After “enormous resources” was deployed in search for oil on the Nigerian side of Lake Chad Basin by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), a breakthrough was announced last week. According to Dr. Jamila Shua’ra, the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Petroleum Resources, “Our doggedness culminated in the discovery of oil in new frontiers – Lagos and Borno.” This discovery (though the details are still shrouded in secrecy) is not surprising and is coming at the heels of similar finds in the adjoining Chad.
The puzzle however is the plan by the government to concurrently commence oil exploitation in the Northeast at the same time committing to ecological restoration of the Lake Chad Basin – the heartland of Boko Haram.
From the perspective of environmental effects, it’s obvious that there are competing visions of development. Here is why. The location of Lake Chad at the transition zone between arid and semi-arid regions, makes is vulnerable and sensitive to change. The last time we experienced the worst severe drought in living memory in the Sahel region of West Africa was in the early 1980s and one of the remarkable lingering effects was the desiccation of Lake Chad. The slow recovery from the sudden perturbation following the drought is an early warning signal and calls for an urgent action.
So, while I agree with President Buhari on the need to articulate a systematic restoration plan for the Lake Chad ecological system, drilling for oil there at the same time looks like an invitation to environmental chaos. The experience of the environmental carnage in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria should be a reminder of the devastating effect of oil exploitation in a country with near zero level of enforcing international standards in the extractive industries.
The extraction of oil from this inland basin will compound land degradation and environmental devastation. In addition, toxic wastes from oil spillage and leaking/broken pipelines will pollute the local waters upstream and ultimately the entire Lake Chad. Oil production can thus be messy and destructive. It can wreak additional havoc on the drought affected rivers and ecosystem. The question is, why put at risk these regionally sensitive area and the wildlife that depend on them for a “negligible” amount of oil?”
What immediately comes to mind is the urgency to score a political point that after all, the North can also boost of some oil reserve and revenue. That’s okay in today’s Nigeria where regional sentiment and resource control is trending. The quest to join the league of oil producing states or region supersedes environmental concerns. But there is a big elephant in the room– corruption. If we learnt anything from what has happened and is happening to the oil revenue from Niger Delta, it is clear that oil revenue paid by companies end up in the hands of corrupt government bureaucrats, leaving the oil producing communities in the sorry state of environmental decay. So, what could be done to avoid a repeat of mistakes in the Niger Delta oil region?
A medium to long-term strategy that will include an explicit assessment of ecosystem resilience and evaluation of ecosystem restoration benefits should be a starting point. To this end, oil corporations involved in oil exploration and exploitation in Lake Chad Basin should be involved in social projects like restoration of Lake Chad. They should be made to incorporate social and environmental considerations in their oil exploitation activities. We have all seen the devastated wasteland left behind by oil exploitation in the Niger Delta region. Any oil-prospecting license in the Lake Chad Basin should therefore be accompanied with a plan to minimize environmental damage. Such plan should include steps that will restore the already degraded land as well as better the lives of the local communities.
It is therefore necessary that the Nigerian government should trade with caution when it comes to how to delicately balance this two competing developmental goals. There is currently no action plan to mitigate and adapt to the socioeconomic as well as environmental challenges posed by this apparent regime change in the Lake Chad Basin. This is partly due to the absence of funding and lack of political will from member countries of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) namely Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Central African Republic. But there can be proactive measures to minimize drought impact on water resources that can assume and shape change.
Lake Chad wetland represents a threatened ecosystem that sustains life through the provision of critical services like fishing, water for irrigation and biodiversity. The desiccation of Lake Chad already has serious repercussions on the local economy, farming and livestock production. Local population that survives on cultivation from the lake, risks losing the ability to sustain livelihood from this natural resource.
Addressing this problem of environmental change in a drought prone region requires an ecological restoration project that transcends disciplinary boundaries and informs public policy. The good news is that one of the underlying drivers of the critical slowing down in the recovery of Lake Chad – anthropogenic pressure – can be manipulated. As such, proactive intervention in the form of wetland restoration and enhancement should form an integral part of adaptation and mitigation measures and any oil prospecting business in the lake Chad Basin. Measures that can be taken now to boost the resilience of Lake Chad ecosystem should be identified and prioritized.
There is thus need to establish a Lake Chad Resilience Project that will demonstrate how a science-based ecological restoration could incorporate community participation, inform decisions and improve economic wellbeing. The resilience project should champion plans to invest in sustainable industries such as fisheries and hydropower through the inter-basin water transfer from the Congo Basin as well as ecotourism. All these has the potential of creating permanent jobs and serving as the economic engine for resettling the ‘repented’ members of the dreaded Boko Haram currently ravaging the northeast region of Nigeria.
Failure to adequately preserve the ecosystem and guarantee the economic wellbeing of the inhabitants of Lake Chad Basin will be counterproductive. If Boko Haram will muster the financial resources and determination to challenge the territorial integrity of Nigeria “empty handed”, imagine, just imagine what they will do when oil production begins to devastate what is left of Lake Chad. It’s going to be a nightmare.
As we celebrate this discovery therefore, the unknown is whether the prospect of oil revenue will encourage the Boko Haram terrorist to fight on. Or worst still, will they go underground and resurface as “Lake Chad Avengers” after oil production in the region has commenced?
Churchill Okonkwo is the Director of the African Center for Climate Science and Policy Research, Washington DC. You can email Churchill at [email protected]