Instability In The Lake Chad Basin

The population of the Lake Chad Basin is currently experiencing a severe humanitarian emergency.  This crisis encompasses the countries of Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon where over 2.4 million people have been displaced and over 10 million people are in need of aid.  The insecurity in the region is caused by a multitude of factors, including environmental degradation, poverty, and violent attacks by Boko Haram. Lake Chad itself has also been shrinking for the past 60 years because of climate change and irrigation.  While the loss of water has caused economic insecurity among the farmers and fishermen who depend on it for their livelihood, the scarcity of resources and jobs have become a push factor for migration from the region. At the same time, the worsening of living conditions has made people, especially young men, more vulnerable to recruitment by violent groups such as Boko Haram.  Fear of violence is also a cause of the mass displacement and only contributes more to the economic insecurity of the region. The migration of peoples also produces conflict and competition over resources in the areas to which they migrate.

Boko Haram is a militant Islamic group that developed in 2002 in response to corruption and poverty.  In 2009 they became violent, carrying out raids, suicide bombings and kidnappings, and have since killed over 20,000 people.  The conflict with Boko Haram is being handled internally by the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which includes troops from the four countries around Lake Chad and Benin.  The MNJTF is mandated by the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) and they deal with Boko Haram through both military operations and awareness campaigns to counter Boko Haram’s extremist ideology.  

One challenge the M.N.J.T.F. have faced is a lack of trust between the member countries due to past border conflicts. Nigeria and Cameroon have historically disputed the ownership of Bakassi Island; likewise Nigeria and Chad have both made claims to the islands in Lake Chad.  This has reduced the M.N.J.T.F.’s effectiveness and made it difficult for them to come together in the first place, allowing the Boko Haram crisis to escalate. Indeed the Boko Haram and Lake Chad crises are good examples of why it is important that African nations have strong working relationships with their neighbours.  Another major barrier to the M.N.J.T.F.’s success is a lack of funding, preventing them from being fully functional and executing all of their goals.

Although the M.N.J.T.F. has a multifaceted approach to combating Boko Haram, attacks have continued.  Only addressing the violent aspect of this crisis overlooks some of the root causes. If the threat of violent attacks is removed and displaced people return to the area, there will still be conflict over resources.  Boko Haram developed in northeastern Nigeria and have been able to sustain themselves because of the number of unemployed and impoverished people in the region who are vulnerable to recruitment. The vulnerability can be traced back to the shrinking of Lake Chad.  Since 1963, Lake Chad has shrunk by 90% because of droughts and increased desertification.  Alongside the misuse of water resources and increased irrigation, this has lead to what the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization describes as an “ecological catastrophe.”  It is also an economic catastrophe for the 80-90% of the population who are fishermen, farmers, and herders who depend on the resources of the lake for their livelihoods. Also, the fight against Boko Haram has had some unintended consequences. For security reasons, the army has banned tall cereal crops in some regions.  The resulting reduction in agricultural production only further destabilizes the economy and makes people more vulnerable.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has helped to implement several solutions to address the issues around Lake Chad.  The UNDP and France have supported reforestation and restoring vegetation cover around the lake. They are fighting desertification and helping to make agricultural practices more efficient in the changing climate.  Also, the LCBC works to educate herders and farmers on the most efficient ways to use water, addressing the role that the misuse of water has played in the shrinking of Lake Chad.  The UNDP and Germany have an initiative called “Integrated Regional Stabilization of the Lake Chad Basin,” with the goal of providing employment opportunities to those most vulnerable to Boko Haram and reintegrating former Boko Haram fighters into society.  Like the M.N.J.T.F., a barrier to increasing the success of these projects is their limited funding.

The restoration of Lake Chad itself is also a major topic of concern.  In order for there to be peace in the long-term, there needs to be economic stability.  With 30 million people economically dependent on Lake Chad, it is a critical point of focus for solving the conflict in the region.  Mamman Nuhu, the executive secretary of the Lake Chad Basin Development Commission, has even stated that “once the lake is restored, the Boko Haram problem will permanently be taken care of.”  One proposed solution is Transaqua, also known as the Lake Chad replenishment project. Transaqua would involve damming the Ubangi River in the Central African Republic and the construction of a 1,500-mile long canal to transfer water to the Chari River basin and Lake Chad.  However, engineers predict the project would cost $14 billion, and with other initiatives struggling due to lack of funding, raising enough money for this project would be difficult. The feasibility study alone would take years, during which time Boko Haram violence and economic instability would continue.  Also, efforts to address environmental issues alone may fail if they don’t deal with Boko Haram. With the threat of violence – such as in 2012 when workers hired to install a wind energy project in Nigeria were kidnapped by Boko Haram – there will be a lack of people willing to work around the lake.

As seen in the Lake Chad Basin situation, climate change is considered a “threat multiplier.”  Climate change itself doesn’t cause conflict, but the lack of ability to deal with environmental issues does.  Climate change in the form of the shrinking of Lake Chad has caused poverty and livelihood insecurity, which has made young people more vulnerable to recruitment by Boko Haram and added to the local violence.  The crises of Boko Haram and environmental degradation are so intertwined that they can’t be successfully addressed as separate issues. The problem is due to a compounding of factors over a long period of time, leaving no simple solution.  In order for the Lake Chad Basin to have sustainable stability, there needs to be a fully funded, multifaceted approach. If the number of armed guards was increased and the MNJTF was fully operational, they would be more likely to maintain stability across Lake Chad Basin.  With the threat of violent attacks removed, it would then allow the population to focus on things like environmental restoration projects. Also, a focus on education and economic development could transform the economy away from being so dependent on Lake Chad. There is no quick way to refill a lake which has been shrinking for 60 years.  If a smaller proportion of the population were farmers and fishermen, it would reduce internal conflicts over resources and allow the countries to adapt to their economies to their current environmental situation. With adequate security allowing for an improved economic situation, the Boko Haram situation would be much easier to confront.  With more education and jobs and less poverty, Boko Haram would have a much smaller pool of people vulnerable to recruitment and would be unable to sustain themselves. Humanitarian aid needs to be a focus in the short term to prevent malnutrition and starvation, but a successful long-term solution requires funding for education and economic development to allow the people of the Lake Chad Basin to adapt to their changing environment and create peace and stability.              

As a final note, the situation around Lake Chad should serve as a reminder of the consequences of climate change and the importance of preemptive action to prevent any more crises like Lake Chad.


The Organization for World Peace