Lake Chad's forgotten crisis

Ecological degradation in the Chad Basin has triggered Africa's latest humanitarian crisis. It's time, the basin countries looked beyond the excuse of insurgency

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Wednesday 15 February 2017
A dry riverbed in Maroua town, part of the Chad Basin, in Cameroon (Photo: Reuters)

Lake chad forgotten crisis

Last year when Nigeria declared a nutrition emergency in Borno, indicating acute food insecurity in the state, and said the region stands to lose 80 children every day, it caught the world's attention. More than a dozen humanitarian organisations working in West Africa issued a joint statement, saying the ongoing conflict with the jihadist militant group Boko Haram has pushed the number of people facing severe hunger in the region to more than 6 million. In January this year, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien informed the Security Council: “The humanitarian crisis across northeast Nigeria and parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, triggered by the horrendous, violent and inhuman campaign of Boko Haram, is deepening.” The UN has since revised its appeal and called for more funds for lifesaving humanitarian assistance in the region, also known as the Chad Basin. International organisations have also scaled up their response to ensure food security, reduce malnutrition and provide shelter to refugees and internally displaced people in the region.

While almost all the discussions seem to revolve around the immediate crisis, the humanitarian emer gency unfolding in the basin has actually been in the making for decades. "The recent civil, armed con flict and related security threats only significantly exacerbate the pre-existing regional food insecurity and nutrition problems,” states a World Food Progra mme (WFP) report, released in 2016. "While the security threats are undeniable aspects of the crisis, recent media and reports (sic) on the alarming regi onal emergency situation attributing the crisis to Boko Haram activities, risk grossly oversimplifying the complicated interrelated socioecological issues at hand leading up to insurgency in the basin,” it says.

A protracted crisis

The humanitarian crisis has its roots in the shrinking of Lake Chad and the desertification of the surrounding area. Located on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, the lake is an oasis for the 30 million people living in its semi-arid basin where the air is dusty, the wind fierce and hot, and the landscape characterised by sand dunes and sparse vegetation.

The depth of Lake Chad has
reduced from 11 metres to
just 2 m in the past four
decades (Photo: Reuters)In 1964, when the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) was established for conservation and manage ment of the lake, and for sharing its resources among the riparian countries, the lake’s waters stretched over 26,000 sq km, or 22 times the size of Delhi, and covered 8 per cent of Africa’s land mass. The lake then sustained the livelihoods of people in eight countries— Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Central African Republic and Sudan. But in the past 50-odd years, it has shrunk by over 90 per cent. What remains today is not more than a patchwork of ponds and puddles, spanning 1,500 sq km. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called the situation an “ecological catastrophe”, and predicts that the lake could disappear by the end of the century.

Being a shallow, landlocked waterbody that spreads over three climatic zones—the Sahara desert in the north, the semiarid Sahel in the central zone and tropical Savannah climate in the south—the size of Lake Chad has always fluctuated between seasons and between years. But it has continuously shrunk since the great droughts of the 1970s and 1980s that gripped the Sahel, notes the 19th issue of World Climate News, a journal of the Wold Meteo rological Organization. In 1972, it split into two. The northern part dried completely in 1986, while the southern part has been shrinking ever since. A report published in IOP Science in August 2011 suggests that the lake could have recovered in the 1990s due to wetter conditions. But it did not happen. On one hand, the intense droughts and water shortages increased human pressure on the shrinking lake, and on the other hand, each riparian country unilaterally took decisions to construct dams on rivers that feed the lake and diverted water away from the lake without adhering to existing water agreements or consultations with LCBC, say researchers from the University of Leeds, the UK, in a study published in 2014. The flow in the Chari-Logone river system, which contributes more than 80 per cent of the lake water, was drastically modified after Chad built dams and dikes on the Logone in the 1970s and diverted one-third of its water. Nigeria built three dams and is planning the fourth one on the Komadugu-Yobe river system, which contributes 2.5 per cent of the lake water. It has also built a dam on the Yedsaram-Ngadda river system in Borno.

Though the lake has dried out several times in the past, the trend has been severely exacerbated now by the construction of dams upstream of the catchment, without considering its impact on the people and ecosystems downstream, says Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) report, published in 2006 by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Women stand in what used
to be the bed of Lake Chad (Photo: UNHCR.ORG)

Livelihood takes a hit

The lake’s receding shoreline has severely affect ed people living in its basin, turning the custodians of one of the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, as recognised by the FAO, into food insecure refugees.

Traditionally, people in the basin have grown rainfed crops, such as millets, potato, onions and groundnut, on sandy areas away from the lake and rivers, and sorghum and paddy on land that got flooded during the monsoon. The crops grew with the rising floodwater and were harvested by canoes. Farmers would also grow sorghum on the black cotton soil (a dark, rich alluvial soil) around the lake. Since the soil is impermeable, they would make small bunds at the end of the dry season to retain runoff. But such practices have declined in recent years following a drop in the lake's water level and its changing flooding patterns due to constru ction of irrigation projects in upstream areas.

Farmers, who constitute 60 per cent of the basin population, are now burdened with low harve sts, says another study by Leeds researchers, publi shed in Ambio in November 2016. For instance, sorghum yield declined from 3.28 million tonnes in the late 1960s to about 1.8 million tonnes after 2010. The GIWA report says reduced rainfall in the region has directly affected farmers because more than 95 per cent of crops grown in the basin are traditional and rainfed.

