The region between Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon is dominated by violence, poverty and hunger and it is home to one of the most complex humanitarian crises in the world. Now, climate change is intensifying the problem.
By Fritz Schaap and Andy Spyra
The day Bulu Moussa’s brother died and the war escalated had already begun with a disappointment.
Moussa had woken shortly before sunrise. As he did every day, he had boiled some muddy water to make green tea and prepared a small pot of porridge. He then headed out onto the lake, though once again, he failed to catch enough to feed everyone in the village. Paddling back to the island of Tchitchiro, he walked to his farm, past the fields where the millet was late again. Deep down, Moussa knew he would again harvest nothing this year. The weather simply wasn’t what it used to be.
As the rain died down around noon, 50 young men grabbed their nets and spears and set out for the neighboring island of Dabourom. There were rumoured to still be fish in the waters there. Moussa and his brother joined the group. As the wooden pirogues skimmed over the water, they were attacked by the men from Dabourom. A spear with a sharp, metal tip pierced his brother’s chest. A short time later, five of the attackers were also dead.
Two months later, Moussa is standing in front of his brother’s grave on the island of Tchitchiro. He looks tired. For two years, the islands of Tchitchiro and Dabourom in Lake Chad have been at war. A large, extended family lives on the two islands and its members are battling for access to six smaller islands. “If the people of Dabourom, the neighboring island, get the land, our cattle will die,” Moussa says. “Then everything will have been in vain. Then we will starve. Then my brother will have died for nothing.” The problem, he says, “is that there are too many people here. Too many fishermen and not enough water. Too many herdsmen and not enough grass.”
In Chad, in Central Africa, a tragedy is playing out that will become increasingly common in the years to come: Existing conflicts over land and resources are being exacerbated by increasingly unpredictable weather. Here, it can be seen how global warming can fuel wars.
One of the world’s worst humanitarian crises is unfolding on the shores of Lake Chad, according to the United Nations. In Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad, people are suffering from more than just extreme poverty. Boko Haram and other violent Islamist groups combined with corrupt governments and the absence of any functional state administration are making their lives hell — not to mention diseases, natural disasters and overpopulation. All these problems are now being made worse by climate change.
More People, Fewer Resources
The Sahel, a belt of semi-arid land south of the Sahara that stretches across Africa and in which the shores of Lake Chad lay, is warming 1.5 times faster than the rest of the planet. Various climate prediction models suggest that in the future, this part of the world will face heavier rainfall over shorter periods of time, leading to massive problems for the people working the land. Resources are already scarce even without extreme weather, and traditional distribution systems are collapsing. Too many people are relying on dwindling amounts of fertile land, which is leading to more disputes.
The problem is not, as often described, a shrinking of the lake. Rather, it is the unpredictable weather. A study conducted by the Berlin-based think tank Adelphi on behalf of the German and Dutch foreign ministries has concluded that, while the surface area of Lake Chad may fluctuate seasonally, it’s size has in fact remained relatively stable since the early 2000s. Indeed, if groundwater is included, it has actually grown. The problem is the rain: It is becoming less and less predictable. In addition, the lake’s surface is becoming overgrown with islands of grass, which complicates fishing and boat traffic. Climate models predict an increase of extreme weather in the Sahel, which will further exacerbate these problems.
All of this has direct consequences for Europe. Without the cooperation of the Sahel states, the European Union won’t be able to achieve the level of migration control it is hoping for. What’s more: The Sahel is becoming increasingly lawless. Hunger and terrorism are on the rise, as are migration, human trafficking and smuggling.
Lake Chad is one of the most important sources of life in the Sahel. Back in the 19th century, a fascinated French military officer described the lake as an ecological miracle. For centuries, it has provided those who live on its shores and islands with a livelihood. For the entire Sahel, it has served as an economic hub and a source of food for more than 20 million people. But the lake’s ecosystem is changing rapidly — and so, too, are the societies that live around it.
Some 2.5 million people from the lake region have fled their homes and around 10 million are in need of humanitarian aid. Five million people don’t have enough to eat and nearly half a million children are severely malnourished.
