Lake Chad is a body of fresh water located at the border of the Sahara Desert and Central Africa. It has sustained human life for thousands of years. Yet the lake is now under severe threat from a confluence of climate change, poverty, and military conflict.
An extended drought in the 1970s and 1980s shrank Lake Chad to one-tenth of its former water storage capacity. This shocking topographical alteration persists strongly in public memory, despite the lake’s recovery of a significant portion of its previous size in recent decades.
Poverty is endemic in the region. Lake Chad is encircled by the poorest regions of four of the poorest countries in the world—Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
Yet it was the emergence of the militant Islamic group Boko Haram in 2002 that exacerbated existing climate and economic fragility, pushing the entire region into a spiral that has been difficult to halt or reverse.
Boko Haram’s ferocious insurgency provoked harsh countermeasures from a joint military task force created by the basin’s governments. No final military resolution is in sight. The cycles of violence are deterring any lasting recovery, despite the growing presence of international humanitarian and development aid.
Shoring Up Stability, a new report by Berlin-based think tank adelphi, says the Lake Chad region is caught in a “conflict trap.” Can combined local and international efforts help the region escape that trap—and forge a path toward resilience and peace?
The short answer is “Not anymore.” Though one can’t be blamed for thinking so.
Lake Chad possessed 25,000 square kilometers of water storage in the 1960s. A severe drought between 1970 and 1994 shrank the lake to less than a tenth of that amount (2,000 square kilometers). The drying period even created a new barrier of land, dividing the lake’s northern and southern pools.
The immense changes to Lake Chad’s topography were burned into the public imagination. But the present scientific consensus is that the lake is no longer shrinking. Since the dry decades ended in the mid-1990s, Lake Chad has slowly but surely rebounded, and its total water storage is back up to 14,000 square kilometers.
An increase in annual rainfall is one factor. During the dry period, regional precipitation averaged 905 millimeters each year. Since 1995, it is back up to 988 millimeters.
Extended cycles of drying and recovery are a part of the region’s climate. Those who rely on the lake for sustenance—as farmers, anglers, or pastoralists—usually cope successfully with fluctuations in the lake’s size and depth. For instance, a receding Lake Chad often opens up fertile new soil to farmers in drying periods.
The extended drought of the 1970s and 1980s had far-reaching effects, however, including changes in vegetation that have altered the navigability of the lake. But while the fluctuations in the size of Lake Chad may be dramatic, they also have been historically predictable.
Accelerated climate change may introduce a new danger: unpredictability. The authors of adelphi’s Shoring Up Stability report suggest that uncertainty about rainfall and temperature may pose the more significant long-term risk. “The crucial climate vulnerabilities do not derive from the lake’s shrinking,” they write, “but from significant uncertainties over variability, and, hence, future water availability—at the seasonal, inter-annual, and multi-decadal time scales.”
What does this mean for the region’s inhabitants? Instability in the size of the lake and disruption of its cycles will impact every activity there, including farming, herding, and fishing. Even in the absence of violence and a reduction in poverty, climate unpredictability alone could make the pursuit of a secure livelihood in the Lake Chad basin very difficult in coming decades.
Greenland might seem far away from Lake Chad. But some scientists predict that the melting of glaciers and ice caps will have a profound effect on the lake’s future.
A team of researchers created models to track the potential effects of freshwater releases from melting glaciers on West African monsoon precipitation. Their paper, “Consequences of rapid ice sheet melting on the Sahelian population vulnerability,” was published in 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The authors foresaw not only a “drastic decrease” of monsoon precipitation from these melting trends, but also disturbances in the region’s agroecosystem that may spur the migration of millions of people. “Although most studies focus on the coastal impacts of [sea level rise]…Greenland melting could produce drastic droughts in the Sahel, with many consequences for agricultural practices and for population migrations,” the authors wrote.
Most migrations spurred by climate change stay within political or regional boundaries. But the researchers argued that in the Sahel, “a rapid melting of ice sheets…is likely to lead to dramatic population shifts that would develop beyond borders and would entail irreversible demographic impacts.”
Fishers, farmers, and herders have worked on Lake Chad and its shores for centuries. Major trade routes passed through the region. But the colonial division of Africa between European nations in the 19th century drew new boundaries. Former British, German, and French colonies all bordered the lake.
