Climate Refugees

Spotlight: Lake Chad Basin

The shrinkage of the Lake Chad Basin is recognized as one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises.301 It is a foreboding example of how the climate crisis is tied to social, economic, and political instabilities to affect nation-states, peoples’ livelihoods, and key resources. Over 370 million people depend on the Lake Chad Basin for their survival, and an estimated 12 percent of the population have been forced into abject poverty due to the basin’s receding water levels.302

The shrinkage of the basin has forcibly displaced roughly 4.5 million people including IDPs, refugees and returnees.303 An estimated 94 percent of those forced to leave their homes were displaced by conflict, while 6 percent were displaced by communal clashes, and 1 percent displaced by natural disasters.304 While data demonstrates that the largest number of those displaced were forcibly displaced by conflict and violence, the climate crisis is exacerbating underlying resource tensions and conflicts in the region, and displacezment by climate or natural disasters goes largely underreported.305

The Lake Chad Basin spans the borders of Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Sudan, Algeria, and Cameroon. Lake Chad, once a massive lake slightly larger than the state of New Jersey,306 has significantly decreased since 1963 from roughly 25,000 square kilometers to less than 2,500 square kilometers in 2013,307 with half of the reduction a result of the climate crisis.308 As of 2017, the lake has lost approximately 95 percent of its total water mass.309

For generations, communities that live around the lake have engaged in fishing, livestock farming, agriculture, and trade as a way to make a living.310 Moussa Mainakinay, Chief of Bougourmi, was born in 1949 on the island of Bougourmi, one of Lake Chad’s many islands, and he remembers the lake as a plentiful life source that sustained his community’s and ancestors’ way of life.311 Yet beginning in the 1970s, he observed that the lake was shrinking and that the mainland was encroaching.312

By the end of the 1990s, the region had been devastated by continuous drought and famine; the cattle became diseased, the rivers that used to feed into the lake dried up, and people started to die of hunger.313 Recurrent and prolonged droughts in the Lake Chad Basin region significantly decreased the amount of water and arable land available for fishing, farming, and pastoral livelihoods, which translated to food, water, and job insecurity, elevating the level of extreme poverty and subsequently driving people out of the area.314

A study conducted by the International Organization for Migration found that residents of the Lake Chad Basin noted, over the course of the last decade, an increase in temperature and decrease in rainfall, which greatly impacts their local and traditional knowledge of the climate.315 People also observed the disappearance of indigenous plant, animal, and other species from the region.316 The inability of governments to adequately address issues related to resource scarcity has exacerbated tensions in the region between pastoralists and farmers to a level of desperation leading to community clashes and violence for access to water and arable land for farming and cattle grazing.317

Member states of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, a body created to regulate the use of the basin water, have taken initiatives to prevent further degradation of the lake. However, challenges such as desertification, deforestation, forced migration, short-sighted solutions, and financial challenges, among other issues, have made governments’ measures difficult to implement.318 The mismanagement of water resources by the affected countries, and the impacts of the climate crisis and environmental degradation, have been exacerbated and complicated by violence inflicted by civil wars319 that have been terrorizing local communities in the Lake Chad Basin region for several decades.320

Like many countries around the globe, African nations find themselves struggling to cope with the climate crisis due to impeding factors such as poverty, weakened institutions, and fragile ecosystems that impede their ability to develop current and future strategies to combat environmental variabilities.321 To address peace-building efforts, remedies for environmental challenges, and to establish sustainable development in the Lake Chad Basin, governors from states and provinces in Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad met in 2018, with support and funding from the UN Development Programme–Nigeria and the Government of Germany, to create the Lake Chad Basin Governors’ Forum.322 In 2015, the four countries submitted a climate action plan to the UNFCCC, and since then each country has signed and ratified the Paris Agreement.323 As temperatures are predicted to dramatically increase across the globe, the climate crisis is expected to further destabilize the region, and comprehensive, transboundary solutions are needed to address the adverse effects of the climate crisis before it is too late.324