Climate change is acting like accelerant to all of these problems. The war against Boko Haram, combined with human rights violations perpetrated by both rebel groups and official armies, is making it difficult for people to adapt to the new conditions created by global warming. This has led to more hunger and poverty which, in turn, increases people’s willingness to join armed groups.
Mahamat Moussa is standing in a small village on the banks of the lake. The traditional taguie is covering his head and he is wrapped in a jellabiya, his toes sticking out from the front of his leather sandals. He is searching for a boat for the day.
Moussa, who is not related to Bulu Moussa, the fisherman, is the nephew of a chief of the Buduma clan, a ruler of the ethnic group that has lived on the lake for centuries. He is a mediator of sorts between the two warring islands where Bulu and his family live.
He looks out to the lake, where five pirogues lie on the shore. They are all filled with water, with weeds growing from the hulls. There’s also a pump, which is meant to irrigate the dry fields, but it no longer works, with thieves having stolen the solar panels. Moussa shakes his head and turns his gaze to the reed huts that make up the village.
Behind it, in the morning heat, extends a hilly landscape full of depressions that was once a part of the lake. The earth there is gray, made infertile from the salts. It’s a biblical place, one full of plagues. Dense clouds of locusts gather at night near the lights, devastating entire farms. There are no roads, only tracks of deep sand. The only vehicles one encounters here are white Land Cruisers belonging to the NGOs and the sand-colored pickups of the army, with their heavy machine guns. Camps for the internally displaced, made of low reed huts, are scattered everywhere. Goods are transported using camels and donkeys. Only a few of the larger towns have electricity.
Globally, the number of people killed in wars has been sinking for decades. Poverty is decreasing and conflicts between countries are becoming less common. But climate change is threatening this progress and some researchers believe that global warming could bring about such fundamental changes to the way people live that wars could once again become more frequent.
Chuck Hagel, the former U.S. secretary of defense, called climate change a “threat multiplier.” Syria experienced a period of extreme drought, one of the most severe in recent history, in the years leading up to its civil war. In Mali, conflicts between farmers and herders deteriorated into ethnic cleansing. The Darfur war, which continues to rage in Sudan, is widely considered to be the first climate conflict of our time. Ethnic tensions and persistent drought have left as many as 300,000 people dead.
In the Chad Basin, the number of refugees and dead is increasing by the day. The Adelphi study describes the interaction between climate change and conflicts in the basin as a “feedback loop.” These mutually reinforcing factors is making life increasingly difficult for residents.
“The lake was a good place,” Moussa says. “Long ago.”
According to the latest measurements, the lake, including groundwater, covers an area of around 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles) — roughly 20 times the size of Lake Constance on Germany’s southern border. Around 7,500 square kilometers are open water, while 5,000 are covered by vegetation. Although the overall volume of water, which includes underground reservoirs, is once again on the rise, the accessible water surface is actually decreasing due to surface vegetation. That has meant that there is less water available to fishermen. On top of that, the governments of the neighboring countries have declared many islands and stretches of shore “red zones.” Entry to these areas is not permitted due to the fight against Boko Haram.
“In the old days,” Moussa says as he steps through a wall of bushes on the island of Dabourom, “the people of the lake knew no hunger.” The islands were lush, the cows gave enough milk, the lake was deeper than people could dive and it was full of fish larger than their children.
During the drought of the 1970s and ’80s, though, the lake began to rapidly shrink. There had always been fluctuations, but as a result of the drought, the water receded by dozens of kilometers. And even back then, floating islands of grass begun to block shipping lanes. By the 1990s, the lake had shrunk by more than 90 percent.
When he was a child, Mahamat Moussa remembers going to the islands for festivals. Drummers would play the tambour as men and women danced in wild circles. “This no longer exists. People have other worries. They have to eat. No one wants to dance anymore,” he says.
There is water. That’s not really the problem. Even groundwater is accessible in many places. But there aren’t enough wells and there are too few irrigation channels — and almost all of the infrastructure that does exist has been built by foreign NGOs. Here, the government is often part of the problem and not part of the solution. According to UN officials, aid organizations have long since taken over the most basic functions that should really be the responsibility of the state.
