Monday, April 11, 2011

Shrinking Lake Chad turning farmland into desert

Lake Chad is shrinking rapidly, threatening the millions of people who depend on it for their survival. The shrinking of Lake Chad, which is bordered by 4 African countries (Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad), is already an ecological catastrophe and it is fast becoming a very human disaster as well. But some locals are fighting back in a bid to preserve their way of life.

The 30 million people who live in the lake region are being forced into ever-keener competition for this vital and disappearing resource. The drying-up of the lake water and deterioration of the production capacity of its basin have affected all the socio-economic activities, leading to internal exodus and increased pressure on the natural resources and conflicts between the populations. In addition to the approximately 60% decline in fish production, there has been degradation of pasture lands, leading to shortage of dry matter, reduction in the livestock population, and threat to biodiversity.

From droughts causing bad harvests, to floods destroying farms and homes, life in Africa's Sahel belt (bottom left) can be a constant struggle.

The arid belt of land stretches from Senegal in the west, all the way across the continent to Ethiopia in the east. With the Sahara to the north, and the savannah to the south, it's a region that experiences extreme dry and wet seasons.

In the middle of it all is Lake Chad, the most reliable resource in this region of shifting extremes. More than 30 million people depend on the freshwater lake for their survival.

But it's been shrinking over the past 50 years and satellite images show it is now just a twentieth of its former size.

Huge expanses of water are now nothing more than a series of ponds and islands, and the once-fertile land that surrounds the lake is now dusty and barren. (Left: satellite view of Lake Chad; for larger image click on the image itself).

"If there are solutions we must find them," said Farid Dembell, from the Society for the Development of Lake Region.

"The lake is in the process of disappearing and the lake feeds many people, not just here but in other countries like Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger," he continued. "They are all people who live on Lake Chad." (Right: fishing boats lie idle)

The way of life in this area stretches back centuries and many earn a living fishing in the lake. Locals report that they are catching less fish and the ones that they do catch are smaller than they used to be. The fittest fishermen are fleeing the shores of Lake Chad: Adamu Modu, a young fisherman, is joining a stream of able-bodied men heading south to find work in the southern part of the country.

"I am now relocating to Ibadan in the south, where fish is abundant, to continue my fishing so that I can make my life better," the 25-year-old says.

"We used to catch plenty of fish here. A fisherman used to catch fish amounting to 3,000 naira (equivalent of $200) in a single day, but now our catch is reduced to 750 naira a day, or even less."

The decades-long shrinking of one of Africa's largest lakes is driving people like Modu south. Women and children are becoming a majority in villages like Modu's home, Doron-Baga, on Lake Chad's Nigerian shore. (At right: bringing home water for drinking from Lake Chad)

The reduced profit from fishing led Ramatu Abdullahi's husband to leave town three months ago, also heading south, promising to send money home to help her to care for their four children. The migrants who don't find work fishing elsewhere will likely end up as petty traders or manual laborers in big cities like Ibadan or Lagos; few will make enough money to adequately support the families left behind.

Abdullahi is not sitting in idle hope in Doron-Baga, but the yield from her farm is also under pressure.

"Desert keeps encroaching on farm lands. As the water recedes, sand from the Sahara takes over in its stead," she says, pausing from weeding her vegetable plot. "It has been a battle for survival. When I realized that my harvest from rain-fed farming was steadily declining, I turned to irrigation, but the yield is also not encouraging." (Right: farmers plant crops in dried up areas of Lake Chad).

A declining stock could have devastating consequences far beyond the water's edge, says Yakowra Mallom, from UNICEF.

"At the start we didn't know anything about the problem of malnutrition," she said. "But now the figures are enormous. The children are all malnourished. There are no more fish. There's no more milk, no maize, no vegetables or cereal."

Local communities say the changing weather is the biggest reason for the shrinking of the lakes shores. The necessary irrigation of farming land has also been a factor.

But some people are making efforts to save their livelihoods.

A small local group is trying to save the surrounding land by planting trees in the villages that have been worst affected by desertification. If they cannot bring back the lake, they hope there will at least be workable land.

Saleh Sagoubi heads up the Tree Planting Association, a volunteer organization that has around 50 young members.

"I was born here and I grew up here," he said. "I want the lake to come back, not just for me, but for the children of the future."

Sagoubi blames climate change for turning much of the once-fertile land of the Sahel into desert. His group is trying to hold back the Sahara with a "great green wall" of drought-resistant trees.

Faidherbia Albida (left) is one of the fastest growing indigenous trees from Africa to Australia. It is deciduous and can grow up to 30 m [100 ft] tall. It is one of the best drought-tolerant trees and it can survive occasional frost [up to 5 days per year]. The tree can survive in a wide range of conditions and is suitable for planting across the continent. In many arid African nations it is illegal to indiscriminately cut them down.

It is a valuable tree for game and domestic animals. It is mostly browsed by elephants, giraffe, kudu, nyala, and impala. This plant loses its leaves in summer, thus providing fodder for the animals during winter months. The leaves are nutritious, the seeds have high protein content and the pods are high in starch.

In addition to the obvious benefits that the Faidherbia Albida trees would provide, there is also the benefit of a variety of medicinal applications. The tree is used for the treatment of respiratory infections, for malaria and fevers. It is also useful in treating diarrhea and other digestive problems. The bark is used as an antiseptic in dental hygiene and its extract is employed in the treatment of toothache. The extract is also used to treat ocular infections in farm animals.

"To stop the Sahara we must make lots of effort day and night -- we must work," he said. "The desert will be stopped one day by trees; they are our weapons of mass destruction."

Cable Network News,"Shrinking Lake Chad turning farmland into desert ",reported by Isha Sesay, accessed April 6, 2011
IPS News, "Lake Communities Left High and Dry", By Mustapha Muhammad, accessed April 6, 2011

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