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Lake Chad: Adapting to the Climate Crisis

Lake Chad in Africa’s Sahel region is a place that has become synonymous with climate change. Once one of the largest lakes on Earth, Lake Chad, which straddles the borders of Niger, Chad, Nigeria, and Cameroon, shrank more than 90% in surface area from the 1960’s through the 1990s due to severe droughts – from a peak of 25,000 square kilometers to less than 2,000 in the 1980s

Today, the social and ecological situation in the Lake Chad region is increasingly dire, with intense challenges caused by the impacts of global warming and climate change. Armed conflict, refugee displacement, malnutrition, and declining ecosystem health are all issues affecting the broader Lake Chad region – a crisis that has invoked international alarm over the humanitarian and security implications. Much of this political and humanitarian disaster is directly attributed to the shrinking of the lake.

Yet the situation of Lake Chad’s ecology is more complex than commonly reported. Today, the overall outlook for the lake is more optimistic than previously thought. Despite having fairly stable water levels for the past 20 years, Lake Chad has nonetheless become a symbol of the consequences of climate change. This is due to the striking statistics and satellite imagery from past decades – and the very real ecological and political problems facing the region today. As a result, this has led to a popular perception that the lake is in a terminal state of decline that must be reversed, without consideration for the nuances of the situation or the needs of local communities.

For example, some have proposed building a 2,400 kilometer-long canal from the Ubangi River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to replenish Lake Chad. While the Lake Chad region is indeed profoundly affected by the adverse impacts of climate change, including the fact that the lake today is smaller than it was in the 1960s, simplistic solutions and calls to “refill the lake” are not what’s needed – especially given the troubling history of past mega-projects in the region. In fact, countless people from communities near the lake – including those most vulnerable to drought – rely on its variable nature as a key part of their livelihoods. An artificially “re-filled” lake could have devastating consequences for these communities.

May-June, 2018 satellite image of Lake Chad. Source: Earth Resources and Observation Science (EROS) Center, USGS

Instead of foreign interventions and mega-projects, the voices of local communities must be at the center of all discussions. The following sections of this article explore the adaptive strategies of local communities to climate change around Lake Chad and highlights one local initiative taking place to address the interconnected ecological, social, and peace-building challenges of the region. Spoiler: the initiative is led by an Indigenous woman from the Lake Chad region.

Rising temperatures, unpredictable rainfall, desertification, heat waves, floods, and the overall reduced size of Lake Chad have all caused serious impacts for local agricultural and pastoral communities. These issues have been aggravated by political instability and poor governance at the national level of countries in the region.

Despite these challenges, communities have adapted. One means of this has been to engage in different types of activities depending on environmental conditions. For example, some communities in the Lake Chad region, particularly those involved in fisheries, alternate between agriculture and fishing depending on the lake’s water levels. When the waters are high, fisheries can be lucrative, with the sale of fresh, dried, and smoked fish providing a major source of income. When the waters are low, the exposed lake bed is highly rich in nutrients and fit for seasonal agriculture (also known as flood recession agriculture). 

In other regions, particularly around Diffa and the Yobe River Valley in Niger, large areas of lake bed are dry for most of the year and only flood seasonally. Since the 1960’s this exposed lake bed has created an agricultural zone ideal for expansion of the highly lucrative pepper growing industry, which has grown into a deeply established economic livelihood. The type of pepper grown is a special local variety known as the Diffa Pepper or tatassaye; grown as a regional delicacy, it is dried under the sun and shipped all throughout Nigeria and other parts of West Africa, where it is known as “Red Gold” for its high value. This unique industry generated great wealth for many farmers and supported a wholly locally-based economy that uplifted entire communities. 

Sadly, many of these livelihoods were destroyed by the calamitous Boko Haram conflict that began in 2009, followed by bans on pepper growing and smoked fish sales by national governments in an effort to deprive the rebels of a tax base. (see resources linked below to learn more about the economics of the fish and pepper industries and their post-conflict recovery)

As for the Mbororo, one of the largest Indigenous groups in the region, they have a seasonal economy, where they engage in cattle grazing and subsistence agriculture. During the rainy season, which today lasts about three to six months, they travel long distances, grazing cattle and engaging in agriculture in locations far away from the lake. For the dry season, the cattle are moved to areas near Lake Chad where there’s more water and greenery available.

