• U.S.

Science: Rebirth of the Chad

3 minute read
TIME

The two French scientists were standing near the dry-mud river bed when they heard the sound of the water. Looking up, they watched a shallow yellow wave ripple across the valley floor, driving before it a bevy of small animals, insects and snakes. Overhead the pelicans circled by the hundreds, diving occasionally to scoop up a flopping fish. Scientists M. Lefevre and A. Bouchardeau hurried back to their base camp to report that for the first time since 1873 the waters were running in the Bahr el Ghazal, outlet of Central Africa’s fabled Lake Chad.

Situated in the borderland of the Sahara and the Sudan, 175-mile-long Lake Chad is the last fragment of a sprawling inland sea estimated to have been roughly the size of the Caspian. It once constituted an inland trading route and a favorite hunting ground of pirates. But long before it was first sighted by Europeans in 1823, the lake began receding before the southward encroachment of the Sahara Desert. Scientists suspect that it was also draining away through an underground outlet. As Chad was transformed into a wilderness of swamplands and papyrus jungles, its water level dropped to a point where it no longer flowed out through the Bahr el Ghazal. Rice farmers along the river banks and the lake’s once-fertile shores packed up and moved southward. With the maximum depth of the lake down to 22 feet, the French set up the Commission Scientifique de Tchad to study ways of preserving the livelihood of the 200,000 people still clustered on its shores.

In 1953 the centuries-old trend was unaccountably reversed. The lake began to rise rapidly, spilling over into the mud flats and inundating the clay-and-sand islands that dotted its shallows. The rising water level created its own hazards. Grazing lands were flooded, and immense expanses of papyrus set adrift. In the course of one howling storm, 16 Kotoko fishermen in a four-boat flotilla were driven into a field of floating papyrus and held captive by the sinewy stems. The crew of one boat managed to cut their way out of the papyrus jungle when they drifted into shallow water; the other crews and their boats were never seen again.

Despite such hazards, the scientists of the Commission Scientifique du Tchad are enthusiastic about the lake’s apparent resurrection. It will immensely increase the agricultural yield of the region and stimulate trade along newly created waterways. At the same time, none of the scientists will predict how long the lake will continue to rise. Although it is currently higher than it has been in 50 years, its rise has not been accompanied by any increase in rainfall. The scientists’ best guess: the underground reservoir of water into which the lake’s waters have apparently been draining is now filled, and Chad will continue to expand until it finds a new subterranean outlet. By last week, the scientists noted happily, the waters of the Bahr el Ghazal were already approaching their historic banks and irrigating lands uncultivated for generations.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com