Shrinking Lake Chad Sparks Tension, Ingenuity

Lake Chad, once one of the world's biggest lakes, is shrinking fast, increasing tensions between herders, farmers, and fishermen in the four African countries that surround it. What was once 25,000 square kilometers of water in the 1960s has been reduced to just a fifth of that due to drought, deforestation, lack of government water management, and poor farming practices.

A fisherman paddles from the town of Bol to an islet within Lake Chad. The water is just a few meters deep. Speaking in Chadian Arabic, Ousmane explains it has never been worse than this. He says fish are getting smaller and smaller and fewer and fewer.

Nearby, a Nigerian immigrant who speaks Hausa, Daouda, is using handmade baskets to trap fish. He paddled from Nigeria looking for deep waters. He found none, but decided to stay here anyway. He says islands are growing in the middle of the water - good for farmers, but not for him.

It is a difficult coexistence between farmers and fishermen. Farmers divert water to irrigate their fields, further emptying out Lake Chad.

Maize farmer Aboubakar Abdou has dug deep holes on the fringes of the shrinking lake to have his own wells. He is also Nigerian and speaks Hausa. He traveled here looking for green pastures. But he says like elsewhere, where the desert is gaining fast, there is too little water.

The price of the corn he sells has gone up five-fold, because there is so little.

Herds of water buffalo known as Kouri roam nearby, some of them nipping away at Aboubakar's corn. Several years ago, there was an experiment to move some of the water buffalo away from the lake, but that failed when they all died.

Speaking in the local Kanembou language, Issa Adam says sometimes farmers attack him with machetes because his herds eat their crops, but that he fights back with his whipping stick.

The village chief, Abderaman, says fights are inevitable because of the competing interests. He says he speaks half a dozen languages, trying to act as a mediator. There are also many immigrant farmers and fishermen from the two other countries that border the lake, Niger and Cameroon. With the desert gaining, more and more nomads from the north of Chad and Libya are also passing through.

Several hundred meters away, a young woman riding a camel dismounts and tries to escape through nearby dunes. A nomad runs after her, beating her until she cries.

The village chief intervenes and finds out the woman was trying to run away from her husband. But sometimes, he says, these nomads try to steal women from his village.

Many are coming because this is actually a privileged area in a growing barren space. With the help of regional bank loans, Chad's government has spent tens of millions of dollars to irrigate nearly 20,000 hectares of land with several dams, water pumping stations, and more than 20 kilometers of cement trenches.

Speeding across spreading fields in his pick up truck, project coordinator Boissou Djerem says it will not be a reckless project like others, where water was just diverted for short-term gain. Here, he says, farmers will be able to have three harvests a year, as long as there is some water left in the lake.

The fields will be handed over to thousands of farmers in a public ceremony in April. Herders will also be given some of the land closest to water, and rules are being established so that everyone can get along.

But at their village, fishermen cleaning some of their catch of the day are furious. They explain that when these water stations first started, thousands of fish were sucked out, and stolen by smugglers at night, who then took their loot to nearby Nigeria, making fortunes by local standards. The project has also caused the disappearance of several species of birds that prey on fish.

Another more ambitious international project involves pushing some of the overflowing waters of the Oubangui River which separates the two Congos into Lake Chad.

An agro-economist for the United Nations food and agriculture agency, Aggrey Moussa Mahamat, says even though it sounds far-fetched, it is now feasible.

"It is clear that this is a big big project," he says. "We used to talk about it so many years ago. But now it is going to be a reality. Through this project water which will come from the Congo, ex-Zaire, through Central African Republic to Chad, and we can have enough water for the whole Lake Chad."

But Mr. Mahamat says money will be needed, as well as realization this is crucial to the survival of an entire region. "Big donors must be interested," he adds. "I think it will maybe be United States agencies, maybe European [Union] economies. It will be very costly to realize this project. It will be very important for agriculture, for livestock and the whole population who is living around Lake Chad."

For fishermen like Ousmane, it might be the only way that fish will not be entirely replaced by camels.

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