Independence movements in the 1960s hewed closely to those same maps. The result was that four nations share Lake Chad and its basin. Niger to the north, and Chad to the west, connect the lake to the Sahara Desert. Cameroon to the south, and Nigeria to the west, are gateways to Central and West Africa.
The latest official census figures place the bulk of the region’s population in Nigeria, with over 12 million residents situated on the west side of Lake Chad. The next two most populous countries – Chad and Cameroon – both have approximately 3.5 million inhabitants in the region. Niger has closer to 592,000 residents near the lake.
The actual population and dynamics of growth and movement in the region are likely not reflected in these numbers. The most recent regional census was conducted in Niger in 2012. And the violent rise of Islamist militia Boko Haram, along with a sweeping military response to it from national governments, has created vast numbers of displaced persons and a humanitarian crisis in the region.
In three of the four nations that share the lake (Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger), the basin is far from the national capitals. Chad is the exception; its capital, N’Djaména, is less than 60 miles from the lake. Poverty—and a lack of development—is a persistent issue in the region.
Food insecurity is another key challenge, created by both climate and migration issues. Citing projections made by Cadre Harmonisé, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reports that “nearly 3.6 million people in the Lake Chad Basin region” will face acute food security this summer.
The long drought of the 1970s and 1980s created climate and economic fragility, but the Boko Haram insurgency was the primary catalyst for a massive displacement and flight in the region. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) report that more than 4.4 million individuals in the basin have been affected by it.
The migration crisis was largely contained to Nigeria in the early 2000s, and it remains the nation most affected by it. The IOM’s March 2019 assessment observes that Nigeria has more than 1.9 million internally-displaced persons within its borders, with an additional 1.5 million now returning from internal displacement status.
But the spread of violence across national boundaries now has created a highly-complex, and even dizzying, pattern of movement, played out across a diverse array of national, tribal, and linguistic identities. The IOM reports that two other countries in the region with significant numbers of internally-displaced persons—Cameroon (250,000) and Niger (118,000)—also have taken in more than 100,000 refugees apiece inside their borders.
Pastoralism and farming have deep roots in the basin. But the transhumant herders and farmers faced significant challenges even before the violent cataclysms of recent decades. The extended drought of the 1970s and 1980s wrought significant changes in the landscape. And moving herds or shifting planting zones to the most promising locations often requires crossing national boundaries.
The most worrisome trend is local violence. Scarcity induced by climate and the violence of the past two decades is also pushing herders and farmers into sharper conflicts over water and land.
A July 2018 International Crisis Group (ICG) report examined a spate of violence between farmers and herders in the so-called “Middle Belt” of the lake that resulted in 1,300 deaths in the first six months of that year alone.
Such disputes often reflect not only economic conflicts, but differences in religious identity. In this case, Muslim herders were pitted against Christian farmers. Both groups formed militias that accelerated the violence.
National governments can heighten security measures and revise anti-grazing laws. But the ICG also recommended the use of preexisting local and international peacebuilding initiatives to build trust among both sides. The authors noted that “[d]ialogue between herders and farmers, particularly at the local level, is crucial to ending the violence.”
Even at the upper bands of its water storage capacity, Lake Chad is one of the world’s shallowest lakes. But it boasts an array of aquatic life that sustains inhabitants of the region and also supplies food to other areas of Africa.
Climate uncertainty has made fishing a more difficult proposition, even as the lake rebounds. The northern section, in particular, has seen vast changes to its topography, including greater seasonal fluctuations of water storage, and invasive vegetation growth.
Adaptation tactics help overcome some climate challenges, but Lake Chad’s fishermen also face a starker barrier to their livelihood: loss of access to both the lake and markets.
The situation is particularly dire in Niger, where the government only recently lifted a four-year ban on fishing in the part of the lake it controls. This stringent measure clamped down on Boko Haram’s activities in Niger, but it also decimated the country’s fishing industry.
Markets were shuttered and an industry once valued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations at $220 million was cut off at its source. This confluence of climate and conflict crises has led many of the fishermen in the region to abandon the trade permanently.
The Lake Chad basin has been an important crossroads of trade. Though the region’s transportation infrastructure was insufficiently modernized in decades after independence, trade remained a key part of the region’s economy.