The challenges facing Mbororo communities, neighboring land users, and other Indigenous peoples of the Lake Chad region are mounting. Rising temperatures have caused the rainy season to become shorter. This has led to a reduction in grazing land in the areas further away from the lake that pastoralists rely on. And with less food and water for cattle, the cows produce dramatically less milk – as little as a quarter of what they would have produced in past decades. 

Of particularly serious concern is the role that climate change has led to social tensions and violence in the region. In order for nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists such as the Mbororo to move with the seasons, they rely on special transhumance (livestock migration) routes where there is greenery and water along the way. The problem is that with the increasing aridity of the region, more people have moved closer to the shores of the lake and into areas that pastoralists need access to.

As a result, the nomadic Mbororo come into greater conflict with sedentary populations that use the land differently. They find their livestock migration routes cut off by permanent agriculture fields where once there was open foraging land. Often, traveling around these farms can be impractical or impossible; this leaves them no choice but to pass through the fields. Sometimes they are prevented from passing through; other times they have their cattle confiscated; and other times they are required to pay extra taxes. In extreme cases, there can be deadly violence.

Image Source: Oxfam International, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Making matters worse, the Chadian military has become directly involved in the problem, with government soldiers engaging in illegal land thefts, guarding farms on these illegally occupied plots of land. This is part of a larger trend of military interference in everyday life; in the wake of the devastating conflict involving the Boko Haram extremist group, the entire Lake Chad region has become increasingly militarized. (see resources linked below to learn more)

With all of the above interlinked social, political, and ecological issues, communities in the region are faced with unique and complex challenges. In response, women have made great efforts to advocate for their communities and coordinate projects to support the region’s peoples and ecosystems. 

One woman who is creating significant change is Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, one of the first Mbororo women in Chad to pursue formal education. A tireless advocate and articulate speaker, Hindou has helped elevate international awareness on the need to support Indigenous rights and climate action in the Lake Chad region and beyond. She is a powerful leader with an inspiring story. 

Hindou has spent her entire life advocating for local ecosystems and communities in Chad. At the time that Hindou started her formal education (ie. elementary and high school), it was extremely unusual – almost unheard of – for a girl to study. To attend school, Hindou had to travel away from her community to study in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, while her mother worked extraordinarily hard to fund her education. 

Socially, this was a very challenging experience, being far from home and away from her culture. Especially because, as an Indigenous woman from the Mbororo minority, she experienced discrimination from students who belonged to Chad’s larger ethnic groups, which often view Mbororo people as primitive, backward, and of lower social status. This discrimination had a profound impact of Hindou’s worldview, and made her all the more determined to advocate for her people.

In 1999, at the age of 15 years old, she founded the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad / Association des Femmes Peules Autochtones du Tchad (AFPAT), where she currently serves as president. She began to advocate for local schools to be built in rural communities; when the government started building schools in response, her community began trusting her capabilities and started to gradually accept her as a leader. 

Over time, through her efforts to advocate for Mbororo Indigenous rights and access to services such as health care and education, she became a prominent international activist. Since then, she has been involved in a wide range of environmental leadership activities, including serving as co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change at COP21. (See source dox linked below to learn more about Hindou’s objectives at the international level and her advocacy focuses in Chad).

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim meeting with community leaders near Lake Chad. Source: Instagram

At home in Chad, Hindou works closely with local communities to develop grassroots action plans in response to the climate crisis. To address the challenges of resource competition and land conflicts, in 2013 Hindou developed a process of community-based “participatory mapping” in which she uses a mix of digital cartography tools, satellite imagery, and traditional geographical knowledge systems to map out natural resources. 

Through local gatherings, livestock herders, farmers, fishermen, and other land users are able to constructively negotiate mutually beneficial plans for resource access. By being able to visualize the landscape in new ways, land users are empowered to collaborate and creatively plan more effective ways of using and navigating the landscape. This opens up previously unseen pathways to sharing the land and negotiating the challenges of climate change. 

