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Tuesday, June 12, 2007
African lake shrinks 90 percent
Over the past several days, I have been in central Africa. Along with my colleague Anderson Cooper and Discovery Channel's Jeff Corwin, I have been working on a project called "Planet in Peril." The goal of this particular trip is to investigate climate change. It used to be called global warming, but as with many things, that was a little too simplistic.

In central Africa, I have been traveling through four countries, all of which border Lake Chad. You may ask, as I did, why Lake Chad? After all, isn't there evidence of climate change everywhere? The answer is yes, but Lake Chad, which used to be one of the world's largest lakes, has shrunk to just 10 percent of its size over the last forty years. Many people here in Africa do specifically blame climate change and more specifically greenhouse gases, produced by the industrialized world. But as we are learning, that is only part of the equation.

As I visited fishing villages in Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria, it seemed just about everyone had an explanation as to why the water had disappeared. Besides climate change, people pointed to the numerous dams built in the 1970s to improve irrigation for farmlands. Those dams greatly restrict the inflow of water from rivers to the lake. Some say local governments have badly misallocated the water supply that previously kept the lake full of water. Some remind us that the population has increased in some of these areas, along with consumption of water. Others place it in the hands of God. But most say it is a combination of all these things.

If you look back even further, as we did, we learned that the lake has shrunk dramatically at least once before. At a time when the term greenhouse gas didn't exist, water levels receded and no one was exactly sure why it happened. Eventually, the water came back. No one was sure why that happened either. "It may just be a long term cycle," the project manager of the Lake Chad Basin Commission told me during an interview. No surprise then that he is confident one day the water will return.

On the days we were shooting this story, it was 113 degrees in the shade. The case for global warming seemed pretty easy to make as I literally watched water evaporate from the lake in front of me. Still, it is worth taking a deeper look at the ebbs and flows of our planet and what is really driving them.

The topic of climate change or global warming tends to invoke strong emotions in people and I am curious what you think. Do you think greenhouse gases and carbon pollution in the United States, or China for that matter, are causing water to disappear in Africa?

-- By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

(Tomorrow, I will describe the direct impact of losing one of the world's largest lakes on the villagers who were so dependent on it.)
Posted By CNN: 4:08 PM ET
  18 Comments
Sanjay,
I am glad that you are getting into the PIP series! Last night your report was AWESOME! You are always so informative on anything you report on. Can't wait to see tonight's!

As far as global warming goes....it really seems that what we are doing to this Earth is making things worse. But there are pros and cons on both sides of this issue that really can make one believe or disbelieve all of the rhetoric that is put out there. So it isn't all that simple to say yes or no to your question.

Cynthia, Covington, Ga.
Posted By Cindy : 4:28 PM ET
Dr. Gupta,

If the experts can't answer that question how is an untrained citizen like myself to venture an opinion. One thing seems indis-putable, however: that greenhouse gasses and global warming are a
fact and are responsible for dramatic changes throughout the world. Unless something drastic is done worldwide, with leadership coming from the developed world, it will be a moot point what the cause of any single problem is in the chaos that is sure to follow. The poet Robinson Jeffers once noted in a poem: "Civilization is a transient sickness." Perhaps events will prove him right.

Joe Romaninsky
Gouldsboro, PA, USA
Posted By Anonymous : 5:05 PM ET
Dr Sanje, Its very easy to point fingers but we all know to well that it doesn't solve a problem.Of all the species on the planet the human species is the most intelligent.We have somehow managed to find ways to beat many diseases in order for us to live longer. We have technologies that make our lives easier but somehow we have also managed to destruct the very planet that sustains us. Did we ever stop to ask ourselves how we would survive without it. Look at the brighter side, maybe its just part of evolution and we cannot do anything about it. What say you?
Posted By Valerie, Hesston KS : 5:07 PM ET
I think that global warming is a contributing factor, but would be hard pressed to believe that it is the only reason. The other factors mentioned in this article sound reasonable.