The rise of Boko Haram in the 1990s, however, decimated commerce on multiple fronts. Insurgent attacks disrupted economic activity at a foundational level. The military responses made the trading situation worse by forcing the closure of key border crossings and the shuttering of markets.
Of necessity, traders have abandoned many long established routes that link markets from Cameroon, Chad, and Niger to southern Nigeria through Maiduguri in favor of detours that avoid checkpoints and “no-go” zones.
Even if the security situation improves, and markets reopen at their former vigor, the destruction and decay of infrastructure after almost two decades of conflict will have severe consequences for decades. Massive investments will be required to restore the basic conditions for robust economic development, let alone build new capacity for trade and industry.
The formal name of the group known as “Boko Haram” is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, or “Group of People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.”
“Boko Haram” is a crude reduction of one of the group’s key tenets. “Haram” comes from the Arabic, and designates something “sinful” or “forbidden.” The term “Boko” is from the Hausa language. It originally designated something as “fraudulent,” but in Nigeria’s colonial era, the word also became associated with Western education.
Boko Haram coalesced as a major force in 2004, when a group of radical Islamists joined forces with Muhammed Yusef, a radical Nigerian preacher of Islam in the city of Maiduguri. After five years of tensions, a confrontation between Yusuf’s followers and police exploded into a series of battles that ended with the preacher’s arrest—and his death within hours at the hands of Nigerian military forces.
Yusuf’s demise drove Boko Haram underground. The insurgency reemerged stronger under his second-in-command, Abubakar Shekau. The group launched a series of increasingly audacious attacks from 2010 through 2014, focused largely on the Nigerian government and its citizens.
Boko Haram established a base of operations in the Lake Chad region. The relative remoteness of the lake at the edge of multiple national borders made it an ideal place for the insurgency to dig in. The insurgency’s tactics have been brutal, comprised not only of attacks on government forces, but also robbery, kidnappings, destruction of property, and despoliation of the landscape.
Nigeria bore the brunt of Boko Haram’s violence until 2014. But when the insurgents kidnapped 276 young women from a school in the northwestern Nigerian town of Chibok, Boko Haram gained a notoriety that transformed a pernicious regional battle into an international conflict.
Shekau renamed the group as the “Islamic State West Africa Province.” The explicit public alignment of his group with the Islamic State further connected the dots for observers who saw the conflict as a new front in the global war on terror.
In 2015, a Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) comprised of more than 8,000 troops drawn from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Benin—with military support from nations including the United States and France—commenced a counterinsurgency campaign. The brutality of the tit-for-tat battle further degraded the region’s economy, and exacerbated its already accelerating humanitarian crisis.
A 2016 schism within Boko Haram created a faction led by Shekau, and a new splinter group that critiqued him and called itself “Islamic State West Africa” (ISWA). By 2017, the MNJTF could claim a number of substantive successes—including the reclamation of territory from the insurgency. This progress in tamping down violence allowed a wave of international aid to relieve the region’s suffering populace.
Those who closely study Boko Haram and the counterinsurgency efforts against it are almost unanimous: The group possesses extraordinary flexibility in its tactics and structure, as well as pronounced tenacity and resilience.
Lake Chad as a base of operations has played a part in the group’s longevity. An editorial published in February in The Economist explicitly referenced “the often impassable forests and swamps that shelter the jihadists,” drawing a direct comparison with the situation faced by the United States in the Vietnam War.
Yet the vigor and ruthlessness of the MNJTF’s pursuit of Boko Haram has also played a role in its continued potency. Almost every sector of communal life in the region has been disrupted by the conflict. Considerable ill will has been created by banning access to Lake Chad, closing borders and markets, and targeting certain sectors of the population as allies of the insurgency.
Average citizens are often caught in the whiplash of insurgency and counterinsurgency. The swings of momentum in the conflict often force inhabitants into a terrible choice: ally themselves with Boko Haram and feed the insurgency, or flee the insurgency and worsen the humanitarian crisis. Many citizens even switch sides as circumstances dictate.
Geographic boundaries and national priorities complicate shared governance of any body of water. But a few years after the dawn of independence, the nations of the Lake Chad region saw a need for coordination and alignment.
The Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) was created in 1964 by the four countries that border it to help manage and preserve its resources. It has since grown to include the Central African Republic and Libya as member countries, as well as Sudan, Egypt, the Republic of the Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as observer nations.
The commission’s role is to monitor, collect, and disseminate information on the basin, as well as develop regulations for the body of water, and resolve disputes. It receives funding and support from international organizations, including the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and USAID. It also coordinates closely with the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) that battles Boko Haram in the region.
The climate crisis and violence have presented immense challenges for the commission in the past four decades. But in August 2018, at a conference in Abuja, the LCBC’s member states adopted a comprehensive regional stability plan that included an emphasis on greater political cooperation, economic development, and human rights along with security issues.
In his address to the August gathering, Nigeria’s Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Hussein Adamu (who also serves as the chair of the council of ministers of LCBC member states) observed that “in order to ensure coordination and harmonization of aid, with the clear aim of reconciling successful military operations with increasing civilian interventions, the need for a holistic regional strategic approach in the Lake Chad region has proved crucial in highlighting the mandate of LCBC and [MNJTF].”
The Chibok School kidnappings in 2014 internationalized the conflict with Boko Haram. But it was only when advances were made against the insurgency from 2015 to 2017 that significant outside humanitarian assistance began to flow into the region.
A vast array of international organizations—funded by national governments—have established a presence in the region to coordinate responses to displacement, hunger, loss of livelihood, and a denial of educational opportunity.
No lack of official plans have been created to help guide the effort. A Lake Chad Development and Climate Resilience Plan was created by the LCBC in 2015 with assistance from the World Bank and the Agence Française de Développment (AFD). This was followed by two plans in 2018: a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and a United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) plan for Resilience for Sustainable Development in the Lake Chad Basin issued in 2018, as well as the plan approved by the LCBC in concert with the African Union in Abuja.
A flurry of conferences to fund and coordinate efforts have taken place in Africa and in Europe. The most recent of them was held in Berlin in September 2018, where $2.17 billion was pledged to international efforts.
The number of gatherings reflects the urgency of the situation and the window of opportunity presented by a diminution of the intensity of the conflict. But it also speaks to the delicate interplay required to operate large-scale international relief in four nations simultaneously.
The aid is making a tangible difference. Part of the early wave of assistance that flowed into Nigeria and Niger in 2017 helped avert a famine in the region. So despite numerous challenges of logistics, governance, and corruption, the international community has engaged with the task.
Every plan to stabilize and revive Lake Chad and the region has a foundational security element: End the conflict with Boko Haram.
The successes of the MNJTF in limiting attacks in 2017 and 2018 kindled hope. But stabilization efforts are incomplete, and thousands of inhabitants in the Lake Chad region still reside beyond the reach of humanitarian aid groups.
The two remaining insurgencies associated with Boko Haram have intensified attacks once again in 2019. The release of a new video communication from Shekau in early June was a signal of a renewed public profile.
Fashioning a more effective military response is only part of the solution. Cycles of reprisal and revenge created by the counterinsurgency campaign continue to stoke the Boko Haram movement.
Bolstering existing efforts to disarm and demobilize former combatants is one key to lasting stabilization. But advances on this front have become mired in regional security concerns and ethno-religious politics. Security soon may become a front-burner issue again in the Lake Chad region.
Even if security is achieved in the basin, the conundrums faced by international humanitarian groups—and the donors invested in their success—extend beyond providing relief to all the inhabitants of the region in need.
The African Union plan approved by LCBC member states in 2018 ticked many boxes that the international community wanted checked. The plan calls for action on multiple fronts, including human rights, environmental sustainability, education, and empowerment of women and young people.
Yet the problems facing the Lake Chad region are daunting, and resolving them will be lengthy, costly, and extraordinarily complex. All plans to stabilize and revive the region foresee long-term financial commitments from the international community. But without a clear path to solutions (and an exit ramp), donor fatigue could set in.
Even humanitarian successes have costs. As the AFD noted in its 2017 report, “the injection of funds and influx of international operators may well have contained the food crisis, but they have also complicated interventions and stoked corruption.”
