By Barnabé Colin
Return of an old idea
In 1982, following a decade of severe intermittent drought and famine in the Chad Basin, Italian engineering firm Bonifica introduced Project Transaqua, a 2600km long canal which would connect the Congo Basin with shrinking Lake Chad, via the Ubangi River. Presenting great technical and financial challenges, the idea was left behind, and the lake’s surface area has continued to diminish ever since. The United Nations Environment Programme believes Lake Chad to have lost 90% of its waters since 1960, as a dual result of European-caused rainfall pattern shifts and mismanagement of hydraulic resources. Due to growing insecurity in the region, the project resurfaced, with the leaders of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria meeting in Abuja for the International Conference on Lake Chad, in the final days of February 2018. After unanimous agreement on the need for replenishment, the heads of state called for international financial aid.
Drying up the economy
Lake Chad’s progressive dessication fragilises the primary water supply of 40 million people. Furthermore, fishing and irrigation based agriculture is deeply affected, jeopardising food security and livelihood in this precarious region of central Africa, considered one of the poorest in the world. In the time that the lake’s surface area has decreased from 25,000 square kilometres (1963) to 2,500 square kilometres (2008), the population in the frontier countries has tripled.
The canal would transpose close to 100 billion cubic metres of water a year from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), through the Central African Republic (CAR) and until the Chari River, which feeds into the lake. On this journey, it would simultaneously provide the Sahel region with hydroelectricity upon contact with constructed dams and irrigate up to 70,000 square kilometres of land, stimulating industrial, electrical and agricultural development on the way. Such a project has the capacity to alter the entire central African water paradigm. However, experts have noted the canal could in fact lead to a rather less ideal conclusion; exponential swamp overloads in Lake Chad could alter an entire system the inhabitants have found to cope with since the mass decrease of the lake in 1973, in turn placing a heavier burden on them.
A geopolitical challenge
Security improvement is the second and perhaps more urgent driving force towards the establishment of a solution. The Jihadist organisation Boko Haram, with an extended control of islands in and around Lake Chad, has so far caused the displacement of over 2 million people and has incited vulnerable subsistence-ridden farmers and fishermen to join its ranks. Several attacks have struck the area and a state of emergency has been maintained in Chad since 2015. Transaqua would permit inhabitants of the Chad Basin to resume with their habitual system and could facilitate the complete elimination of the terrorist group, already severely weakened.
With the CAR slow to recuperate from its civil war and Joseph Kabila unable to control the approaching implosion in the DRC, as of now the necessary stability to carry out negotiations for Transaqua appears complex. Moreover, the DRC has already condemned grave consequences such a move of its waters would engender on the Congolese ecosystems and economy.
If followed through, construction could well be undertaken by Chinese group PowerChina, who funded a feasibility project study in August 2017, and thus promoted the return of Transaqua. More so than an aid to the development of Central Africa, such a move underlines a Chinese demonstration of strategic dominance over the hydraulic and electrical industry in the region. Lake Chad requires immediate attention; if the canal proves inviable, immediacy must be placed upon security. Either way, a full-scale humanitarian crisis must be avoided.
Barnabé Colin is a undergraduate at University College London.