stated that the lake went from its normal size to small proportions in less than two years’ time, between 1973 and 1975.
This dramatic shrinking is the result of poor human management, improperly designed and used dams, overgrazing, irresponsible irrigation, deforestation, and a dry climate. The water levels these days are very shallow, with an average depth of 1.5 meters, making the lake very sensitive to the shortage of rainfall in the area.
The lake is located in a very hot and dry climate area, with an annual rainfall of 320 mm. There is more rain in the South-Western part of the lake (1,600 mm), whilst the Northern part is facing serious drought, with only 150 mm of rainfall yearly. The monsoonal rainy season lasts from July to December and is the heaviest in the month of August. The annual temperature average is about 21.4 degrees C.
Flora and Fauna
The lake’s surroundings have a vegetation mainly made up of wetland grasses (Echinochloa Pyramidalis, Vetiveria Nigritana), and more than 44 species of algae.
The Lake Chad basin is a famous fishing ground amongst locals, housing more than 80 fish species, of which 25 are endemic, found only in the lake basin. Around 60,000-85,000 tons of fish are caught every year from the lake. The Charachin and the Nile Perch are the most popular fish of Lake Chad.
Because of the many floating islands, Chad is home to a wide variety of wildlife, of which birds make up the most numerous populations, being a preferred stopping point for migratory birds. Among the most important we can enumerate the river prinia, rusty lark, ducks, ruffs, marbled teal, garganey, glossy ibis, crested cranes and pintails.
Although in decline as the waters retreat, there are a few mammals frequenting the lake shores as well: the thippopotamus, red-fronted gazelles, patas monkeys, striped hyenas and cheetahs. Lake shores are also home to crocodiles.
Lake Chad has been the center of trade and cultural exchange between the Northern and Southern Sahara regions for thousands of years. The basin area was once home to the Kanem-Borno, Bilala and Wadai organized states, which fought each other for years, trying to imply their own rule over this region. With the introduction of the Islam in the 9th century AD, a changed has been made, and the lake wasn’t the center of wars anymore, but the symbol of unification of the people living around it.
After the European colonization, the political boundaries were re-drawn, giving way to conflict once more. But in more modern times, in the 1960’s, after the independence of the four nations, the political leaders of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria cooperated, forming an ecological unit in order to increase the development of the lake. Sudan and the Central African Republic later joined this union, in a joint effort to salvage Lake Chad.
The contributing factors to the shrinking of the lake according to the UN are governmental and local overuse of water, and the impact of European pollution which led to the shifting of rainfall to the South, causing the dryness of the area.
The area was labeled an ecological threat by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Although the lake is a Ramsar site, part of the official convention which protects wetlands, it is still in serious threat.
The lake is a vital to the large number of animals and plants living in and around the lake, but also for the more than 50 million people who live on its shores. It not only provides water for them, but it is also of economic importance, contributing to local’s livelihood, offering enough for crops and livestock to survive as well.
The decreased flow in Chad’s major rivers and the increase in soil erosion will only result in an alteration of the local economic development, causing serious effects on political, social and economic stability. Conflicts will emerge, arguing about the ownership of the lessening lake waters. The countries surrounding Lake Chad are some of the poorest in the World, with many farmers and fishermen struggling to survive each day. The water loss would only increase the distress. Plant and animal species are already on the verge of disappearing because of this unfortunate occurrence.
Plans about diverting the Ubangi River into the lake were made as early as 1929, and again in 1960. This action would help solve a lot of issues: revitalize the lake, provide livelihood for locals, and enhance agriculture and fishing, strengthening local economy. In the ’80 and ‘90s inter-basin water transfer schemes were proposed, but nothing was accomplished.
The Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), which was already formed in 1964, proposed a similar water transfer project in 1994. The commission’s primary responsibility is to control the utilization of the water. Revegetation, restoring wetlands, initiating, promoting and coordinating various development projects are also some of its main goals.
A Strategic Action Plan with a long-term vision of 20 years has been adopted in 1998 to aid the vulnerable Chad Lake Basin. 50% of their budget is expended on operational activities, while the rest goes on development.
Vision for 2025
The Commission has selected three main objectives to execute until 2025. The first is the maintenance of the Lake Chad basin and other surrounding wetlands of this area. The second priority is the acceptance of responsibilities for freshwater, ecosystem and biodiversity conservation, followed by ensuring equal access to safe and proper water resources for all of the Member states.
In order to achieve these goals, it is necessary to monitor and try to understand the availability of Lake Chad’s surface and groundwater, so developments can be made to make the lake less dependent on rainfall. The coordination between the countries must be aided and local communities should be involved in the water planning process. Water systems should be enhanced in such a way, that they can respond to high local demands.
It would be essential to involve as many local, regional, national and international entities, to broaden the management possibilities of the lake, as well as to seek financial aid, because we must not forget that the Lake Chad Basin is one of the poorest regions in the World.