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African nations seek global help for Lake Chad
Thursday, August 03, 2000

NDJAMENA, Chad, Environment News Service

Five African nations have signed an agreement to conserve Lake Chad, the continent's most endangered wetland. They are seeking global conservation status for the shrinking lake under the Ramsar Convention, an international agreement that protects the wetlands of the world.

After a week long summit meeting in the Chad capital of Ndjamena, the nations of Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and the Central African Republic announced they want the lake protected under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance.

They want a total of two and half million hectares (9,650 square miles) to be included in the protected area.

The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and use of wetlands and their resources.

Lake Chad was originally an ancient sea, stretching as far as the Nile basin, covering some 300,000 square kilometers (115,830 square miles).

The lake practically dried up in the 18th and 19th centuries and was partially regenerated in the 20th century.

In 1960, it covered about 25,000 square kilometers (9,652 square miles). In the last 40 years it has shrunk by 80 percent and now covers an area of only 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles).

Climate change and unsustainable water management are prinicpally to blame.

Lake Chad derives 90 percent of its inflow from the Logone Chari river system, which originates in the mountains of the Central African Republic, the only country of the five not to actually border the lake.

The amount of water flowing into Lake Chad from the Logone Chari river system is half what it was between the 1930s and 1960s because it has been diverted for other uses.

Similarly the important Komadougou Yobe River, originating in northern Nigeria, now flows to Lake Chad only during the rainy season.

Severe droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, combined with diversions for irrigation, contributed to the shrinkage of the once great inland sea.

The 8.3 million people living in the Lake Chad basin who rely on the lake for drinking water, fishing, trade and agriculture, must constantly adapt to survive.

Those living on Lake Chad's shores are some of the more than one billion people globally who lack access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation.

"The first step to turn the crisis around is to designate the lake a wetland of international importance," said Martin Tchumba of World Wildlife Fund-Cameroon (WWF). "Countries must also adapt legislation to ensure the long term conservation of the Lake Chad Basin."

The international conservation group is working in all five countries as part of its Living Waters Campaign. The projects entail an inventory of the lake's biodiversity, and an assessment of the natural resources offered by the lake to surrounding communities, which rely on fishing and trade for their livelihoods.

Among the problems these communities face is invasive carpets of grass which now cover up to half of the lake's surface, making navigation impossible. Unsustainable water management, including dyke building and the lack of proper irrigation systems and resulting salt accumulation in the soil, make this problem worse.

The five countries that signed last week's agreement believe that as adesignated wetland of international importance, Lake Chad's decline could be stabilized.

A recent report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) offers hope, too. It cites hydrological station readings that indicate that lake levels are slowly rising again, possibly because of increased rains in the 1990s.

"A larger lake means more fish, and a longer shoreline increases opportunities for recessional cropping and grazing," says the USAID report. "If this rise continues, it will present new challenges and opportunities to those who depend on the lake and surrounding lands for their subsistence."

Abubakar Jauro, executive secretary of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, believes that designated status under the Ramsar Convention will help all five member nations meet those challenges.

"We wish to see a situation where the ecosystem is restored and stabilized and where all the users participate in achieving the goal of free, easy access to water resources," said Jauro.

The Lake Chad Basin Commission, was established in 1964 to regulate and control the use of water and other natural resources in the basin.


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