John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Guest Post: Lake Chad Shrinks, Conflict Grows

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
May 25, 2012

Chadian men collect water with plastic canisters loaded on a hand cart in Lake Chad, on the island of Kouirom, January 27, 2007. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters) Chadian men collect water with plastic canisters loaded on a hand cart in Lake Chad, on the island of Kouirom, January 27, 2007. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Laura Dimon. Laura is the Africa program intern at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Earlier this week, the New York Times detailed the impact of Niger’s desertification on children, who must trek longer and longer distances to collect water. This is only one of the negative consequences of climate change that has hastened the drying up of the Lake Chad water basin. Over the last forty years, the water basin, which has supported up to thirty million beneficiaries across Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, has shrunk by 95 percent. The lake’s shrinkage is the result of a myriad of factors: decreased rainfall resulting from climate change, increased demand for water caused by population growth and agriculture, an explosion of parasitic vegetation, and weak institutions managing competing demands.

The water shortage strains inhabitants of the region and promotes interstate and intrastate conflict. In northeastern Nigeria, the region adjacent to Lake Chad, Fulani herders have been forced further south in search of new pastures. This has put them into conflict with farmers facing similar resource limitations, and fishermen, too, who are competing with both farmers and herders over water diversion.

The conflict extends past national borders. Starting in the 1980s, the rapid recession of the lake drew Nigerian fishermen further into Cameroonian territory, leading to several military encounters. By the 1990s, more than thirty Lake Chad villages founded by Nigerians were counted in Cameroon. In 2002, the resulting border dispute went to the International Court of Justice, which settled in Cameroon’s favor. But the real problem still remains: there is not enough water to go around and only weak institutions to protect what is left.

Recently, President Goodluck Jonathan and his Water Resources Minister Sarah Reng Ochekpe called for concerted efforts to save the lake, while marking May 22 “Lake Chad Day” in Abuja. But it remains to be seen if these declarations will translate into action.

As it stands, farmers and herders competing for water sounds uncomfortably reminiscent of the crisis in Darfur.

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  • Posted by Steve Klaber

    The part of this problem that can be most readily overcome is the explosion of parasitic vegetation. The dominant plant here is Typha (cattails, kachalla…) and it is both a dessication machine and a siltation machine. The most obvious use for Typha is as food – but the plant has the habit of collecting toxins so extensive inspection is needed. It is all biomass, readily made into biofuel. The silt the plants have deposited must be dredged and removed. On the bottom of the lake (as it used to be) are the recharge areas for North Africa’s aquifers that water the oases and boreholes. The silt can be used as soil to replace eroded or rehab desertified soils.

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