Decades ago, when I was in high school, I read Willy Ley’s book Engineer’s Dreams: Great Projects that Could Come True. I vividly remember one of these gigantic, pie-in-the-sky dream projects. If the Congo River were dammed at the right spot, a large lake would form. It would then overflow into a river feeding into Lake Chad. Lake Chad would fill up to its prehistoric level and would then overflow into an ancient river that once flowed through Algeria and Morocco into the Mediterranean Sea. The water would irrigate the Sahara Desert, which would become green again, as it was 10,000 years ago, before humans turned it into a desert.
Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?
Another one of the pie-in-the-sky projects described in the book was to build a tunnel between France and England. Oh, that was accomplished in 1994.
A less ambitious project to just refill Lake Chad is currently being pursued.
After the Amazon River, the Congo River has the second highest discharge rate of any river in the world. Its discharge rate into the Atlantic Ocean is almost 11,000,000 gallons per second.
Images: The ups and downs of Lake Chad, via NASA Earth Observatory.
Lake Chad was once the sixth largest lake in the world, equal in size to the state of New Jersey. As can be seen in the map below, like the Aral Sea in central Asia, Lake Chad is quickly drying up and is now only 5% of its original size. There are a number of interlocking reasons — dams on the rivers that feed the lake, increased irrigation, population increase, and reduced rainfall due to climate change. See The New Yorker for a detailed description.
As can be expected from such a large environmental change, the 30 million people who live in the Chad basin have been negatively impacted. This has led to an armed rebellion which began in northeastern Nigeria but has spread to three other countries in the basin — Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. This group is known as Boko Haram, meaning in the local language “western civilization is forbidden.” It began in 2002 as a nonviolent group to purify Islam in this mostly Islamic area. It slowly became more radical as it was suppressed by the Nigerian military. When the Nigerian government executed its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2009, Boko Haram became increasingly militant and violent. For the last 10 years, the Nigerian army has fought to suppress the insurgency with limited success, partly because the military itself has been accused of major atrocities on the local population. This conflict has displaced 2.3 million people from their homes.
Nigeria, though, has learned what the United States has not learned from 18 years of the “War on Terror” — namely, that a terrorist group cannot be defeated by military means. It is like the hydra of Greek mythology – when the head of the hydra is cut off, two grow in its place. Likewise, a military campaign against terrorists ends up recruiting more terrorists.
The real, effective solution is to deal with the issues that have led to the rebellion, in this case the deterioration of the Lake Chad basin environment. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has realized that one major method to reverse that deterioration is to refill Lake Chad with waters from the Ubangi River, one of the major tributaries of the Congo River. Buhari has said that widespread poverty and the shrinkage of the Lake Chad are fueling the crisis and has called on the regional leaders to increase efforts for recharging the lake through Inter-Basin Water Transfer (IBWT) from the Congo Basin.
Four large 5 meter (16.5 foot) pipes would draw water from the Ubangi River and pump it 180 meters (590 feet) uphill 128 kilometers (80 miles) to the crest of the Chad basin where the water would flow by gravity for 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) down the Fala/Chari Rivers into Lake Chad. There would be no need for an expensive, ecologically damaging dam on the Ubangi River as Willy Ley and others proposed. The interesting part of this proposal is that a 375 MW solar farm would supply the needed electricity during the daylight hours to pump the water uphill. This would be coupled with a lithium-ion 1000 MWh grid-scale battery to pump one-fourth of the amount of water during the times when the sun is not shining so that there would always be a continuous flow of water down the river to Lake Chad.
This intake from the Ubangi River would amount to only 0.7% to 5% of the water in the river and only 0.25% of the water from the Congo River that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. It would take 2 to 5 years at this rate to refill Lake Chad. The cost of the project (I’ll believe it when I see it) is $275 million.
Unlike the project in Willy Ley’s book this proposal is not “pie in the sky.” President Buhari has led the presidents of the three other countries involved through the Lake Chad Basin Commission to develop this project. He has gotten U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to agree to help raise the necessary funds. Recently, he was in the Middle East trying to get his fellow Muslims to help finance the project.
Will this ever happen? One of the major rationales for this project is national security. Since “national security” seems an excuse to accomplish things that would not otherwise be accepted, such as the US National System for Interstate and Defense Highways (the official name of the Interstate highway system), which was justified by President Eisenhower for national security reasons, I think this has a good possibility of happening. If it does not happen, the environmental destruction of the Lake Chad basin will increase and its inhabitants will see even more suffering. So I hope that this project moves forward.