The Lake Chad Basin Crisis: A Slow Burning Fuse

 /  May 23, 2017, 6:25 a.m.


The Lake Chad basin faces an urgent humanitarian and environmental crisis that needs the engagement of the international community. As nationalist and populist rhetoric rages across the global political landscape, engulfing the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, among others, many nations are actively considering reducing their international engagement. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May has responded favorably to the prospect of reducing British foreign aid from current spending levels of 0.7 percent of gross national income. While isolationism might sound appealing, there are regions where the international community must increase, rather than decrease, its level of engagement. The long-simmering crisis in the Lake Chad basin exemplifies this need. The area, which includes Libya, Sudan, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and the Central African Republic, has been wracked by violent conflicts directly linked to environmental calamity and exacerbated by a mismanaged western intervention in Libya. In order to remedy past errors and prevent future catastrophes, it is paramount that the global community engage with this region and work with existing institutions to increase stability and prevent the disappearance of Lake Chad.

Lake Chad, located in West Africa between Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Nigeria, serves as a crucial source of freshwater for the nearly 30 million residents of its basin. However, the basin has shrunk by 95 percent in the past forty-five years, decreasing from twenty-five thousand square kilometers in 1963 to two thousand square kilometers today. This environmental disaster has strained the limited resources of the surrounding nations, who all rank in the bottom third of nations globally for global GDP per capita.

Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon founded the Lake Chad Basin Commission in 1964 after realizing that the crucial freshwater provided by Lake Chad needed to be better managed to avoid conflict. The Central African Republic and Libya joined in 1996 and 2008, respectively. The commission sought to efficiently use water resources, study Lake Chad, and standardize legal regimes related to resource usage and navigation. For much of its history, the commission successfully mediated lake-related disputes between member countries, but it largely failed to diffuse tensions between local non-state actors. It was also hamstrung by limited financial resources, and Lake Chad was decimated by droughts in 1972-1973 and 1982-1984. Its major tributary rivers were later diverted for agricultural programs, and the increasing effects of climate change made matters worse. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison calculated that while Lake Chad shrunk 30 percent from 1966-1975, human irrigation systems contributed only one-sixth of the reduction; the rest was due to the drier conditions of a changing climate. However, they also calculated that from 1983-1994, a four-fold increase in irrigation caused another 50-percent decrease in the lake’s size.

The impotence of the commission has allowed conflicts over resources, fishing rights, and water usage to accelerate in the Lake Chad basin, contributing to internal instability. After the major droughts of the 1970s, many farmers began to shift from animals that graze, such as cattle, to more sedentary animals like chickens, which require fewer natural and human resources in order to raise. This change represented a major departure from the locals’ traditional nomadic lifestyle. Groups residing in the basin used to move around and work carefully to avoid contact and conflict, but their new, stationary ways of life both increased their interactions with other ethnic groups and placed a greater strain on their quickly diminishing resources. In Nigeria, for instance, the area around Lake Chad is home to nearly half of the country’s three hundred ethnic groups. This pattern of settlement continues to the present, as groups continue to move towards the shores of the ever-shrinking lake in search of fish, water for crops, and vegetation for animals.

As water resources dwindled, ethnic conflicts developed between groups within and across nations. For example, when Nigerian fishermen moved into Cameroon in the 1980s in order to get closer to the lake, violence erupted between Nigerians and Cameroonians in Darak village over water. Even among populations of the same nationality, disputes over water have turned violent. Yakubu Mama, a Fulani herder, saw ten of his relatives killed by Eggon farmers in Nigeria in 2013. This violence was directly linked to issues of water scarcity as farmers and herders compete for smaller and smaller portions of water to sustain their livelihoods.

These disputes create a region in which extremist rhetoric against other ethnic, national, or religious groups becomes an acceptable and appealing form of discourse. In this way, the increasing scarcity of water in the Lake Chad basin has left an extremely diverse population susceptible to extremist mobilization. Whereas normally the fault lines of social conflict are based on profession, with fishermen, farmers, and herders competing, the environmental disaster has placed ethnic identity at the heart of the disputes.

Boko Haram has taken advantage of this charged environment, co-opting water-driven conflicts to advance its extremist agenda and find new recruits. The organization has its origin in early anti-government groups from the 1970s and 1980s that advocated the imposition of Sharia law in Nigeria. The organization’s main recruits were unemployed men disaffected with corruption and the secular policies of the Nigerian government. Boko Haram began to take military action in 2010 after the death of a previous leader. The leaders of this version of Boko Haram had established loyal followings in other countries in the basin, like Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. The group began to gain fame as it fought the Nigerian government, set off bombs in churches, and, most famously, kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls. The organization’s power peaked when it pledged its loyalty to the Islamic State in 2015.

