On the Damming of Rivers is the second post in a new series about dams and rivers and the upcoming end of fresh water. This post centers on the story of The Hadejia-Nguru wetlands near Lake Chad in Nigeria. It is about what happened to these wetlands after dams were built in the 1970s and it illustrates one of the major water problems that are becoming overwhelming in our world right now.
Lake Chad straddles the border between the nations of Chad and Nigeria. One of the main rivers that drain into Lake Chad is the Yobe River. The portion of the Yobe river above Lake Chad is called the The Hadejia-Nguru wetlands and in 1974 two damns were built on the Yobe River upstream of these wetlands. Before the dams were built, the people living in the area were promised that the dams would make the lives of everyone who lived along the river much better. They were told that everyone would be rich, happy and prosperous.
Unfortunately, almost the opposite was true. Everyone in the Yobe catchment basin ended up having far less food and far less prosperous lives. In fact almost all the farmers and fisherman living along the river have had their lives completely destroyed. The only ones who prospered were the large commercial farmers and people in a few big cities.
Part of what I want to do in this new series is to point out that , contrary to popular opinion, the damming of rivers to control flooding and save water for irrigations is almost always a very bad idea. In fact the consequences of damming rivers has turned out to be such a bad idea that many people who were once strongly in favor of dams, are now clamoring to have them removed. There is a lot of evidence for this position. We will get to this as I report more about the actual consequences of big dams over longer periods of time.
Environmentalists have long been opposed to dams like the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona which flooded Glen Canyon, one of the most beautiful canyons of the Colorado River. But the idea that there is something fundamentally flawed with the whole idea of huge dams on the major rivers of the world is an idea that people are just now becoming aware of. If you want to get a head-start on this idea, check out the list of books and articles at the end of this post.
Most of the information for this post comes from a book by Fred Pearce titled When the Rivers Run Dry. Pearce has been writing about rivers for a long time. He was in the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands area of the Yovee river above Lake Chad in 1992.
Pearce said that when he was in the the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands in 1992,
Its lakes were full of ﬁsh, and every wet season its fertile waters overflowed across the land, creating lush pastures that sustained tens of thousands of cattle and watered more than half a million acres of ﬁelds that farmers planted with crops as the ﬂoodwaters receded. All told, the wetland supported a million or more people and provided exports of ﬁsh and vegetables to cities across the most populous country in Africa.
But says Pearce, even in 1992, if you looked closely at the the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands, you could see that conditions weren’t quite as good as they used to be. In 1974 two dams were constructed on two of the tributaries of the Yobe River and the effects of these dams were just beginning to be felt in 1992. These two dams were the Tiga Dam and the Challawa Borge dam located above the wetlands. These dams were built for irrigation projects that the government promised would turn the landscape green and create wealth for all.
But when Pearce revisited the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands again in 2016, he found an entirely different scene. In the intervening years these two dams destroyed the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands. Pearce says that,
The two dams destroyed a natural bounty of far greater economic as well as ecological value than all the crops grown in these irrigation projects. Today, four-fifths of the wetland has been lost. Lakes like the Punjama where I caught my catfish have died. And without water percolating down from these wetlands into the soil, the water table has declined by as much as 80 feet, unleashing a further round of desiccation. Meanwhile, on the Jama’are River sits the half-completed Kaﬁn Zaki Dam. It would dry out the remainder of the wetland for good.
The death of a wetland is a terrible thing, particularly a wetland in a desert. When it happens, lakes shrivel, crops go brown in the baking sun, ﬁshing nets empty, trees crash to the ground, and herders slaughter their animals for whatever pitiful amount of cash they can raise. The local people depart the badlands, while bad people move in.
In this case the bad people who had moved in were the Boko Haram. You probably recall these guys. They were the ones who kidnaped a large group of young girls, most of whom were never seen alive again.
The reasons that the dams on the Yobe River had such catastrophic results is basically that the dams cut off most to the flow of water to the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands. The river is now just a trickle of what it once was. This has caused the water table to drop 80 feet. And the big spring floods, which annually reinvigorated the land by bringing new topsoil and nutrients into croplands, no longer happen.
It’s easy to think that the communities that depend on natural wild resources and the vagaries of untamed rivers are backwards and as denying progress. But actually the opposite is true. Peace says that,
It is the urban sophisticates with their engineering degrees who haven’t got a clue. The fate of the Hadejia-Nguru wetland tells that story well. Economists have concluded that the big dams and irrigation canals upstream of the region have been a huge waste of money. The value of the crops grown on the irrigation projects is tiny compared with the lost beneﬁts on the wetland from farming, ﬁshing, harvesting timber, raising livestock, gathering honey, cutting straw for construction, and making bricks.
Edward Barbier of Colorado State University has studied the economics of Hadejia-Nguru, totting up the economic gains and losses from the dams. There have been winners and losers, he says. The losers predominate, however. “Gains in irrigation values account for at most around 17 percent of the resulting losses on the ﬂoodplain”—$68 per acre lost against $12 gained. The unfinished projects, he says, should be abandoned. The only sensible use for the existing dams is to re-create the natural ﬂood. Sadly, the bigwigs in Nigeria have yet to take such advice.
The Hadejia-Nguru wetlands are just one part of the Lake Chad area. The catastrophe that befell this area, which was once one of the most prosperous and beautiful areas in the world, has been one of almost unbelievable proportions. In 2017 The New Yorker Magazine wrote a long article about the Lake Chad debacle called “The Worlds Most Complex Disaster.” There is a link to this article at the end of this page.
In future posts I plan to write more about why damming wild rivers is such a bad idea, more about the Lake Chad disaster, about the proposed undoing of the Snake River dams in Wyoming, about new dams in Turkey and the ongoing damming of the Nile River.
Below are some good sources for reading about the water crisis and on the damming of rivers which is rapidly coming to a head all over the world.
More reading on this subject:
Fred Pearce, When the Rivers Run Dry, Fully Revised and Updated Edition: Water-The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century. I think this is the best book around on the problems of water in our modern world. It was published in 2018, so it is pretty much up to date. And Pearce is such a great writer that it is a joy to read.
Jacque Leslie, Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment. Many of the basic problems on the damming of rivers can be found in the introduction of this book.
Jacques Leslie, On the Northwest’s Snake River, the case for dam removal grows. Yale 360 environmental. For me this was a really surprising article because I know the Wyoming part of the Snake River pretty well.
New Yorker, The World’s Most Complex Disaster. This is an eye-opening article.
The Dreamt Land: Chasing water and dust across California by Mark Arax. A very recent book about the end of water in California.
Cadillac Desert: the disappearing west and its disappearing water by Marc Reisner. This book was first published in 1986. It is the classic and one of the very first statements of the upcoming end of water in the American West. It is still very relevant read.
Some more pictures to remind us that there is still hope to save our natural world and its natural water systems.
Summary of this post. The problems of giant dams along with the upcoming end of clean, fresh water all over the world is debatably the greatest problem now faced by humans. On the Damming of Rivers describes one small piece of this problem as it is occurring in the The Hadejia-Nguru wetlands of Nigeria.