Chief Abdoulayi, the elder of Dabourom island — one of the family islands that is at war — is waiting beneath the palaver tree next to the mosque, one of the few mud brick buildings on the island. He has lived on the island for 75 years. When it flooded almost 50 years ago, he and his family lived on floes of floating grass that had settled on the island. The lake is Abdoulayi’s life.
When asked why people don’t irrigate with groundwater, he says they have no wells and no pumps. “And we don’t know how to dig wells,” he says. To carry water from the lake to the field through a channel or with buckets would be impossible, he adds.
Accepting new ways of doing things is a major problem, according to the UN World Food Program (WFP) in Chad. Even when wells are dug, the generators powering the pumps quickly break down and money for fuel disappears. Hand pumps are seldom accepted. One of the biggest obstacles to progress is a simple lack of education.
In the past, Abdoulayi says, there used to be a school on the island. But the teachers left and never came back.
Today, more than half of the island’s inhabitants suffer from malaria or typhoid fever. Just the day before, a little girl died. The day before that, a boy fell into a coma. There isn’t a health center anywhere nearby.
The only state presence in the area is the army. And oftentimes, the presence of the army at Lake Chad only contributes to people’s suffering. Cattle herders regularly tell stories about soldiers paying children to drive their cattle onto farms in order to stoke conflict. Then they confiscate the cattle and sell them back to the herders. Or keep them.
“We no longer know when to bring out the seeds. The rain is unpredictable,” Abdoulayi says. The chief runs his hand over his yellow jalabiya to smooth out the wrinkles, then sits down on a finely woven mat of reeds. This year, there will be no harvest again. “The last four years,” he says, “have been very bad.”
The fish, by now the most important source of food in the area, have also changed. Not only their numbers but also their size has steadily decreased due to overfishing.
And diseases are affecting their livestock. It now takes 20 cows to produce as much milk as a single cow once did, the herders say. No one on the island seems to have any idea what they’re going to eat in the future.
Abdoulayi walks out into the fields, past trees where women are sitting in the shade weaving rope out of raffia fibers. It smells of rotten fish. Abdoulayi walks among the millet, which has grown almost to the height of a man, but are nevertheless almost completely dried out. Beetles are eating away the dying leaves.
“We have sown twice this year,” he says. “The first time when the first rains came, just like we always did.” But then it stayed dry for weeks. The seeds didn’t germinate. When it rained again, they planted the second round of seeds, but then it didn’t rain enough for the seeds to grow. This happened to almost every farmer in the area.
He pauses in front of a house. It belonged to his son, who died two months earlier in the same attack as Bulu’s brother, in the war between the two islands. “This is our harvest,” he says, pointing to a small reed hut. Inside the shack is a pile of millet ears. On top of the pile is a reed blanket, black from rot.
Traditionally, the farmers would allow their maize and their millet to dry on the plants. Harvesting only takes place when the grain is ready for milling. But late rains can cause the harvest to rot in the fields. Even grain that has already been harvested is seldom well protected from rain or moisture.
A few hours later after the sun has set, sand whips across the lake shore. Minutes later, bolts of lightning illuminate the sky and the rain starts pouring down — and continues for five straight hours. It is three weeks after the end of the rainy season.
“What has not yet been harvested will rot,” says the local head of WFP in Bol, a town on the lake’s northern shore. “What is harvested will get damp inside the huts. The huge problem is that they will still process what they have anyway, despite the aflatoxins that the moisture can cause.”
Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops. They are considered to be strongly carcinogenic and they, too, cause plenty of suffering here. The unpredictable rains also dampen the fish that so many people here rely on, preventing it from drying properly.
The next morning on the island of Dabourom, nearly all of the fences are lying flat in the wet sand and some of the huts have collapsed in the storm. The clouds still hang heavy and gray in the sky. At least five men died on the lake overnight. No one had been expecting the storm.
Abdoulayi stands in front of the hut he stores his harvest in. The millet is soaked with water. Abdoulayi has cancer too, in his mouth. He treats it with a red-hot iron rod, which he presses onto his gums.