While the region’s governments have collaborated over the past two years to retake much of Boko Haram’s territory, the group, or another one like it, will almost inevitably return if the resource-driven, systemic problems around Lake Chad are not dealt with. A former member of Boko Haram, now working as an anti-Boko Haram vigilante, recounted that Boko Haram’s recruitment strategy “has nothing to do with religion, but a lot to do with economic resources.” In this manner, Boko Haram has utilized simmering discontent among the populace of the Lake Chad basin over resource scarcity, as well as water-driven inter-ethnic competition, to build its profile and remain a viable extremist organization. Boko Haram’s rhetoric effectively co-opts the environmental disaster in order to serve its own needs.

To make matters worse, in 2011 a Western coalition engineered a regime change in Libya but failed to establish a functioning government. This power vacuum allowed for a nearly unprecedented flow of arms from Libya into the hands of insurgents in the Lake Chad basin. The Western coalition failed on two fronts: first, to adequately safeguard the weapons stockpiled by the Gaddafi regime, and second, to prevent the sale of weapons that the coalition and various Middle Eastern governments had given to the Libyan rebels during the 2011 intervention. A 2013 United Nations Security Council report found that weapons easily passed across the Libya-Niger border and then were traded throughout West Africa and the Lake Chad basin. While small arms, such as handguns, represented a majority of trafficked weapons, more powerful weapons, like anti-tank weapons and mines, were found by Chadian authorities. Thus, nations in the region that were struggling to deal with an existing environmental catastrophe must now face increasingly well-armed militant groups too.

The confluence of these forces has created a humanitarian disaster. The activities of Boko Haram have internally displaced 2.1 million people in Nigeria along Lake Chad’s shores. Aid organizations struggle to reach the seven million people who need food. As of January of 2017, 10.7 million people in total are in need of some type of humanitarian assistance. After his visit to the Lake Chad basin in April of 2017, José Graziano da Silva, the director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, declared, “This is not only a humanitarian crisis, but is also an ecological one.” If the ecological crisis is not solved while addressing the current humanitarian crisis, experts believe that future crises will be much larger and more expensive as Lake Chad shrinks; some even predict that the lake will be completely gone by 2030, leaving 30 million without sufficient access to food and water. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme reported a funding shortfall of $224 million for its programs in the Lake Chad basin.

Clearly, the international community has an important role to play in the Lake Chad basin. Nations must help fund United Nations programs like the Food and Agricultural Organization so that it can continue its work on sustainable farming techniques and improved resource management. In addition, all nations must make good on their commitments to the Paris Agreement in order to reduce the effects that climate change will have on Lake Chad in the long run. More concretely, global leaders such as France and the United States should work with the African Union and the International Monetary Fund to support the Lake Chad Basin Commission’s plan to redirect water from rivers that flow into the ocean. This plan would cost $14.5 billion, which makes it far too expensive for the commission’s members to fund by themselves. Western countries must work to establish a stable government in Libya that can stem the tide of weapons emanating from Libya. Furthermore, immediate humanitarian aid is required to feed the estimated 475,000 children in the region who are malnourished. Finally, given the concern of many nationalists in Western nations about “radical Islam,” the dismantling of Boko Haram should be a top priority. If the world’s nationalists are serious about fighting “radical Islam,” then they should promote environmental and humanitarian programs that address the root cause of extremist views and thereby curtail the recruitment of fighters for extremist groups. If the supply of fighters is smothered, then the international community’s fight against Boko Haram and other extremist groups will be much easier in the long run.

The environmental calamity that has destroyed Lake Chad over the past forty years must be dealt with in order to solve the region’s humanitarian crisis and terror crisis. Importantly, countries around the world will never find a purely military solution to Boko Haram and the instability in Libya, but they must continue to support vital programs in the region that address the root causes of conflict, such as United Nations Environmental Program and the Lake Chad Basin Commission. As Lake Chad continues to shrink and the region’s inhabitants grow increasingly desperate and restless, the international community must act to prevent further environmental degradation that could in turn cause political calamity.  

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Mitchell Dennis


<script type="text/javascript" src="//" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>