TRANSAQUA, THE ITALIAN WAY TO SAHEL BOYCOTTED FROM FRANCE AND EUROPEAN UNION
(Analisi Difesa, 30 august 2023)
Too much “environmental stress”. This was the French researchers’ comment on the possible repercussions of the Italian project aimed at saving the dying Lake Chad, in the heart of the incandescent Sahel, where drought and hunger have long been fuel for conflicts and migratory flows. Not only. According to French scholars, the disappearance of the lake is a sort of myth, just fake news.
“They must stop saying that Lake Chad is not disappearing”, asked in 2012 the former French Minister of the Environment Segolene Royal. And the reference was to the famous IRD, the French National Research Institute for Development financed by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs which then, probably, he did not even imagine that his Françafrique would have crumbled piece by piece, from Mali to Mauritania, from Burkina Faso to Niger. A list of countries where economic fragility is a fertile ground for political instability, for the recruitment campaigns of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and for the advance of Russian military contractors.
In addition to losing influence and allocating a billion euros a year to the failed Barkhane anti-terrorism mission, the French must have also lost sight of the real conditions of the lake which has shrunk by 90% since the 1960s while the surrounding population has gone from 5 to 60 million, of which 34 million according to the United Nations survive thanks to humanitarian assistance.
The Lake Chad basin is endorheic, which means it does not have a way out to the sea where excess water flows, and is therefore extremely sensitive to changes of natural and anthropic origin, inflows, evaporation and consumption. Climate change and population growth therefore have devastating effects
THE ITALIAN PROJECT
To save the Lake Chad Italian engineers had an idea. They developed it within the offices go Bonifica company, formerly IRI, way back in 1972 . The project goes under the name of Transaqua and consist in creating a complex of artificial reservoirs connected to each other thanks to which it would be possible to transfer by gravity the water from the Congo River basin (and its main tributary, the Ubangi) to Lake Chad.
A project which, in addition to restoring the original size of the lake and stopping the advance of the desert, would allow the production of hydroelectric power, the creation of an agricultural development area larger than Lombardy, the creation of a large internal waterway and to improve navigation on the Ubangi.
The maximum development of the project could reach 2400 km of waterway, but it could be developed in subsequent phases, each with immediate returns in environmental, irrigation and energy and therefore social and economic terms.
A real driving force for the Countries bordering the basin such as Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger, which, to coordinate the use of water and other resources, together with the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya and Algeria, have established the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC).
“Transaqua is the only viable option to bring the lake back to life”, declared LCBC at the conclusion of the “Save Lake Chad” conference organized by UNESCO in Abuja (Nigeria) in February 2018. Yet, as promising as it is, the Italian project was always opposed by the French and their “friends”.
Although Europe continues to express concern for the Sahel and for 2023 has allocated 1.7 billion euros in humanitarian aid, when the MEP Cristiana Muscardini already presented a question to the European Parliament in 2013 to find out if the idea to build an infrastructure like Transaqua was ever considered, Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs hid behind the usual “environmental risks”. Risks which, however, are only hypothetical since the feasibility study, a necessary step for any technical, environmental and economic-financial evaluation, has not yet been made.
“The French objections are rather curious, as if infrastructural interventions should not be carried out in Africa” comments the former Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for the Sahel Romano Prodi who saw the project born when he was President of the ‘IRI. “Transaqua is about helping nature, about recovering a situation of internal balance for the benefit of the African people. To understand the importance of it, we can just consider that the Lake Chad basin covers an eighth of the African continent.”
The environmental concerns though, have not been the only obstacles. A 2020 report financed by the British Commonwealth and French government institutions (Soft Power, Discourse Coalitions, and the Proposed Inter-basin Water Transfer Between Lake Chad and the Congo River), ended up accusing Italy of “neo-colonial aims” . According to the Canadian-made study, Transaqua’s goal of placing the waterway as part of the broader African transportation system would be “in line with Italy’s previous expansionist dreams for the Sahel region.” In short, for Italy, a glorious return to the imperialistic ambitions of the past. A sort of paranoid vision compared to Italy’s real intentions if we consider that to date, not even the 3 million euros needed to carry out the feasibility study have been found.
