Historic Italian-Chinese Agreement on Lake Chad

 Lawrence Freeman

August 8, 2017

      Backed by their respective governments, the Italian engineering firm Bonifica Spa and the ChinaPower, one of China’s biggest multinationals, signed a letter of intent for cooperation in exploring the feasibility, and eventually implement the construction of the largest infrastructure ever envisioned for Africa, the integrated water-transfer, energy and transportation infrastructure called Transaqua.

     The letter was signed during a meeting between the executive leaders of the two companies in Hangzhou on June 6-8, in the presence of the Italian ambassador to China, but it was made known only at the beginning of August.

 

Fisherman on Lake Chad

 

The author travelling on Lake Chad with Mohammed Billa of the LCBC

          Transaqua is an idea developed by Bonifica in the 1970s, to build a 2,400 km-long canal from the southern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) which would intercept the right bank tributaries of the Congo River through dams and reservoirs, and carry up to 100 billion cubic meters of water per year, by gravity, to Lake Chad, in order to refill the shrinking Lake Chad, and in addition produce electricity and abundant water for irrigation. The canal would be a key transportation infrastructure for central Africa.

          In past decades, the situation around Lake Chad has become more and more explosive and urgent. While the drying out of the lake has forced a mass emigration to Europe, the impoverishment of the region has become a fertile ground for recruiting terrorists to Boko Haram. Although Transaqua offered a solution to all those problems, Western nations and institutions had so far refused to accept it, on financial and ideological pretexts.

          This project can now become reality in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. This author along with other advocates made it possible for Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), under Nigerian leadership, and the Transaqua authors from Bonifica to come together, and agreed that Transaqua is the most comprehensive and realistic solution to preventing Lake Chad from completely disappearing, and reversing the abject poverty in the Lake Chad Basin. In December 2016, the LCBC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with PowerChina, and eventually organized contact between the Italian and the Chinese companies.

          Speaking about the 2016 MOU to the {Nigeria Tribune} July 25, Nigerian Water Minister, Suleiman Adamu, noted that PowerChina is responsible for the inter-basin transfer. “China is doing exactly the same thing, they are transferring water from southern China to northern China. Just like Nigeria, southern China has more water than the north. In the northern part, some areas are semi-arid, so they are transferring water. The total canal that they built is about 2,500 kilometers, and that is Phase 1.”

          The Executive Secretary of the LCBC, Eng. Abdullahi Sanusi, expressed his confidence that the new cooperation will succeed “to be part of good history, to bring hope to the voiceless.”

          Lake Chad, a mega lake in prehistoric times, stabilized at 25,000 square kilometers in 1963. Since then it has contracted to as little as 2,000 square kilometers, and recently may have expanded up to as much as 4,000 square miles. Over 40 million Africans, the plurality Nigerians live in the Lake Chad Basin-(LCB) that has a drainage area of 2,439,000 square kilometers. Poor rainfall is a factor, but the precise cause for its diminished size of Lake Chad is unclear, given that the lake is reported to have almost disappeared in earlier times. With the area of lake having been reduced approximately to 10% of its size from a half century ago, the economy, which depends primarily of fishing and farming has been devastated. While travelling on the lake by motorized canoe in 2014, I witnessed fisherman standing in water barely above their ankles. Military professionals and analysts are now beginning to understand that the extreme poverty of Africans living in the LCB is a crucial factor in the increased recruitment to Boko Haram. These impoverished youths who see no future for themselves and are desperate to make money by joining this extremist movement.

          Minister Adamu displayed his understanding of the relationship between security and economy concerning the LCB when he told the Nigerian Tribune: “It is not a climate issue, it is a security issue-the security issue we are having in the Northeast. I can guarantee you that substantially it has to do with the drying of up of the lake, because youth there have lost all opportunities of hope there.”

          Nigeria is by far the largest economy of the six countries of the LCBC. President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria has stated publicly and privately that expanding Lake Chad is a priority of his administration. Eng. Abdullahi is also a strong advocate of restoring the lake to its previous size.  In the recent period, we have witnessed growing support for this project from some elements of the United States military, who realize this project is an essential component of countering violent extremism in the LCB.

          If these efforts successfully lead to the transfer of water to save Lake Chad, it will be celebrated throughout the Africa continent