More than anything I am glad to hear that you guys are at least making an effort to understand it. At least I hope that it is an honest effort to understand global warming and not find hole's in its supporting scientific data. More people are likely to believe that these days as they are that any public figure is actually trying to do good.

IT will take a little more than throwing Jeff Corwins name on the article for me to believe that there is not some agenda involved.

I work with, and live around so many people that are willing to accept whatever Bush and other political leaders say. Imagine the kind of change that we as a country could make if they just did the right thing, instead of worrying about political survival, or money after office. I know that you will not post this, as it is not politically correct. But I cannot imagine saying anything else. the world is changing and we need to lead it in the right direction.
Posted By Jeromey, The Woodlands, TX : 5:14 PM ET
Sanjay--

The ebbs and flows of this planet depend on it's caretakers. Just as the heartbeat inside the human body depends on it's caretaker so our Earth requires care also. Ultimately there is no doubt God is in complete control of all things both good and bad however it is man's responsibility to nurture the good things we are all blessed with. What we are given on this Earth to enjoy can easily be destroyed or taken away. I believe that what we do here can certainly affect what happens on the other side of our planet. Continents far away can be touched by our pollution, smog and chemical use. When you stop to consider the same sun lights and heats an entire solar system it's not so hard to imagine that pesticides used in America can travel through atomsphere and ocean currents to reach far away places. Our Earth needs a lot of TLC. We have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who need a home. Don't ever underestimate the power of a few concerned citizens. Amazing possibilities surround us each day we must take each other by the hand and reach out to offer a bit of hope and help to "Our Planet in Peril"!
Posted By Zann Easterwood Martin, Tennessee : 5:25 PM ET
Hello Dr.Gupta,
I believe that the greenhouse gases and carbon pollution in the United States and everywhere is causing lots of potentially catasrophic climate changes.
I don't know about this particular lake in Africa but it sounds like you don't know either.
I am very concerned about how many people this lake will effect who are dependent upon it.
Denial (not the shrinking river in Africa) about global warming is alive and well which could very well leave us all dead and extinct.
What humans are doing in this world is NOT working.
Possibly when the slate is wiped clean and God can start over, it will all be better the next go 'round millions of years from now.
Until then, I appreciate 360 doing more than their share to save a "Planet in Peril"
Thanks Dr. Gupta~
Posted By Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX : 5:36 PM ET
Dear Sanjay,
Sorry to have missed you at the Printers' Row Book Fair in Chicago.
What you are doing at Lake Chad is more important.
You should read this startling article:
http://www.bestlifeonline.com/cms/publish/health-fitness/Our_oceans_are_turning_into_plastic_are_we_2_printer.shtml
Our oceans are turning into plastic...are we?
By Susan Casey, Photographs by Gregg Segal
It's about a sailor and environmentalist Charles Moore
who brings attention to the toxic effects of plastic. The saddest picture is one of a turtle whose little body grew grotesque surrounded like a victorian corset by one of those red plastic rings that seal tops onto soda bottles.
Posted By Annabelle Echo, Chicago IL : 5:50 PM ET
Sanjay,

Thanks for your report last night. It was incredible seeing you standing in that dry lake bed and to think that 6 feet of water used to cover that area. While I look forward to hearing more from you, I have a question. When do you have time to do surgery? I am concerned for your patients waiting for your healing touch. Dr. Oz doesn't travel as much or as far for Oprah as you do for CNN. Just asking.
Posted By Charlotte D, Stockton CA : 5:58 PM ET
Hey Sanjay,
I am glad the Chief Medical Correspondent is covering climate change? Since I am a atmospheric scientist will you let me scrub in on your next brain surgery? I would just love to have a go at it. Maybe CNN could hire me to be the resident expert on health.
Brent Maddux,
Deforest, WI
Posted By Anonymous : 6:02 PM ET
I am very angry with the Chinese, since we can track the air pollution from China entering the US. I can only say that I suppose that the US can also pollute other countries. But the US is not nearly as bad as other countries, should we stop producing pollution if China does not?

