The fact that Lake Chad is shrinking has been known since at least the late 1800s. In 1899, Winston Churchill noted that Lake Chad “appears to be leaking”. Given that it is the primary water source for around 30 million people in the Sahel region (which includes Northern Nigeria), finding a solution to the lake’s disappearance should have been a top priority for the countries in the region. However, the problem has been ignored by the region's governments, and the Lake has continued to shrink—it is now 90% smaller than it was in the 1960s.
In 1992, an Italian construction firm proposed an ambitious plan to reverse the shrinking of Lake Chad by constructing a 2400km canal to transfer 100 billion cubic metres of water from the Congo River to the lake. According to an engineer who worked on the project, the response was “a deafening silence”. Although it is far from clear if this would have been the best solution for dealing with the disappearance of Lake Chad, to this day no alternative measures have been implemented by any of the countries in the Sahel.
Most attempts at solving the problem have not been backed up with the necessary resources. Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad established the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) in 1964 partly to manage the water resources of the Lake Chad basin. However, an audit of the LCBC found that it does not fulfil its purpose, particularly with regards to the management and protection of the basin's water resources, and that the efforts of the ministries in the respective countries were largely inadequate.
The Lake Chad Development and Climate Resilience Action Plan, prepared in 2015 by the LCBC, the World Bank, and the French Development Agency, aims to turn the lake into a pillar for regional rural development. Although the plan calls for the LCBC to be reformed and strengthened to make it more effective in fulfilling its mandate, Nigeria's House of Representatives threatened to suspend Nigeria's financial contributions to the LCBC earlier this year.
The disappearance of Lake Chad has been a disaster for the Sahel. As the Lake has disappeared, it has taken economic opportunities for the people who rely on it to provide water for their crops and livestock, or to supply them with fish along with it. The UN estimates that 10.7 million people in the Lake Chad basin need humanitarian help to survive. Closer to home, the disappearance of Lake Chad is partially responsible for the recent escalation of violent clashes between herdsmen and farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt as herdsmen in the Sahel region now have to move further south in search of water. A failure to build a canal (or implement another workable solution) over 20 years ago is contributing to a loss of lives today. Clearly, just as actions have consequences, so does inaction.
The government's poor response to the disappearance of Lake Chad is not an isolated situation. Many of Nigeria’s long-term problems, such as our inadequate electricity supply, the environmental damage in the Niger Delta, traffic in Lagos, and the many security issues around the country are partly due to successive Nigerian governments kicking the can down the road. This is not a uniquely Nigerian problem. All over the world, governments in democracies with term limits have a tendency to avoid solving difficult long-term issues since they know the consequences will only be felt long after they have left office. Governments will only factor long-term problems into their decision-making if the electorate imposes a political cost for ignoring those problems.
As the 2019 elections roll around the corner, the news cycle has been dominated by news of defections, impeachment attempts, and other political intrigues. While the antics of Nigeria’s politicians are entertaining, they are a mere distraction from issues that are more important in the long term. The number of extremely poor people in Nigeria, already the highest in the world, increases by six people every minute. Our economy is still dependent on oil revenue while the rise of electric vehicles raises the prospect of a peak in demand for oil before the middle of the century. The approximately 10 million Nigerian children who are out of school today could provide a steady supply of recruits for criminal gangs or even terrorist groups in a few years. Given that Nigeria’s population is set to more than double by 2050, solving these problems will become simultaneously more difficult and more urgent.
Just as the failure to find a solution to the shrinking of Lake Chad has contributed to thousands of deaths across Nigeria’s Middle Belt today, the issues that we fail to deal with today could have disastrous consequences in the future. The identity of Nigeria’s next President will not matter if we continue to allow our government to ignore critical long-term issues. Therefore, while we watch the political theatre that will play out over the next few months, we must also keep one eye on the real issues that threaten the future of our country.