Climate Change, Conflict and Crisis in Lake Chad

Impuls 10/2017 by Janani Vivekananda and Lukas Rüttinger, adelphi

The Lake Chad Basin is currently suffering the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with approximately 10.7 million people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. While the current crisis was triggered by violence linked to armed groups such as Boko Haram, the situation has deep roots in longstanding developmental challenges, namely widespread inequality and decades of political marginalisation of the communities in the region. This has instilled an entrenched sense of exclusion and lack of trust between communities and the government. Against this backdrop, the region also faces significant environmental stresses.

Frequent prolonged droughts in the region mean there is less water and arable land to go around. In a predominantly farming and pastoral society, dependent on Lake Chad for survival, less water means not just fewer jobs but also extreme poverty. Tensions between pastoralists, farmers, and fishers are rising. The risk of hunger and unemployment makes young people more vulnerable to recruitment by non-state armed groups such as Boko Haram and other forms of illicit employment. The security challenges are particularly strong where economic opportunities are limited and the state’s authority and legitimacy are weak – nurturing a vicious cycle of fragility and armed violence. As insurgencies from Boko Haram have increasingly spread from Nigeria to Cameroon, Niger and Chad throughout 2015/2016, the already fragile security situation in the region has become tenser.

The day to day manifestations of this crisis on already poor and vulnerable communities living around the lake are devastating. The crisis is characterised by food insecurity, displacement, and shocking levels of violence and insecurity facing civilians, especially against women and girls. Civilians live with the daily threat of rape, kidnappings, killings and terrorist attacks. Over 2.4 million people have been displaced by the crisis, but there are simply not enough resources to meet the most basic needs of these people in the refugee or displaced peoples camps or urban centres where they end up. With little or nothing left to trade for vital resources like food, sexual exploitation (sex-for-food as it is known) has become the norm, even within the camps.

The impacts of climate change on state and societies around Lake Chad will only exacerbate these pressures further. The UNSC resolution on security in Lake Chad on 31st March acknowledged this, including a strong reference to climate-security risks and calling for adequate risk assessments and management strategies. A recent report released by the UN Secretary General further affirms what we are hearing from the ground in the Lake Chad Basin. It underscores the overwhelming scale of the crisis, and the need for urgent and immediate humanitarian responses. But it doesn’t quite go as far as thinking about a long-term solution. The short-term and long-term responses simply cannot be separated, without being detrimental to both.

In order to tackle this crisis with any kind of sustainability – even in the short-run – there needs to be a thorough understanding of what caused it to spiral in the first place. Discussions with people in the region, and expert consultations convened by adelphi on the issue, agree on some root causes: the lack of investment from national governments in basic services like health and education in the region meant that these communities felt alienated and left behind. This disconnect with the national government provided an ideal breeding ground for armed groups since the population in the periphery did not feel as a part of the country. The pressures of climate change will further add to this fragile situation.

To clarify: climate change does not create terrorists, nor does it turn law-abiding citizens into criminals. But a warming world acts as a threat multiplier, worsening existing risks and making it harder to work on solutions.

Social stability demands food and water. As these resources become increasingly scarce, communities become increasingly desperate. What do young people do when there are no jobs available? Some choose to join a militant group like Boko Haram, which can offer consistent salary and calories when they recruit in farming and fishing villages. Others may take up petty crime, or even more violent crime. Women and girls are increasingly pushed into prostitution just to survive.

These ongoing emergencies—the food insecurity, the violence, the breakdown of law and order—are not a coincidence. Rather, there is a complex interplay between many factors that create the conditions for such social collapse and suffering. In considering these factors, climate change cannot be ignored, for it exacerbates the worst catalysts of the crisis and fuels the fragility that has inflamed the region. Changing water levels of the lake, combined with the growing insecurity, have put increased pressure on local livelihoods – 90% of which are dependent on climate-sensitive natural resources. The subsequent increased livelihood and food security stresses have led to rising intercommunal violence and conflict and violence between different occupational over natural resources such as water and grazing land.

The ongoing conflict has also reduced the capacities of local communities to cope with shocks and adapt to a changing environment: many communities have been displaced multiple times or are hosting displaced people straining the existing resource base, not being able to follow their traditional livelihoods such as fishing and farming because of insecurity and restrictions imposed by military and non-state armed groups, and many traditional leaders have lost their authority as they are increasingly perceived as biased or having left their communities in the wake of the conflict.

10.7 million people in the Lake Chad Basin urgently need support today. But the emergency relief being provided will be nothing more than a sticking plaster if responses do not address the accelerant of fragility that is climate change. The only effective solutions will be ones that address the underlying causes of the crisis, that are durable and sensitive to the environmental changes brought about by a warming world.

As the UN strives to raise funds and coordinate government responses to the crisis, it is important to recognize that the problems will only be solved if we understand the role that climate change is having on these social stressors. At the moment, interventions in the region are heavily focusing on humanitarian assistance, not taking into account climate change, peacebuilding needs or linked climate and fragility risks. In order to address the complex challenges the Lake Chad region is facing, it will be necessary to overcome “siloed” approaches and make sure that interventions are conflict- and climate sensitive.

The Lake Chad basin is an example of how climate change can interact with other pressures and stressors in a fragile and conflict affected context. It underscores the complex interactions between climate change and fragility. In direct response to this challenge, and building on the recommendations of the G7 commissioned report A New Climate For Peace, adelphi, as part of an initiative mandated by the G7 Working Group on Climate and Fragility, is undertaking an integrated risk assessment of the Lake Chad region. This risk assessment will be substantially and substantively informed by local research partners. It aims to be a first step to understand the joint risks and inform joint solutions to the complex problems faced in the region.

At the same time, Lake Chad shows that climate change is particularly affecting fragile and conflict-affected countries and regions and should serve as a reminder for governments to take effective action on the international level as part of the UN climate negotiations. It is of paramount importance to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in order to limit rising temperatures. But even with an ambitious action on reducing emissions, climate-fragility risks will persist, so the preventive response must continue. In particular, it will be important to make sure that adaptation finance reaches fragile and conflict-affected contexts and projects and programs are implemented in a conflict-sensitive way.

Further Informations:

Janani Vivekananda, adelphi

Lukas Rüttinger, adelphi

, , , , , ,