Three major canal schemes criticised over use of science

Lake Chad Boat_Jacob Silberberg_Panos
Copyright: Jacob Silberberg/Panos

Speed read

  • A Red Sea-Dead-Sea canal project is open and realistic about environmental risks
  • A decision against funding a canal to Lake Chad is supported by little available evidence
  • Scientists say a Nicaraguan canal now being built has not faced proper scrutiny

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Three water management projects involving canals in separate parts of the world have been criticised for how they incorporate scientific evidence — albeit for varying reasons.

The ambitious projects are being marketed as an opportunity to improve the fortunes of the regions surrounding them. Yet perhaps due to their great geopolitical significance, each is treating the scientific analysis of the canals’ potential risks and benefits very differently.

All three projects reached turning points last December. Building work began on a huge canal in Nicaragua. Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed a water-sharing agreement that put the construction of a US$900 million Red Sea-Dead-Sea canal on course to start by the end of 2015. But a plan to build a canal to revive Lake Chad was excluded from US$70 million worth of loans announced by the African Development Bank (AfDB) to tackle water supply problems because of perceived environmental risks.

The Lake Chad project may be the most ambitious of the three schemes — and it follows decades of frustration for its backers.

An organisation set up by highly controversial US political activist Lyndon LaRouche has been unsuccessfully pressing for a canal project known as Transaqua. LaRouche and the various publishing organisations he runs have previously attracted suspicion for circulating conspiracy theories and advocating for grand infrastructure projects. The Transaqua project they now support would redirect five per cent of the water flowing down the Congo River — or 100 billion cubic metres a year — along a navigable 2,400 kilometre canal and into a river that feeds the shrinking lake Chad. The project, conceived in 1972 by Italian engineers, seeks to restore the lake’s surface area from the 1,350 square kilometres most recently estimated to its 1960s level of 25,000 square kilometres.

In 2013, then European Union (EU) development commissioner Andris Piebalgs said the EU felt Transaqua posed “major environmental risks”. “Studies of its feasibility and social and environmental impacts are still ongoing,” he added.

But in response to SciDev.Net’s enquiries, EU representatives were unable to identify any such studies.

In December 2014, the AfDB published an appraisal of a plan to improve Lake Chad and its surroundings, benefiting Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. The PRESIBALT (Programme to Rehabilitate and Strengthen the Resilience of Lake Chad Basin Systems) initiative considered a scaled-down version of the Transaqua scheme. But the AfDB still rejected the proposal to divert about eight per cent of water from Congo tributary the Ubangi River — which takes water from the Central African Republic, Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo — to Lake Chad mainly due to expense and environmental risk.

“Canals can potentially help move water to where it has greatest benefit, but are not a magic bullet for water scarcity.”

Homi Kharas, Brookings Institution

Cross-contamination of species from the two river systems could “trigger an unprecedented ecological disaster”, said the appraisal, without reference to further evidence.

Lawrence Freeman, director of the Africa desk of the Executive Intelligence Review magazine founded by LaRouche, tells SciDev.Net he hopes China could contribute the billions of dollars required for feasibility studies and construction.

The wrong focus?

The Transaqua and PRESIBALT projects mainly focus on increasing water supply. This is part of a general trend of overlooking lower-risk opportunities, says Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard University, United States. “There is little attention going to more efficient use, especially in agriculture,” he says. “This will entail the use of new technologies such as the encapsulation of water for later release and intensive water recycling and reuse.”

The LaRouche team say they are partly driven by the drying lake’s geopolitical importance. They call Transaqua a “peace-through-development approach” that would help to deal with the root causes of growing insurgencies, such as Boko Haram.

With researchers claiming drought in Syria contributed to its civil war, a similar motivation lies behind the canal planned to link the Red Sea, which separates North Africa and the Middle East, and the Dead Sea, a salt lake bordered by Israel, Jordan and Palestine. As well as filling the drying Dead Sea and reviving its environment, the initiative aims to generate power and provide fresh water through desalination.

In marked contrast to Transaqua, the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal’s feasibility was scrutinised by in-depth, publicly available studies. As well as a panel of academics and experts from around the world convened by the World Bank, each aspect of investigations has been done by different specialist teams. The studies include environmental monitoring of both the Red Sea and Dead Sea, and geological, seismic and hydrogeological measurements along the proposed route.

The studies accept some environmental risks, concluding that demand for water would inevitably require similarly risky projects elsewhere, and recommending steps to minimise damage. Nevertheless, Friends of the Earth has criticised the plans. The environmental organisation warns that the volume of incoming water proposed will be insufficient to fill the Dead Sea, but will be enough to change its chemistry and harm its ecosystem.

Homi Kharas, deputy director of the global economy and development programme at US-based public policy think-tank the Brookings Institution, has similar reservations to Juma over this approach. “Canals, like the proposed Red Sea-Dead Sea project, can potentially help move water to where it has greatest benefit, but are not a magic bullet for water scarcity,” he says. “Options including greater efficiency of use through appropriate pricing and regulatory policies should also be considered.”

Despite the concerns, the Red Sea-Dead Sea project seems significantly more transparent than the US$40 billion Nicaraguan Grand Canal shipping route. The Nicaraguan government hopes the shipping route, intended to rival the Panama Canal, will propel economic growth. It has granted sole rights to build and then operate the canal for 50 years to Chinese infrastructure firm HKND Group.

Researchers in the country are angry because they feel the project has been rushed through without proper scientific consideration. The canal’s route through Lake Nicaragua is a threat to water supplies and the environment, they say. The government is using secrecy to ignore these risks in favour of economic and geopolitical considerations, they argue.

In doing so, Nicaragua’s policymakers have turned many scientists into enemies, rather than recruiting them as allies and advisors on how to balance risks, as the Red Sea-Dead Sea scheme has. As a consequence, progress on the different canals may offer telling evidence of the importance of transparent science in planning such projects.