Wars of Distribution
Mahamat Moussa, the conflict mediator, walks onto a small island that was destroyed the day before. Part of Abdoulayi’s family, seeking to avenge their dead, wreaked havoc on the small piece of land in the latest escalation in the conflict between the two islands. The smell of burned wood still lingers in the air over the deserted island. Only the snakes haven’t fled, sunning themselves on the thatched roofs of the round huts. Moussa crosses the island, gazes at the smoking hut of the island’s chief and returns to his boat to go to Abdoulayi, the village elder of Dabourom island, where he suspects he’ll find the perpetrators.
Both the islanders from Dabourom and Tchitchiro, where Bulu the fisherman lives, need the islands they fight over to let their cattle graze. Both also need the fishing grounds around the islands.
In 2017 the first man died in this small war, many more were injured. Last year, six people died in the fighting. In the entire region, such conflicts have so far claimed more than 15,000 lives.
Moussa himself too, nearly fell victim to this war of distribution. Razor-sharp spears flew past his head more than two years ago. “I was afraid they were going to kill us,” he says as he lands on Abdoulayi’s island. He says that on that day, a good 300 men in muddy pants, angry and hungry, stood a mere 20 meters in front of him. Behind him were another 300. The two warring factions screamed at each other, ran towards each other and only retreated when the 10 soldiers accompanying Moussa fired shots into the air. “Only when the soldiers opened fire on the warriors did they flee. It’s a miracle only one guy died,” he says.
When Moussa sits down with Chief Abdoulayi, the elder tells him he couldn’t possibly have participated in the devastation of the neighboring island the day before. For months, he says, he has been suffering from malaria and typhoid fever. He is very weak and does not have the strength to leave the island. Then he says: “The people come here to the lake in peace, but then they have children and breed more cattle. Then they become greedy and need more land. That’s when we must say that we need the land for ourselves.”
It’s hard to distinguish between victims and perpetrators on the shores of the lake. In the end, everyone here is a victim.
Further west, near the Nigerian border and closer to the frontlines with Boko Haram, a fisherman is sitting under a thorny acacia tree in the Dar es Salam refugee camp and explaining how the weather also strengthens Boko Haram. And how he lost his home because of it.
On Jan. 3, 2015, after morning prayers, Nassiru Husseini lay back down on his hard bed inside his house in Doron Baga, a large settlement in northeastern Nigeria on the shores of Lake Chad. At 5:30 a.m., he heard the first shots fired outside the village gates, near the army base. By 6:30 a.m., the first wounded began to arrive in the village.
Husseini and his wife grabbed their children and ran to the water. The sun had just begun to rise over the lake and hundreds of boats could be seen leaving the shores. Thousands of people were fleeing. The masses reminded him of locusts, he thought as he pushed his boat into deeper water and started the engine. That’s when he heard the first bullets fly past him.
He looked back over his shoulder. He could already see the jihadists’ black flags flying over the huts. Next to him a bullet ripped a man off his ship. At the shore, a woman ran into the water, terrified, with her child strapped to her back. By the time she was pulled onto the boat next to his, the child had drowned. That’s how he remembers the day.
That attack is considered one of the terrorist group’s biggest and most brutal. More than 3,100 buildings were damaged or destroyed, according to Amnesty International. Eyewitnesses report seeing mountains of corpses. It’s unclear how many people died. There was no one left to count the bodies, says one survivor. Six days later, more than 7,000 refugees reached Chad, the UN says. Another 5,000 reportedly fled to the capital city of Borno state.
“Boko Haram and climate change are marching side-by-side, making each other stronger,” says Husseini, a gaunt 42-year-old, wearing a green jalabiya. “Many people join the group because they are hungry, because they are poor.”
He walks through the Dar as Salam camp, where he helps new arrivals to register. This year alone, thousands more have come, he says. Altogether, the camp houses more than 15,000 refugees who have fled from the Islamists. The motives of those who join the group are always the same, he says. “Poverty, climate, anger, money.”
And so Boko Haram has it easy in Chad too, where an estimated 5,000 fighters are active. “They come to the villages and tell people, ‘Join us! We’ll give you money and food.’ People are desperate. When they give you money, you go with them.”
Husseini says he’s too old to keep running away. Also, two of his sons go to school in Nigeria. “Most young people, though, they talk about Europe.”