The report also suggests that though most crops grown in the basin do not require irrigation, the governments have been implementing half-baked irrigation projects. One such project has caused ecological imbalance in the region, compou nding farmers’ woes. Worried about the declining agricultural production, the Nigerian governm ent in 1979 initiated the South Chad Irrigation Project to irrigate 660 sq km around the lake by diverting 3 per cent of the annual inflow to it. But the irrigation channels remained unused as the lake levels further fell in the 1980s. The unlined channels now provide suitable habitat for aquatic plants, such as bulrush (Typha australis). Strands of Typha are a preferred nesting ground for quelea birds that are considered a threat to farmers—a flock of 2 million queleas can devour 20 tonnes of grain in a single day. The government has initiated a quelea control effort through aerial spraying of toxic control agents, but to little effect.

Fisheries have also suffered due to a combina tion of upstream damming, shrinkages of the lake, drought and overfishing. Solomon I Ovie, an official with Nigeria’s National Institute for Freshwater Fisheries Research, says Lake Chad’s fisheries are one of the largest and most productive inland fisheries in Africa. Traditionally, they have been providing income, food and nutritional security to the region’s populace. But their production has now come down to 100,000 tonnes from 220,000 tonnes in 1974. Two commercially important fish species—Nile perch (Lates nilotias) and Labeo (Labeoina)—became extinct in the lake by the 1980s, says Ovie, adding that the lake has faced a significant biodiversity loss despite Nigeria introdu cing fishery conservation policies in the 1960s, soon after its independence.

Reducing grazing land due to water shortages and less cultivation of crops has affected livestock production and export, which was the third largest source of income for households in the basin before the 1970s. Reduced grazing land across the basin, following the droughts of the 1970s, encouraged herders to shift from cattle and camel to browsing animals, such as goat and sheep, which has further affected the region’s vegetation.

A report by Africa Development Bank (ADB), released in December 2014, says, "All Chad Basin countries are affected to varying degrees by the degradation of its productive ecosystems caused by the lake’s natural variability, climate change and human actions." Close to 50 million people now live in precarious and increasingly vulnerable conditions in the region. As farmers, stockbreeders and fisherfolk migrate with their families towards the lake in search of arable land and livelihood, it results in disputes and culminates in social conflicts.

A drying up lake now
provides more land for
farming, but less water for
irrigation (Photo: Reuters)

And conflicts become a way of life

The 2014 Leeds study analyses some of the conflicts around the remaining water and resources in the lake. Between 1980 and 1994, almost 60,000 Niger ians followed the receding lake waters, fishing, growing crops and rearing animals within Cameroon’s border of the lake basin. This triggered hostilities among communities. Cameroonians and Nigerians in Darak village, for example, constantly fight over the water. Nigerians claim to be the first settlers in the village, while Cameroonians invoke nationalistic sentiments. In 1983, Chad engaged in violent conflicts with Nigeria over the ownership of islands in the lake. In the 1980s, Nigeria and Niger clashed over water diversion from the Komadugu-Yobe river system. In 1992, clashes broke out between communities in the upstream Nigeria and downstream Niger over access to water from the Tiga and Chalawa George dams at the southwest end of the lake. Since 2005, inter-ethnic competition and conflicts over the use of lake resources have created security concerns around its southern pool. Young people, deprived of livelihood sources, constitute a major share of terrorist groups, notes the study, which links joblessness created by environmental degradation around the lake to the rising of Boko Haram.

Philip Jakpor who works with Nigeria-based non-profit Environmental Rights Action, also says that the fights over Lake Chad’s water and scarce resources in its basin has metamorphosed into the insurgency in northeast Nigeria.

Key lies in the lake

With increasing conflicts between the government militia and Boko Haram, at least 2.4 million people, including 1.5 million children, have fled their homes since late 2015, say UN agencies. Those left behind are no better and trying to make their ends meet by depending on a lake that is on the verge of disappearance.

"While it is crucial to treat immediate hunger and strife within the region...long-term strategies must be developed to deal with the underlying issues," says the WFP report. This can be done by restoring the environmental health of Lake Chad on a priority basis.

To revive the basin, LCBC is banking on an ambi tious project that aims to divert water from the Congo river watershed, more than 1,300 km away, into the Chari that feeds the lake. The $14.5 billion project involves construction of a retention dam at Palambo (upstream of the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui) to serve as a catchment area. Water from the catchment will be pumped into the Fafa river through a 1,350-km-long feeder channel, then into the river Chari in Cameroon, and then finally to Lake Chad. The project will also generate electricity and allow river transportation, claims LCBC.

But experts say the project might be too ambiti ous to succeed. “The challenges are lack of capital and the ability to convince governments of LCBC member countries," says Babagana Abubakar, an expert on the basin.

The plan has several other loopholes. For starters, the human impacts of the dam would be felt throughout the region as many people will be displaced due to the proposed channel, says Lauren Steely, a US-based water resource specialist. Steely adds that the increased availability of water may make things worse by encouraging more agriculture and land-use changes along the river. After visiting the Chad Basin in 2014, Jonathan Kamkwalala, World Bank’s Africa specialist, said that like other transboundary water systems, Lake Chad is managed in a fragmented way, which is jeopardising the food supply and livelihoods of millions of people. He suggests that the riparian countries should take the help of international agencies that have dealt similar challenges elsewhere.

The governments can also take lessons from the traditional knowledge held by people in the Chad Basin rather than prolonging the emergency response to a protracted crisis.
Nigerian refugees move
from Ngouboua, their
initial place of refuge on
the shores of Lake Chad,
to a settlement in Dar es
Salaam (Photo: UNHCR.ORG)

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