The incredible shrinking lake
April 14, 2018 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Just over 200 kilometres north of the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, Lake Chad is one of the oldest lakes in Africa. However, since the early 1970s, the lake has lost 90 percent of its original surface area to unsustainable water management and climate change. The basin itself has shrunk from 25,000 square kilometres to 2,000 square kilometres.

The shrinkage of the lake is due to climate change, population growth and irrigation. But can a scheme dating back to the 1980s turn things around, and bring Lake Chad back?

"It's a ridiculous plan and it will never happen." That's the reaction many people have to the idea of trying to fill up Lake Chad and restore it to its former ocean-like glory by diverting water from the Congo river system 2,400km (1,500 miles) away. But what if they're wrong?
posted by Too-Ticky (10 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
There is also a recent New Yorker article: Lake Chad: The World’s Most Complex Humanitarian Disaster.

The water transfer project sounds like a terrible idea, though it would be a fantastic boondoggle for the various companies that are pushing it.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:49 AM on April 14, 2018

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

I'm so tired of hearing about the destruction of the earth. Humans are a scourge Our big blue marble is going to become the Moon. It was the dead whale with 65 pounds of garbage in its stomach earlier in the week.
posted by shoesietart at 9:04 AM on April 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

If we invent a time machine, they can fill it with the tears of future generations.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:22 AM on April 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Of course, Lake Chad is a tragedy but the memories I have of it are mostly positive. Much of the area is very beautiful. Here's a bit of travelogue from the year 2000:

We rode our motorcycles away from the village of N'Guigmi where we had had a day's rest and a plate of macaroni, which is the most common dish there is in that area. The terrain was at first loose sand, and difficult to ride and we had trouble with the deep tracks but soon we reached the dry clay-like lake floor where riding was easier and pleasant. There had already been some rain so in some places there was a thin haze of young tough grass on the dunes. Using GPS coordinates, we rode through an ever-changing landscape: sloping and flat, bare and covered with small trees. There were many large vultures to be seen, they were fighting over the remains of a donkey or dog.

We were lucky with regards to the weather: the sky was a little overcast, so the temperature didn't rise too much. It could not have been more than 35 degrees C. One day we even got a bit of rain. Small drops in the sand that dried up almost immediately. After a few hours we arrived in a village and there we reported to the police station, where three policemen took all the time in the world to fish for presents. Eventually we gave them five tablets of paracetamol and everyone was satisfied. They would have liked to have gotten a French-language newspaper, but we had none to give them. In the evening we slept in our tent after a simple meal that we prepared on our petrol stove. I think it was macaroni with tomato puree and a somewhat tough and bitter cucumber. It tasted good to us. Vegetable!

On the second day we rode through a lovely landscape: low sand dunes with that fresh grass and small white lilies. We took a break to rest and drink water. The water was warm, but there was lemon juice in it. Then two camel riders came towards us over a hill. They were dressed in long deep blue robes and white loosely knotted turbans. The camels (the kind with one hump) were embellished with colourful blankets and decorated with tassels and copper bells. It was a beautiful spectacle. The men looked at us, we looked at them. Friendly, weathered faces with deep dark brown skin. Those men were clearly on their way from one village to another, as the people there had been doing for hundreds of years; perhaps they had been on the road for a week or more. It was a special moment. A meeting of travelers from different worlds. After a while we asked them, using gestures (we didn't speak a word of their language or the other way around) if it would be okay if we took a picture of them. That was all right.

Once we were back home that picture was of course a bit disappointing. It was a nice picture but the magic wasn't captured.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:45 AM on April 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

If anyting, it would make it worse for Lake Chad in the short term, but the "cordon pierreux" method is accomplishing a lot in reversing desertification in the region.

You can google the term for a little bit of good news.
posted by ocschwar at 11:46 AM on April 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

Our farm is on land that was hit by desertification because of bad practices during the 18th century. It was on the edge of a largish lake that has completely disappeared. But about a hundred years ago, the few remaining people began to fight back. I still have neighbors who remember planting resilient grasses as children. And today, it would be possible to recreate the lake. The EU has asked if we want to (we would get compensation), and I'm the only one who thinks it's a good idea, but maybe our grandchildren will let it happen.
The thing is that with the desertification, the only arable land became the bed of the lost lake. It wasn't good land, it was incredibly sandy and short-term floods ruined the crops during spring, but it was the only land. Now, the authorities struggle to keep the last symbolic piece of desert that is public land from reforesting. We all look at it rather skeptically: our families have worked hard to plant the forest and stop the desert, and now they want to keep it? I found arial photos of our farm at the time when my grandparents took over, it was literally all desert apart from the lake bed. And now it is all forest and fields.
tldr: change can happen with education and hard work, we don't have to leave a barren earth.
posted by mumimor at 12:54 PM on April 14, 2018 [15 favorites]

ocschwar, thanks for posting about cordon pierreux, I checked it out. I've seen some bigger reclamation project on the web that utilized tractors and such to build series of dams to do the same thing but to see it work so effectively with rows of stones is amazing.
posted by drinkmaildave at 1:09 PM on April 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

ocschwar’s suggestion to look up cordon pierreux turned up this guy from Burkina Faso, who’s been successfully reclaiming land from desertification and teaching others about it.

Chad’s story is one of many reminders to be wary of complacency about the basic needs we otherwise take for granted where I am (South-East Australia). Our aggressive irrigation from the Murray-Darling Basin being a case in point.
posted by Lesser Spotted Potoroo at 1:36 PM on April 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

The "hundredth meridian" in the US has moved two degrees east.
posted by clew at 2:39 PM on April 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

That's the reaction many people have to the idea of trying to fill up Lake Chad and restore it to its former ocean-like glory by diverting water from the Congo river system 2,400km (1,500 miles) away.

Tangentially, I am reminded of the scheme described in Cadillac Desert, in which there was a proposal to reroute the Mississippi south of New Orleans to help provide water to Colorado. If I am remembering correctly, there were several nuclear power plants involved, and plans to build an aqueduct over at least one river.

I think it's easy to see the absurdity of that scheme. This seems to be absurd on a similar scale.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 3:01 PM on April 14, 2018

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