Dan, Dallas, TX
Posted By Anonymous : 6:02 PM ET
Why has the global warming crowd switched from saying "global warming" to saying "climate change?" It's becauses since 1998 temps have actually gone down. So now we're changing the catch phrase to "carbon emissions."

Here's a radical thought: why, if we warm up a little bit, would that be a bad thing? Longer frost-free seasons would mean less energy used. Isn't that a good thing?

My other contention is that politicians should not be involved in environmental issues. Why do people always look to Washington? They aren't efficient; they screw up eveything.
Posted By xtina - chicago IL : 6:09 PM ET
Dr. Gupta,
This is an issue that has been on my mind for so long. It has sparked endless discussions between me and my peers at school. Yes, I do believe in the greenhouse theories and carbon causing global warming.
What bothers me is the people who do not believe it and their disreguard for it. Over the past few months some peers of mine have changed from not believing the planet is heating, to believing the heating but not that humans cause it. Ok, I say, you can believe that we do not cause it, but we still must act now to stop it. There are ways that we can stop this global heating that must be taken into consideration now; instead of sitting back with your arms crossed saying, "oh it's not our fault so we do not care."
Posted By Dave Mathews, New Orleans La : 6:12 PM ET
I want to expound on what Dallas Dan wrote.

In '04 China put out 54 percent of greenhouse gasses, and between '07 and '10 they will overtake the U.S. in amount of greenhouse emissions. Why does China get a pass in both media reports and public sentiment?
Posted By xtina - chicago IL : 6:22 PM ET
Dr. Gupta/AC360:

It seems like throughout history humankind has always fought over water whether it was gaining access to the sea or diverting stream water from the neighbors downstream. Either way, pure and clean water may very well become an "endangered" commodity as we continue to pollute our living waters.

As for Lake Chad, it may be a glitch period of drought or a larger symptom of global irresponsibility. Unfortunately, the people depending on the life-sustaining water, it is a matter of life or death not a political issue of environmentalism versus capitalism like our government likes to debate.
Posted By Sharon D., Indianapolis, IN : 6:29 PM ET
Interesting that Dr. Gupta's entry includes the sentence about
how after the first recession of water, the water came back.

How do we know how long the cycles are?
Posted By DH, Lake Barrington, Ill. : 7:14 PM ET
While 1998 was the warmest year on record, overall, the temperatures have been rising in small but steady increments since the mid 1970s and the last few years have all been top 10 record years.

Global warming causes climate change and that change is the big variable. It can cause hot, drought condition summers, snowy winters, melting ice caps, and changing ocean currents just to name a few things.

As for Lake Chad, all of the reasons listed could be effecting the water level of the lake. My guess is it's a combination of factors which includes global warming, the creation of dams, and increased water usage due to an increase in population.
Posted By Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA : 8:06 PM ET
We need to be open-minded about the causes of global warming. Scientists inform us that dramatic cycles of global warming (and cooling - think ice age) have occurred repeatedly in pre-historic times when there was no possibility of human causation. There are many theories including a recent one involving varying density of cosmic rays reaching the earth. We need to lower the level of hysteria about human generated CO2 levels and concentrate on basic research to give us the complete answer. Only then can we understand our real options.
Posted By Andrew Ash, San Diego, California : 4:44 PM ET
Dr. Gupta --

I'd argue that it's apparent that, despite the ongoing public debate, a great deal of evidence for climate change has been clear to us for some time. The planet's environment functions as a single, integrated system, and as we continue to strain the Earth's carrying capacity we'll begin to see the effects of our lifestyles, and of our sheer numbers, in the places most vulnerable. Our response (that is, the response of all of the world's nations, developed and otherwise, and all responsible people) must be twofold: we must act globally to eliminate the causes of climate change, and locally, in this instance, to address the disappearance of Lake Chad. We need to know not only what human processes are causing the lake to recede, but what can be done to mitigate the disastrous effects on the local environment and communities in the region if Lake Chad follows the precedent of the Aral Sea and threatens to disappear forever.
Posted By Steve, Wilmington, Delaware : 7:01 PM ET
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