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Soft power, discourse coalitions, and the proposed interbasin water transfer between Lake Chad and the Congo River

Ramazan Caner Sayan
United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), UNU-INWEH, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; canersayan@gmail.com

Nidhi Nagabhatla
United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), UNU-INWEH, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; and School of Geography and Earth Sciences, McMaster University, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; nidhi.nagabhatla@unu.edu

Marvel Ekwuribe
School of Geography and Earth Sciences, McMaster University, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; and United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), UNU-INWEH, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; ekwuribm@mcmaster.ca

ABSTRACT: Since the 1960s, Lake Chad’s declining water level has been a hot topic on the political agendas of the Sahel region. For some decades, diverting water from the Congo River to Lake Chad via an interbasin water transfer (IBWT) has been considered to be the only way that Lake Chad can be saved. Accordingly, two IBWT projects have been put on the table. The first one, the Transaqua Project, has been in development since the 1970s; it involves the construction of a 2400-kilometre-long canal between the two basins. The second proposal was drafted in 2011 and entails the construction of a shorter canal (1350 km) which aims to divert water from two reservoirs that are to be constructed on the Ubangi River, one of the main tributaries of the Congo River. In 2018, the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) chose the first proposal as their preferred option to revive Lake Chad. While the IBWT idea has been promoted as part of political agendas, French scientists and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been firmly opposed to it. This article focuses on the discourse coalitions which are competing to promote or block the IBWT project and include companies, the riparian states of both basins, non-riparian states, international organisations, NGOs, and experts. The paper applies a mixed methods approach of discourse, document, and media analysis. Diplomatic and technocratic processes related to the IBWT issue, and the motivations of multiple actors to promote or object to the IBWT projects, are revealed through an examination of soft power tactics and strategies such as agenda setting, knowledge construction, securitisation, issue linkage, and exclusion from negotiation processes. Overall, this article examines the transboundary water interactions between the two relatively under-researched basins of Lake Chad and the Congo River; it highlights how non-state actors (particularly companies) have led to a reshaping of transboundary water politics.

KEYWORDS: Transboundary water politics, discourse coalitions, soft power, interbasin water transfer, Lake Chad, Congo River