Climate Change, Conflict, And COVID-19: Civilians Are Bearing The Brunt Around The Lake Chad Basin


A sequence of climate change and conflict is having an increasingly devastating effect on the livelihoods and security of innocent civilians living around the Lake Chad Basin. This region’s fragile state of living has been further exacerbated by the impact of preventative measures taken against COVID-19. Some commentators have described the impact of the pandemic as extremely dangerous for regional security, whilst the effects of containing the disease have also inadvertently restricted access to food and other essential goods and services. For many who rely on freedom of movement around the Chad Basin, the situation is close to a breaking point.

Since 2009, conflict between the violent extremist group Boko Haram and the Nigerian state has unraveled across neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Meanwhile, a new violent group called the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) has also gained recent momentum. Both organizations have a powerful presence around Lake Chad and engage in regular activities of terror and violence. On June 13th, for example, armed groups raided the northeastern Nigerian village of Monguno, leaving multiple civilians dead and 40 recorded as severely injured. The attackers also targeted the village’s hub of humanitarian efforts, though no aid workers sustained injuries, according to the UN. This region has been considered a war zone since March, when the Chadian army embarked on a full-scale offensive in response to an attack on one of its bases.

The conflict has ripped up the communities of civilians living around the Chad Basin and 2.5 million civilians have been displaced since the start of the conflict. Due to these chaotic and swelling patterns of movement, herders have become of the worst affected groups. The fighting has left the traditional nomadic practices of moving herds from place to place in search of better grazing increasingly dangerous. In recent years, thousands of cattle have been stolen by armed men. Moreover, any limited access to pastureland as well as transnational trade has been further restricted since the outbreak of COVID-19, with herders losing the crucial ability to move freely and therefore sustain their livelihoods.

The plight of  herders has been made all the more severe due to a changing climate around the lake. Approximately 40 million people in the area depend on Lake Chad for crops, livestock farming, and trade, but recent unpredictable weather patterns have had brutal economic consequences. Uneven rainfall is causing what little pastureland the herders are able to maintain to disappear, and the resulting cattle feed shortage has been the worst experienced in over 30 years. The deep uncertainties regarding unusual climate patterns means that, according to the Policy Center for the New South, “those who depend on the lake no longer know what to plant and when, and when to switch from one livelihood to another.” On top of this, resource scarcity has inflamed tensions between herders and another group: farmers. As they attempt to adapt to these volatile growing seasons whilst herders seek to move their cattle to capture variations in water availability, social harmony between the two groups has become increasingly fractured. This increases the risk of further violent conflict.

In the backdrop to these oppressive and challenging living conditions, regional and international actors are failing to tackle their deep systemic causes. According to one report written by the African Union, “the state is effectively absent, or maintains a very weak presence” in many locations around the Lake Chad Basin. Weak infrastructure further limits the state’s capacities to assert themselves in the region. Indeed, a fundamental scarcity of basic service provision has further broken down social relations and increased the risk of vulnerable and marginalized individuals being recruited by the violent armed groups that impose themselves on local communities. ISWAP allegedly controls trade, imposes taxes, and allocates access pastureland in many different areas. According to Malik Samuel, “economic viability and control” is as important to these groups as physical repression. Weak governance across the region further exacerbates this control, and there are numerous reports of local level corruption helping to facilitate armed groups at border crossings. This, coupled with the perceived corruption of senior political figures, has led to a deeply eroded trust between civilians and their states.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), has recently emphasized the importance of unified international commitment when seeking to build up national and institutional capacity to tackle such issues. However, thus far, the bulk of the actions taken have come in the shape of discussion forums, reviews, and “cooperation agreements.” More promising is the creation of a global response to COVID-19, where the United Kingdom is one of many partner states willing to contribute to a $20 million figure intended for the African Union’s response fund. International actors are therefore paying more than just lip service to this problem, however responses typically could be more targeted on the local communities around the Chad Basin that are worst affected. There should be investment into sustainable farming, as well a short-term injection of cattle fodder in order to provide the local herders with the immediate relief they require.

Broader action must be taken to combat the threat of climate change on the Lake Chad Basin. Organizations like UNOWAS, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and indeed the United Nations Office for Central Africa must strive for more effective cooperation. Together, their voices are far louder, and they should unify to coordinate an effective lobby that highlights the devastating damage climate change is creating across West and Central Africa. It is imperative that they seek to target and engage Western powers in this crisis, and work towards preventative and sustainable measures that will protect the worst hit communities across the area.

The situation faced by herders, farmers, and local communities surrounding the Lake Chad Basin is dire. They are faced with a unique combined threat of violent extremist groups and unpredictable climate patterns and, as of yet, they have received minimal support from the state, regional, and international actors they rely on. Although the complex dynamics here cannot be fixed overnight, swifter and more tangible measures must be taken to prevent more livelihoods from being turned upside down.