A key aspect of the project is its highly mobile nature. With as little as a computer and a large, portable map that can be unrolled on the ground, Hindou can easily travel with the workshop, bringing it to numerous remote communities. Another advantage of the visually-focused, map-based media used in participatory mapping is that it doesn’t need to rely exclusively on language or writing. For an ethnically and linguistically diverse region such as the Lake Chad Basin – in Chad alone, there are over 120 Indigenous languages spoken – this makes the project much more accessible.

What this means is that Hindou can visit disparate communities, distributed across wide geographical areas, often with different languages spoken, cultures, ethnic identities, and economic livelihoods. With the visual tools of participatory mapping, land management is transformed into something that isn’t just focused on serving one community’s interests, but into an accessible regional platform that promotes constructive collaboration between different social groups. 

The project focuses on one region at a time, using the local language. The system allows for one group – say, the Mbororo – to visually explain what their needs, livestock migratory patterns, and key resource sites are, and then for another group – say, fishing communities or year-round farmers – to do the same. Then, with each group’s interests and key resource sites mapped out, different communities within the region can use the project as a platform to collaborate, negotiate, plan out, and accommodate each other’s land use interests and movements. Having this system of participatory mapping dramatically facilitates land use consensus and conflict prevention, enabling stakeholders to thoughtfully and peacefully work out solutions to shared challenges.

lake chad shoreline

Image Source: “Kri Kri, on the shores of Lake Chad” by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The project relies entirely on locally-based ecological knowledge, rather than imposed systems from distant governments or NGO’s. Another important component of this process is the increased participation of women in the planning role, as the process provides a critical forum where they can join in on general land management discussions. Having a visual map can assist women in very specific ways; for example, it can help communities plan out potential areas for women to obtain land title, where they can assume primary responsibility for managing particular plots of land. 

Other times, the mapping process can provide a platform for women to share input on knowledge that is specific to women’s gender roles, such as medicinal plants or information about certain drought-resilient crops that can be relied upon for emergency use during episodes of extreme rainfall shortage. Another example of this distinction is how, when Hindou started the mapping project in her home community in 2013, the men focused on mapping rivers, sacred sites, and mountainous regions. The women, on the other hand, focused on mapping water springs. 

These are the unique kinds of community-specific customs and gender roles in land management that only locals, deeply invested in stewarding the land, would know. The medium of participatory mapping, as a process that integrates women’s knowledge and social agency, thus becomes a powerful tool for climate adaptation, gender justice, and positive inter-community relations.

There are many other women leaders we can look to working to address the complex, interwoven issues faced by communities in the Lake Chad region. There’s Aissa Doumara Ngatansou, who co-founded the Maroua branch of the Cameroon-based Association for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (ALVF) in 1996 after being forced into an early marriage at the age of 15. The organization works to provide resources such as psychological and educational support for women in the Lake Chad region who’ve experienced sexual violence; sexual violence prevention programs, including training workshops for local leaders and trauma response education; and advocacy and awareness campaigns at both the community and government level. 

And, there’s women like Falmata Mboh Ali, who started fishing around 1998, and who met with a high-level joint delegation of the UN and African Union in 2018 to share her perspectives and better articulate her community’s needs. This is significant given that fishing was once an exclusively male profession, but increasingly women have become involved in the industry, creating new economic opportunities for them and enhancing community food security.

In all of the ways highlighted throughout this blog post, peace building is directly tied to women’s activism, whether that’s through subtle, everyday local actions or in the halls of international governance. The role of women as leaders, negotiators, ecological knowledge-keepers and peace-makers is all the more necessary in one of the world’s most climatically vulnerable and militarized conflict zones, the Lake Chad region. 

In 2022, Canada made a large humanitarian contribution to the Lake Chad region, funding multiple NGO’s to provide social projects and humanitarian assistance in the area. According to Global Affairs,

“Canada has announced that it is providing over $82 million in funding for humanitarian and development assistance to help avert famine in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions by addressing deteriorating food security and nutrition needs there.”

Source & resource material can be found here. This blog post was produced for International Development Week, an annual initiative led by the Government of Canada. BCCIC would like to thank Global Affairs Canada in particular for making our IDW programming, such as blogs like this one, a reality.