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‘The Disappearing Lake”: The Tragedy of the Lake Chad Basin.

‘The Disappearing Lake”: The Tragedy of the Lake Chad Basin.

When the Roman Julius Maternus first saw it, he described it as the “Lake of the Hippopotamus”. When Europeans first arrived at its banks, in a mix-up, they called it Chad, using the local Kanuri dialect word for a ‘large expanse of water’. UNICEF have described it as the lifeline to over 10 million people. Now, it is simply known as the ‘Disappearing Lake”. 


Once described as one of the largest lakes on the African continent, Lake Chad has shrunk by 90% in surface area since the 60’s.  The lake’s islanders found the water around them receding year on year. Much of the northern segment have become desertified.


The reasons for this are contested. The traditional view has held that it is due to the overuse of water and irrigation  The UNEP has blamed half of the drainage on climate change, that a hot and dry part of the world is getting hotter and drier. Some now argue that is due to emissions from the West.


Perhaps more important than what caused the shrinking of Lake Chad, is what it will leave behind. In 1963, the lake was home to a booming array of eco-diversity and prosperity, with 135 different species of fish and with 200,000 metric tonnes of fish caught every year. Now, nearly drained, this number has dropped precipitously. Furthermore, there has been a population boom in recent decades. The UN states that the population of the Lake Chad Basin has doubled in the last few decades and is due to double again in twenty years. There are more mouths to feed and less food to feed them. 


All of this is complicated by the lake’s location. Straddling the borders of Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria, as well as being important to ecosystems of Algeria, Sudan and Libya. It is hard to overstate the importance of the lake to its islanders and surrounding areas. It provided fish, clean water and they even made huts out of its reeds. With the lake’s disappearance, so is a way of life. 


This has led to significant forced migration, as an increasing and ever-hungrier population shifts in the search for a stable life. Médecins Sans Frontiers estimates that more than 2.3 million people have been displaced, either internally or internationally. Such is the extent of the suffering, that the UN found it hard to distinguish between the people who had been displaced and normal villagers.  

The countries that hold Lake Chad are also blighted by poverty, instability and weak governance. This can be most clearly seen in the namesake of the basin. Chad has been in conflict for 35 out of the 57 years of its existence as an independent state,  ‘suspended between creation and destruction’. A colonial past has rendered the infrastructure of the state precipitously weak, making any coordination to the crisis nearly impossible. This can be seen in the spread of cholera and hepatitis E within the region, where a lack of roads has prevented the spread of water sanitation and medical care. In another country, this breakdown has had the effect of pushing people towards a more extreme option. 

Jama‘atu Ahli es Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, more commonly known as Boko Haram have emerged from Nigeria’s northeast. The group first gained international prominence in their kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls from Nigeria. The Islamist group have spread rapidly in the Lake Chad Basin. Desperation has driven people toward them, with many civilians more scared of uniformed officers than the terrorist group. 


The presence of Boko Haram has also exacerbated the other issues of the basin. For example, the Chadian government, for fear of Boko Haram’s use of boats in the lake, has banned the usage of any form of water transport. This has led to a sharp decrease in the amount of food available to the islanders. Furthermore, a violent history between all four states has also meant that military responses have been uncoordinated, rendering them unable to cross borders with the speed at which Boko Haram have.

Regional attempts to alleviate the crisis have also been largely unsuccessful. In 2016, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger released the Abuja Action Statement to show greater commitment to cooperation regarding the crisis. However, this has not led to a significant increase in cooperation. There have also been attempts to ‘recharge’ the lake’s reserves, but the extent of the violence makes such attempts near-impossible. 


Furthermore, legal issues have hampered access to aid. Laws regulating that the classification of refugee can only be given to those who have crossed international borders have complicated matters. Refugees receive significantly more aid than those who are ‘internally displaced’. Now, Chadians cannot receive aid in Chad and Nigerians cannot receive aid in Nigeria. 

The Chadian equation is ominous. Climate change forcing people out of their homelands, food and water becoming scarce, violence begetting extremism begetting violence. Across the world, other spots are at risk of similar climate-change driven crises. What happens when rising sea-levels push the  164.7 million strong population of Bangladesh further inland? How will the world react when more frequent and stronger hurricanes hit the Caribbean year on year? For now, a solution to the complex array of issues facing the Lake Chad Basin seems far away, but its intractability is a threatening sign of things to come.  

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