"Lake Chad is dying." President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger was peremptory in his speech at the opening of the Paris Climate Conference on Monday, November 30. He was seconded by his counterparts from Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon, all neighboring countries around Lake Chad. Once, the landlocked lake measured more than 25,000 square kilometers (9,700 square miles). Now it covers just 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles). Droughts in the 1970s and 1980s caused Lake Chad to dry up almost completely, reducing reservoirs and putting the livelihood of millions at risk.
"In Nigeria's northeastern town of Baga there was an inn called 'By the Harbor.' But already in those days the harbor was three kilometers (1.9 miles) away," recalls Norbert Cyffer. He used to be a lecturer at the University of Maiduguri in northern Nigeria in the 70s. This allowed him to observe how the water in Lake Chad shrank to a tenth of its original volume over the years.
"In a very short time, rainfall decreased by ten percent," says Sara Vassolo of the German Department for Geosciences and Resources. All of a sudden the lake lost a valuable water source. Vassolo has been studying the dearth of water in Lake Chad since 2009. While the surface area has remained the same since the 80s, the population in the region has almost tripled. More than 30 million people now live in the area. They depend on farming, livestock and fishing for their livelihood.
Attracted by Boko Haram
This is a climate catastrophe in the making in a chronically unstable region. On Saturday, December 5, three suspected Boko Haram suicide bombers attacked the Chadian island of Koulfoua on Lake Chad, killing 30 people and injuring 80.
In the past ten years, the terrorist group Boko Haram has gained in strength and expanded its activities. Experts believe that there is a direct causation: dwindling resources, high unemployment rates and dire prospects are making terrorist ideologies increasingly attractive for young people. Africa expert Cyffer says that these people may be placing their hopes for a better future and a secure livelihood on Boko Haram.
This is not a new problem. The Lake Chad Commission has been warning against insecurity caused by climate change for a long time. The commission counsels its member states - the countries bordering on Lake Chad - on all aspects of water management. For decades, people have been moving southwards looking for more fertile soils to farm, for example in Nigeria. According to the commission, about 60 percent of the lake basin population now lives in Nigeria. These migrants have moved to cities like Kano and Maiduguri, but also to Chad's capital N'Djamena. Maiduguri's population stands at 1.5 million, which is twenty times the number of inhabitants in the 1960s. Demand for housing has exploded accordingly. "More and more pastureland is being absorbed, which leads to conflicts over arable soil," says researcher Norbert Cyffer. Farmers don't have enough land at their disposal anymore.
Land, natural resources and conflict
Conflicts over pastureland are increasing. Every year hundreds of people die in confrontations between local farmers and herdsmen from the north. Philip Jakpor from the NGO 'Friends of the Earth Nigeria' complains that the government doesn't do enough to solve conflicts caused by climate change: "The government hasn't even positioned itself on this matter. There is no ministry charged with tackling the consequences of climate change." Jakpor doesn't believe the Paris Climate Conference will make African leaders more accountable. "They run around, attend meetings, and when they go home, nothing happens."
It's a vicious cycle: climate change aggravates conflicts over land and resources. In the worst case it can foster the rise of terrorist groups. And a lack of security makes it much more difficult to protect the environment. "There is always some country with problems. First it was Chad, then Libya, and now we have this problem in Nigeria and in parts of Cameroon and Niger," says hydrologist Vassolo. Some countries have started to drill for groundwater around the lake to provide villagers with drinking water. Sara Vassolo points out that in the north of Nigeria this means drilling holes to a depth of 300 meters. Furthermore, the population has to keep moving to escape Boko Haram. The circumstances don't allow for long term planning for water protection.
Former director of the Lake Chad Commission Abubakar Bobboi Jauro told DW that political leaders must start by pacifying and securing the region: "Only then will it be possible to solve economic and climate-caused problems." Chad, Cameroon and Niger have joined Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram. But one unpredictable factor makes this harder: rainfall must be constant to allow groundwater to increase, says Vassolo."If there are long periods of drought in the next 15 years, we will have a big problem."