Lake Chad to be fully protected as international wetlands

by Feb 2, 2010Wetlands

Cameroon is about to recognize its portion of Lake Chad as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, the Switzerland-based conservation charity WWF said today.

WWF, which partnered with the Lake Chad Basin Commission, the Ramsar Convention and the Global Environment Facility on projects in Lake Chad and with the governments on achieving the declaration, said: “the challenge now is to turn the promise of protection for Lake Chad into a reality for the millions that depend on it.”

Surrounded by wetlands, Lake Chad is a crucial watering point for millions of European and west Asian migratory birds that fly over the Sahara Desert–and its basin sustains about 20 million people. But the lake is threatened by creeping desertification and poor management of its water and fisheries, according to WWF.

WWF released the news today to mark World Wetlands Day, which celebrates the signing of one of the Convention on Wetlands on February 2, 1971 in the Caspian Sea city of Ramsar, Iran. The convention, known generally as the Ramsar Convention, followed rising concern over the fate of migratory birds and was the first modern international environment treaty, according to WWF.

“World Wetlands Day is being celebrated with the full recognition of Africa’s Lake Chad as a wetland of international significance, fulfilling an agreement made a decade ago by the four nations that share it,” the organization said in a news statement.

“The declaration by the Cameroon Republic that its portion of Africa’s fourth largest lake is being declared a wetland of international importance under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands follows similar declarations by Niger and Chad (both in 2001) and Nigeria (2008).

“Cameroon’s announcement will also clear the way for Lake Chad to become the largest of the world’s few recognised trans-boundary international wetlands, where countries make a formal agreement for joint protection and management of shared aquatic ecosystems and their resources.”

“Lake Chad’s inscription as only the 13th trans-boundary formally recognised wetland is highly significant as 11 of the areas so far declared are in Europe,” said Denis Landenbergue, WWF International’s wetlands conservation manager. “Lake Chad joins the Saloum Delta shared by Senegal and Gambia as only the second such site in Africa.”

Lake Chad is the remnant of a much larger lake known as Mega-Chad which 22,000 years ago drained a greener Sahara and was three times the size of Lake Victoria, now Africa’s largest lake, WWF noted.

“It is now the focal point of life in a huge expanse of arid Sahelian Africa. Technically best described as an inland delta, the new internationally protected wetland covers 2.6 million hectares vital to countless birds as well as endangered otters, gazelles and elephants. The Lake is also home to hippopotamuses and Nile Crocodiles.”

Lake Chad basin is home to over 20 million people with the majority dependent on the lake and other wetlands for their fishing, hunting, farming and grazing. But the basin is recognized as highly challenged by climate change, desertification and unsustainable management of water resources and fisheries, according to WWF.

Since the early 1960s, rainfall over the basin decreased significantly while irrigation increased dramatically over the same period, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. “The lake is especially susceptible to climatic variability as it is rather shallow, with an average depth of 4.11 meters [13.48 feet]. As a result of decreased rainfall and increased water usage, the extent of Lake Chad decreased by 95 per cent over roughly 35 years,” UNEP says on its “Atlas of Our Changing Environment” Web site..

“Lake Chad is one of the largest and most important of the vital watering points for migratory birds from Europe and west Asia that each year cross the Sahara and it is also where many of them stop and stay for the winter,” Landenbergue said.

In Cameroon, adding the completing piece to the Lake Chad world wetland is the latest of a string of Ramsar declarations over recent years, WWF said.

“From the mangrove forests of the Ntem Estuary, curling through the crater lakes of the Cameroon Highlands and into Waza Logone flood plain and the Lake Chad basin, Cameroon’s wetlands constitute a haven for biological diversity,” said Natasha Quist, head of WWF’s Central African Regional Programme.

As these satellite images from 1972 to 2007 show, the surface area of Lake Chad has declined dramatically over time. The 2007 image shows significant improvement over previous years, but the extent of Lake Chad is still far smaller than it was three to four decades ago.