Future climate change may further complicate the conflict situation, by accentuating changes in rainfall and water levels in Lake Chad. Anticipations of future water scarcity might also incite further unilateral hydro infrastructure development projects.
As a consequence, the basin’s natural resources have been altered, with severe consequences for local economies and livelihoods based on fishing, farming and pastoralism.
Conflicts and tensions between states have erupted as a consequence of unilateral water infrastructure development. Moreover, the ambiguous status of emerging islands has incited territorial disputes between riparian states on several occasions. The most notable disputes are a conflict between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi Peninsula, as well as a conflict between Nigeria and Chad over the status of emergent islands, which caused 84 fatalities.
Water diplomacy in the Lake Chad basin has had a turbulent history. Conflicts over resource shares occured in the wake of unilateral water infrastructure development. As countries built dams to harness hydroelectric energy and create irrigation reservoirs, downstream water security, fisheries and agro-pastoral resources in the basin were impacted, resulting in tensions with riparian states depending on these resources. Changes in the lake’s water levels have further led to the emergence of islands in the lake and increased the potential for competing claims to the newly available land. As climate change is expected to impact the make-up of Lake Chad and cause fluctuations in water availability, further challenges to water diplomacy in the basin may emerge.
A fluctuating lake
Lake Chad - which straddles Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria - is the fourth largest lake in Africa, and a vital resource for approximately 35 million people living around its water bodies (Magrin, 2016). The surrounding land and water system known as the Lake Chad basin also encompasses areas of Algeria, Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). Two river systems feed the surface pools of water: the Chari-Logone River system sources in the Central African Republic feeds the southern pool while the Kamadugu-Yobe River System which sources in Nigeria feeds the northern pool (Hansen, 2017; Asah, 2015). They also partially fed by rainfall. The lake is relatively shallow, with an average depth of 3-4 metres which results in large variations in the lake’s surface when rainfall and water inflow vary (Vivekananda et al., 2019). The lake’s current surface is around 14000 km2 but dipped to around 2000 km2 in the 1990s from a high of around 25000 km2 in the 1960s.
Although the damming of river systems have arguably been the most important factor in altering water levels in the lake, climate change is also seen as a major risk factor affecting water security (Asah, 2015). While there is a prominant narrative attributing a shrinking of the lake to Climate Change, recent research shows that “Whilst the lake contracted significantly due to drought in the 1970s and 1980s, (…) the lake is currently not shrinking” (Vivekananda et al., 2019:10). However, increased variability in rainfall and water levels in the lake do threaten the water security of all riparian states, albeit to different extents.
Fluctuating shorelines and relations between riparian states
Water availability and anticipation of future water shortages influence diplomatic relations in the Lake Chad basin and affect opportunities for fishing, irrigation, and pastoralism for all riparian counties. Moreover, changes in the lake’s water levels have led to the emergence of islands in the lake as well as disputes over their legal status, national affiliation and emergent resources. Between 1959 and 1994, the shores of Lake Chad regressed significantly on the Nigerian side of the lake. Many Nigerians migrated and settled within Cameroon’s borders. Despite their location, these were, in many respects, Nigerian settlements with tpeople identifying as Nigerians and paying taxes in Nigeria (Hall, 2009). Cameroon took the case to the International Court of Justice claiming that territory had been effectively annexed by Nigeria. However, the borders between the states within Lake Chad were not clearly defined. This meant Nigeria was successful in claiming that issues of territory should be resolved by the LCBC (ICJ, 1998), an institution over which it holds significant power (Asah, 2015).
Water infrastructure development
After the region was hit by severe droughts during the 1970s, several states of the Lake Chad basin initiated national hydrological projects to cope with future climatic shocks (Magrin 2014, Bächler & Spillmann, 1996). For instance, Nigeria initiated the South Chad Irrigation Project in 1973; Cameroon constructed dams on the Chari-Logone River – a main tributary to the Lake which contributes around 90% of its input (Zhu et al., 2019), whilst Niger constructed dams on the bank of the Komadougou-Yobe River (Odada et al 2006). During this period, the volume of diverted water accounted for nearly 50% of the lake's decrease in surface (Metz, 2007).