Some observers argue that situations as dire and complex as the one facing Lake Chad require a new approach. They insist that humanitarian aid must be delivered in a coordinated fashion with peacebuilding and development assistance at an accelerated tempo and intensity.
In a May op-ed piece in Development and Cooperation, German disaster relief expert Fabian Böckler argued for the merits of this so-called “nexus” approach, and welcomed the fact that the international community was “adopting this logic” in its ongoing deliberations on how best to approach the crises.
The transformations in regional topography wrought by climate change have been profound and remain visible. So it is no wonder that many in the region dream of a way to hit the reset button—using infrastructure and technology to refill Lake Chad to higher levels.
One plan now under consideration by the Lake Chad Basin Commission dates back to the 1980s, when the shrinkage of the lake was at its most pronounced. Developed by the Italian engineering firm, Bonifica Spa, it involves diverting water in a 1,500 mile-long canal from tributaries of the Congo River to the Chari River, which feeds Lake Chad from the south.
Sentiment to revive the plan has been boosted by state-owned Chinese design and construction firm PowerChina’s interest in collaborating on the project. Yet the recharge proposal has not been met with enthusiasm from international organizations and donors.
Logistics and security provide significant challenges. The eye-popping budget required to complete the project—with initial estimates of $50 billion—are also a hurdle to acceptance, especially when such sums may be better used elsewhere. The plan to refill Lake Chad also creates new regional interdependencies that may generate future conflict, and may even disturb the natural rhythms of the lake.
The Lake Chad Basin was prone to fragility before the great drought of the 1970s and 1980s. But climate change did set the stage for the current crises. So should a plan that puts climate fragility at the center of evaluating recovery efforts offer the best path forward?
The authors of adelphi’s new report, Shoring Up Stability, believe it does. They offer a new analysis of satellite data and existing hydrological evidence to bolster the scientific consensus that Lake Chad is no longer shrinking—and argue for solutions that help “climate-proof” recovery and development.
“We need to get the climate diagnosis right,” observes lead author Janani Vivekananda, “so that we get the right treatment.”
The authors see climate fragility at the heart of the region’s “conflict trap,” creating many of the stressors (drought and economic uncertainty) and exacerbating others (competition for scarce resources, violence and recruitment into insurgencies). Solutions should acknowledge historical climate cycles in the basin, they assert, and build on successful and sustainable human adaptations to them.
Shoring Up Stability aims to complement existing plans to build resilience in the region, such as the 2018 UNDP/OCHA proposal. But it offers firmer grounding for proposals that pursue peacebuilding, better governance, and economic development with a heightened sensitivity to the region’s unique ecosystem.
“We’re not asking for anything new,” says Vivekananda. “We are seeking awareness of the climate security dimension as a root cause of the conflict.”
Feature researched and written by Richard Byrne, Josette Barrans, and Julia Sandberg
Design by Marquee
Cover image: A fisherman rows a canoe on Lake Chad. AP Photo/Christophe Ena
Shoring Up Stability, a new report by adelphi (May 2018), builds on a 2015 report, A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks, commissioned by the G7, and written collaboratively by the Wilson Center, adelphi, International Alert, and the European Union Institute for Security Studies.
Crisis and Development: The Lake Chad Region and Boko Haram was written by Agence Française de Dévelopment in 2017. It analyzes all aspects of the basin’s crises, and offers an invaluable historical perspective on the region.
Background photo by Jean Damascene Hakuzimana/UNDP Chad, Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0)
International Organization for Migration (IOM): Displacement Tracking Matrix. October 2018
Background video is from YouTube user alhajimusa007
The Guardian on the Origins of Boko Haram (2/4/2016)
“Boko Haram: History and Context,” Oxford Research Dictionary, African History (October 2017)
The African Union Commission/Lake Chad Basin Commission (August 2018):Regional Strategy for the Stabilization, Recovery & Resilience of the Boko Haram- affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin Region
OCHA/UNDP (August 2018): Resilience for Sustainable Development in the Lake Chad Basin
High-Level Conference on the Lake Chad Region (Berlin, September, 2018): Outcomes Statement
Stabilizing Northeast Nigeria After Boko Haram, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (May 2019)
The BBC on Proposal to Refill Lake Chad (3/31/2018)
Refilling Lake Chad Map from Transaqua proposal by Bonifica Spa.