December 19, 2017

By Charles Newman (MDes R&R 2018)

Over the course of my 3 semesters at the GSD in the Risk and Resilience program I have pursued my growing interest in understanding the motivations and the inherent risks presented by the design and construction of large scale multinational infrastructure projects.  Having conducted in-depth research into the conflicts surrounding Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the enormous transformations proposed by the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor, I have grown ready to explore projects of even larger scales; and to begin to incorporate a number of the issues discussed in the Risk Resilience Program such as climate change and anticipated patterns of migration.

One of the most vulnerable places to drought and water scarcity in the world is the African Sahel: the Southern edge of the Sahara Desert stretching from Western Africa to its Eastern horn.  The Arabic word Sahil means coast; applied to this region to describe a shore of vegetation confronting a vast ocean of sand. Like any ocean, its waves lap upon its shores; though here in a fluctuation of protracted tidal aridness. This respiration exhibited by the African and global climate has continued for millennia. It is only now however that communities along this shore-like length of the African continent are being pushed back by an emerging high-tide of sand. The encroaching water scarcity has been linked to emerging conflicts; and Lake Chad, a jewel of fertile land that supports the livelihoods of over 30 million Africans, is anticipated to run dry within the next ten to fifteen years.

In response to these seemingly overwhelming challenges, numerous “solutions” have been proposed.  The most well-known project is currently underway and called the Great Green Wall (GGW).  This is an effort supported by the African Union, The United Nations, and by a host of individual nations to plant millions of trees along a 15km wide strip of land from one side of the continent to the other.  The idea is that this newly-placed vegetation will “re-green” the landscape and prevent the Southern encroachment of the vast desert.  A second project, The TransAfrica Pipeline (TAP), proposes to follow much the same alignment as the GGW and would distribute desalinated water across the entire continent; unifying 11 countries in construction, maintenance and reliance.  A third project seeks to replenish a jewel of the Sahel, Lake Chad, by diverting a portion of the Congo River Watershed to the North, through the Central African Republic. Proposed decades ago under the name of “TransAqua”, this augmented version of the project goes by the name of the Lake Chad Replenishment Project (LCRP).

The problems that these three projects seek to resolve – as well as the challenges that they may provoke – are complex, intertwined, and … admittedly, hard to wrap one’s mind around. In order to begin unravelling of these conditions I will be spending this month of January (during our “J-term”) visiting a series of institutions so crucial to the efforts: the African Union in Addis Ababa and a number of field offices in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. Through a series of interviews with engineers and planners, policy makers and diplomats, and NGO workers and security experts, I hope to identify who exactly is pushing these initiatives forward; while seeking to understand how it is expected that these projects will be implemented and achieved.

In the Risk and Resilience program we address a whole range of issues pertaining to our human role within a constantly changing landscape.  These discussions touch upon topics ranging from urban violence and conflict, to the spatial dimensions of disaster response, to the precarious balance between human values of territory and the environment within which we must position ourselves. It is my hope that this investigation, once fully authored at the end of this coming semester, will help further the discourse surrounding the challenges of a changing climate that lay before us; while addressing questions of adaptation, migration and resilience.