Many of these projects had severe consequences for downstream economies. As the riparians increasingly diverted the lake’s waters upstream, several conflicts over water, fish and land resources emerged downstream during the 1980s and the 1990s (e.g. see Odada et al 2006). Moreover, projects were conducted unilaterally and without consulting other affected states and led to political tensions, especially since they were conducted in violation of existing obligations between the riparian states (see section ‘Resolution efforts’ to the right).
Besides having an impact on inter-state relations in the basin, the diversion of water caused by the development of large dams also caused a decline in fisheries, reduced available water for farming and pastoralism, and thus aggravated resource use conflicts between local people and communities (see case study on local conflicts around Lake Chad).
Conflict due to altered natural boundaries
As the surface water of Lake Chad changed, territorial conflicts between riparian states and between sub national states emerged. In 1983 Chad fought with Nigeria over the status of some of the islands that had emerged as a consequence of the lake’s recession, which caused 84 fatalities (Bila et al, 2014) A settlement between the two countries ended this dispute (UCDP, 2019). More recently the ambiguity of their legal status has rendered the islands a political no man’s land lacking legally defined national affiliation, which has in recent years been occupied by insurgent groups (see also case study on Boko Haram), while the resources of the highly fertile islands are contested by land users and governments under international law.
Although conflicts between states in the Lake Chad Basin were settled legally, tensions persist at the local level (see case on local conflicts in the lake Chad Basin). These could be exacerbated, if extreme weather events associated with climate change occur, or if large-scale infrastructure projects affect water security in downstream areas. Additionally, anticipation of future water scarcity may incite states to pursue further unilateral (and potentially conflict-prone) water infrastructure projects.
Regional cooperation through the LCBC
Cooperation between countries around Lake Chad is organised and performed within the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC). Created in 1964 by the four riparian states, the LCBC aims to foster regional integration and cooperation, to manage transboundary resources in a sustainable and equitable way, to preserve the ecosystem of Lake Chad, and to promote regional security (Maman, 2018). More specifically, it aims to establish water sharing guidelines in terms of river basins, wetlands and ground water between the riparian states and looks at the planning of water infrastructure projects, which may have implications for shared resources. This includes the obligation of member states to inform the commission prior to initiating major projects. The LCBC further defines the roles of different functional bodies at the regional, national and local levels, and suggests some guidelines for engaging civil society (FES, 2011; OSU, 2008; Galeazzi et al, 2017).
Geographical situation, first and foremost, determines the membership of the LCBC, which, at its inception, only included those which bordered the lake’s shores. Later it came to include other countries with land contained within the basin: the Central African Republic in 1994, Sudan in 2006, and Libya in 2007.
The LCBC is supported by a number of international organisations and partners. Disputes amongst the co-riparian states of the Lake Chad are settled with the support of international bodies, such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Recently the approach of the Lake Chad commission has been characterised as multi stakeholder “regionalism” involving strategic partnerships with European governments with a focus on security and climate change (Akanni, 2018). In 2015, the African Union also declared support to a strengthened mandate of the LCBC to deal with cross border insurgencies such as Boko Haram (AU, 2015).
At the same time many other organisations are integrated in the Lake Chad Basin commission’s political network. These include UNEP, WWF, FAO and the World Bank (Asah, 2015). For instance, the World Bank was involved in the development of irrigation projects in the basin and IUCN is involved, together with the Global Environment fund, the Dutch, British and Nigerian government and the LCBC in designing legal frameworks for water allocation (ibid). These partnerships have some power to shape cooperation processes and thus the management of transboundary resources through the LCBC (ibid).
