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Lake Zowla lies in the southeastern part of the Maritime region of the Togolese Republic on the southern coast of the ‘bulge’ of west Africa. Lake Zowla (also called Lake Boko) is part of an ‘interrupted lagoon system’ that extends from Keta in Ghana to Nigeria, and includes Lake Togo.
The main river feeding Lake Zowla is the Boko River, which rises near the border with Benin, some 50km (30mi) to the north. Over the last 30 to 50 years, there has been a large increase in the population of the region, along with more intensive farming, greater use of chemical fertilizers and more soil erosion. This has led to a silting up of the river and an explosion of grasses in the river course, leading to a loss of livelihood for fishing communities along the waterways, as well as an increase in the occurrence of flooding during the rainy season.
In October 2010, 21 people lost their lives and 7,744 hectares of agricultural land were destroyed during floods in Togo, largely in the prefectures of the Maritime region.
One of the communities affected by the degradation of the Boko River is the village of Boko itself, located about 2km (1.6mi) west of Anfoin on the road to Vogan. Once a thriving community heavily dependent on its fishing economy, the perennial problems of silt build-up and blockage by invasive plant species led to fewer fish entering the river from the lake and to more frequent flooding, causing market areas near the river to become inaccessible and the fishing trade to decline.
Since the 1960’s the community itself has attempted several times to clear the river channel to improve fishing, but each attempt ended in failure. At some point, the World Bank provided finances for the removal of the grasses by mechanical means, with plans for a large machine to uproot them all. Local residents said they believe that funding for the project was sent to the head of the district, who proceeded to ‘boof’ (embezzle) the money so that the project never took off.
After the 2010 floods, the villagers were set on tackling the invasion of adako grass by direct means, proposing to cut the grasses themselves with machetes, but realized this would be a massive task that needed additional funding. They again approached the World Bank for financial assistance for manual dredging and clearing of the river channel. The Bank project committee agreed to supply US$90,000 to dredge the canal with financial backing from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and Global Environment Facility (GEF).
The residents, with the technical supervision and guidance of the local Agency in Support of Grass Roots Initiatives (AGAIB), the Ministry of Environment and Forest Resources and the local authorities, organized themselves implement the project of labour-intensive manual dredging.
By early 2014, the task had been completed and the river flow restored. The women of Boko were especially instrumental in the project, organizing themselves into groups to dive into the water, pull up roots and clumps of grass, and deposit them on the banks for further disposal.
The World Bank reports that, for the first time in decades, the local population no longer experiences severe flooding. Water now quickly dissipates through the runoffs into the river and moves freely into the lake. Many villagers have returned to their once abandoned homes, and gardening and agricultural practices, such as growing sugar cane, have also been restored.
“Women have played such a huge role in our mission … the manual labour necessary to restore the Lake Boko canal was completed by them” said Ms Sodohoin Messanh, chair of the management committee – consisting mainly of fishermen – that oversees a weekly maintenance schedule.
In addition, fishing activities at the village have gradually resumed. “It has been decades and a long wait since the last time we caught a fish of this size in the canal” [indicating a large fish with his hands], local fisherman Libore Nassisou said. “Since the opening of the canal, there is a noticeable migration of fish from Lake Zowla into the waters of Boko.”