FEASIBILITY STUDY: FINANCING AMID CONTINUOUS FLOPS
The government led by Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni tried. It gave the green light to a first tranche of 1.5 million euros on 29 February 2018 during the UNESCO conference in Abuja. The other half would have been placed by Power China with which the Bonifica company had signed a collaboration agreement at the suggestion of LCBC determined to include Lake Chad in the Silk Road. In fact, the Chinese industrial giant has the necessary expertise because it has carried out a similar project to save Beijing from desertification, the South to North Water Transfer Project which connects the Yangzi River with the Huaihe River and the Yellow River.
On 16 October 2018, the Italian Ministry of the Environment signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with LCBC, a bureaucratic step that should have led to a tender
for the realization of the feasibility study. As we read in the document, the plan included also the search of further funding from the European Union, World Bank and African Development Bank. Instead, perhaps due to the change of government, nothing happened and the funds got lost.
In January 2019 it was Giuseppe Conte’s turn to fly to Niger and Chad, determined to fight the causes of migratory flows. In the joint press conference with Chadian President Idriss Déby, the Transaqua project returned to the table as a concrete example of a development program for Africa. “If the drying of the lake continues, there will be an increase in poverty, immigration and the terrorist threat” observes Conte. Senator Tony Iwobi (League) reintroduces the financing into the budget law but once again, following the fall of the government, all trace of it is lost.
The estimated cost, roughly, is about 50 billion dollars. Certainly a lot of money but not impossible if we consider that only the United States has committed to support the 2063 agenda of the African Union with an allocation of 55 billion dollars over three years while more than a billion dollars have been spent by the USA alone for military bases and garrisons in the area, half of which in Niger alone.
ONLY HUMANITARIAN AID AND SHORT TERM PROJECTS
The one who has been trying for years to build bridges between the different souls of the Commission for the Lake Chad Basin, the demands of the Congo which has always raised the stakes in exchange for “its” waters, and the western Countries, is the Minister of Nigeria Waters Suleiman Adamu who has always worked in the direction of radical interventions and long-term solutions.
“Unfortunately the International Community seems to want to focus more on short or medium term humanitarian and environmental interventions” Adamu comments to us, recalling the promises of the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres whose promises to Nigerian government to raise the necessary funds to create Transaqua have not materialized yet.
No help has came even from the United States whose ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas Greenfield, last October 12, speaking about the effects of climate change in Africa, defined the death of Lake Chad as inevitable.
A disheartening scenario according to the analyst of African politics and economics Lawrence Freeman, vice president of the scientific committee of the Lake Chad Basin Commission who recalls that since the death of John Kennedy onwards, the concept of “Africa’s development” has unfortunately disappeared from the American vocabulary.
Proof of this, he explains, is that despite billions of dollars allocated to fight climate change around the world, to date the United States has not managed to help any African country develop into an industrialized economy.
A certain disappointment can also be felt within the Bonifica offices, where the CEO Romina Boldrini shows me years’ letters and communications. I ask her if Italian Government intentions to withdraw from the Silk Road could represent an obstacle toward a possible resumption of the project. “We can move forward even without the Chinese. As the Italian government could go on with the project without us. What matters is to do it, but to date, no one from the government seems to have brought the project back to the table”.
A curious forgetfulness since the right time seems to be arrived for Italy whose Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has recently announced a “Mattei Plan” for Africa aimed at a new approach towards African countries. A new paradigm as she recalls inspired by principles of cooperation rather than exploitation, very much needed at this time where Italy is managing an increasingly difficult migratory flow. With the African countries increasingly tired of the French influence, for Italy it could be the right time to show this new approach starting from a concrete example.
“Transaqua could be a wonderful proposal – comment Prodi with us – and Italy, could lead the way because it cannot do it alone. A strong and healthy lobbying action is needed, together with Europe, the United Nations, the African Union, the United States and even China if necessary. We need everyone’s collaboration. It’s time to put an end to the separate approaches to Africa, for which, as everyone can see, France is paying a very high price”.