Major efforts by the LCBC and its partners
Since the beginning of the 2000s, growing claims of an urgent need to protect and restore Lake Chad have led the riparian states and the LCBC to engage in a number of joint water management initiatives with the support of a number of international organisations (Odada et al 2006; Onuoha, 2010). These include a major project to transfer the waters of the Congo Basin (Oubangui) to Lake Chad in order to replenish the lake – the “Transaqua” project (Onuoha, 2010) and a sustainable development programme for Lake Chad, which was launched in 2009 (FES, 2011). The Lake Chad Water Charter (LCWC) adopted in 2012 seeks to define water management and wetland management objectives based on shared concerns. It also seeks to define responsibilities of national and regional authorities and create the monitoring and sanctioning mechanisms needed to make agreements enforceable.
More recently the LCBC began to cover a broader security and military mandate as a way for the riparian states to jointly counter the Boko Haram insurgency, largely through the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) (see also case study on Boko Haram). This is cementing the position of the LCBC as a powerful transboundary institution.
In 2014, the recognition of Boko Haram as a shared problem for the governments led to regional cooperation in the field of security through the LCBC. The regional military power (MNJTF), consisting of the combined militaries of Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger and Chad promised to deploy almost 3000 troops at a meeting in London. Other examples include the mainstreaming of border controls and exchange of intelligence subscribed to in 2014 by the four riparian countries, Benin and France, and the negotiation attempts between Nigeria and Boko Haram arranged by the President of Chad (Comolli, 2015).
Limitations of the LCBC
Several factors are still hindering the implementation of restoration projects in the Lake Chad region. First, there is a clear lack of personnel and experts at the national and regional level. Second, international agencies involved in restoration projects often fail to effectively coordinate the work of their regional partners. Finally, the increasing threat of Boko Haram in the region is a major obstacle to the technical implementation of projects, such as the Oubangui transfer project, as the presence of the group makes it impossible to safely send technicians and experts on the ground (Sansusi, 2018; Odada et al 2006). Bilateral disputes such as those over island territories in the Lake and disputes and a “blame game” over a lack of military efforts in containing the insurgent threat can cause sticking points in negotiations and agreements (Comolli, 2015).
Meanwhile, basin wide cooperation is challenged by power imbalances between countries. The riparian countries are far from equal shareholders in the commission which can undermine trust that solutions will always yield mutual and equitable benefits. Nigeria, its largest donor and home to three quarters of all irrigated areas in the basin, wields substantial influence over agreed outcomes, development and security strategies (Asah, 2015; Galeazzi et al, 2017).
Pitfalls of regional water infrastructure projects
Concerns of climate change induced water scarcity in the basin have been used to justify large scale infrastructure projects, whose impacts on Lake Chad and the riparian countries are not always well understood. The most recent of them, the “Transaqua” project , was ratified by the Nigerian government and is associated with the Chinese state owned engineering company Power China and Bonifica (an italian company) and the United Nations Development Programme. The 14bn dollar project (Findlay, 2018) aims to redirect water from the Congo River to replenish water in the Lake Chad basin (Magrin, 2016).
Motivated to a large extent by fears of a disappearing Lake Chad – an assumption motivated by satellite images showing that the lake shrunk considerably between the 1960s and 1990s – the rationale and high cost of the project are now under question, as more recent evidence shows that the Lake has regained in size and that water levels in Lake Chad have to be understood as the result of fluctuating dynamics rather than of a linear deterministic trend (see Vivekananda et al., 2019).
Otherwise, the project could have severe effects on the biodiversity in the Lake Chad Basin where species of water plants such as the Water hyacinth will be transferred downstream with as of yet unknown effects (Magrin, 2016; 2011). Yet, from a political perspective, abandoning the project might not be easy either, as it has established itself as a symbol of regional water cooperation.
Given these challenges, sustainable water management cooperation between riparian states remain a challenge in the Lake Chad basin, both for national governments and international organisations involved in projects in the region.
Updating the information available to policymakers and other stakeholders may create a more solid base for policy based on the most recent as well as past observations. Not only are better climate and hydrological data necessary to inform water regulations and climate adaptation in the Lake Chad region, but the effects of large scale water infrastructure projects on ecosystems, livelihoods, economic opportunities, and ultimately inter-state relations need to be better understood and taken into consideration (see Vivekananda et al., 2019).