PUMPING billions of cubic metres of water into a vanishing African lake sounds like a fanciful way of weakening one of the world’s most brutal terrorist groups.
Yet experts believe that an ambitious plan to build a 1,500 mile-long canal through the heart of Africa to reverse one of the worst ecological catastrophes in modern times could also help curb the influence of Boko Haram.
Over the past 50 years Lake Chad — once the third-largest in Africa — has shrunk by 90%, destroying the lives of many of the 30m people who had relied on its waters to fish, farm and graze animals.
Experts warn that this, in turn, has helped turn the area around its shores into a fertile recruiting ground for Boko Haram, the murderous jihadist group trying to carve out an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.
“The shrinking of Lake Chad has affected the livelihoods of millions of people in the region; people who need to find alternative ways to survive,” said Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boko Haram at the Jamestown Foundation, the US think tank.
“It is highly likely some of these people have joined Boko Haram. If you give [a] livelihood to people who have lost their livelihood, you take away one of the key factors that allows insurgents to exist.”
There is little stomach in western capitals to fund the construction of the canal, which would stretch from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Lake Chad via the Central African Republic, costing billions of dollars and many years to complete.
However, as the intensity of Boko Haram’s attacks increases, officials are desperately scrabbling for a solution to the insurgency.
In recent weeks the militants have unleashed a string of vicious attacks, including on Baga and Doron Baga, two neighbouring towns by Lake Chad, that began on January 3.
The death toll from the twin attacks is unknown but some local officials say more than 2,000 people were slaughtered in what Amnesty International has called the “largest and most destructive” incident of the five-year insurgency.
Following what has become a disturbingly familiar pattern, survivors of the raid described seeing Boko Haram gunmen arrive aboard pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns. They then stormed the houses, murdering men of fighting age and taking young women as slaves.
Other survivors who fled in canoes to islands on the lake said they saw the bodies of dead children and women scattered throughout the towns and in the surrounding bush.
“We saw corpses floating in the water with their hands and leg tied up with ropes,” said Hassan Garba, 51, a member of a local vigilante group from the town of Baga. “We saw so many bodies. They were killed as they tried to flee.”
Satellite images of the devastation show that after four days of killing and pillaging the gunmen had burnt down several thousand buildings in Doron Baga — more than half of the town.
There is a growing clamour for an international military force to be deployed in Nigeria to thwart Boko Haram’s steady advance across the northeast.
Last week John Kerry, the US secretary of state, held talks with Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, to discuss a new initiative to address Boko Haram, although neither has elaborated on the ideas put forward.
Many experts believe military intervention will fail and that a longer-term solution based on developing the areas most affected by the insurgency is needed.
Perhaps in a sign of the increasing desperation to find a solution, refilling Lake Chad appears to be a proposition whose appeal is growing.
“There is no way you will ever solve a terrorist situation with military means,” said Lawrence Freeman, vice-chairman of the scientific committee of the Lake Chad Basin Commission.
“The canal is one way of dealing with Boko Haram. If you put people in desperate situations they will turn to desperate ways to survive. This is what we are seeing in the region.”