Several, sometimes violent, interstate conflicts have ensued as a consequence of the lake’s natural resource depletion. 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 new islands that had emerged, which caused 84 fatalities.
The basin’s increasingly scarce natural resources have led to competition and tensions amongst communities over land and water access, and have become the most important source of conflict in the Lake Chad area. The loss of livelihood has led many to migrate, causing tensions with host populations. Interstate conflicts have also arisen as herders migrate across state borders to ensure grazing for their cattle and clash with farmers.
Given the high numbers of ethnic groups traditionally dependent on the lake’s natural resources, disputes are mainly structured along ethnic lines. Furthermore, the lack of cooperation between co-riparians has led to inter-state disputes over water and territorial claims. Additionally, the growing threat of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region could foster instability in the region.
A bountiful ecosystem for the population
Traditionally, the diverse population of the Lake Chad region has lived together throughout the seasons and shared the plentiful natural resources of the basin region. Yet, since the 1970s and the droughts, which tremendously hit the region, the water level of the lake has been shrinking annually, negatively impacting the region’s natural resources. As a result, conflicts over scarce resources have been erupting amongst the population and become the most important source of conflict in the Lake Chad area, even though these clashes are highly underreported (Onuoha, 2008).
Recession of the lake causes decrease of the basin's natural resources
The region of the lake – which straddles Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon – has traditionally been host to a large community of fishermen, pastoralists, farmers and herders, who have enjoyed the plentiful natural resources of the basin (Hendrix, 2014). Yet, since the droughts of the 1970s, which strongly hit the region, the lake started to recede at an unprecedented pace. Today, the lake’s water surface has shrunk by 50% compared to its 1963 level, increasingly recessing from the Nigerian and Nigerien territory and moving towards Cameroon and Chad (Ibid.). Increasing droughts and scarcer rainfalls –; population growth; the pumping of the lake’s waters for the water-intensive exploitation of uranium in Niger; as well as the national irrigation projects conducted by the riparian states have accelerated the recession of the lake (Ibid.). Between 1983 and 1994, the volume of water diverted accounted for 50% of the lake decrease (Metz, 2007).
Resource scarcity leads to competition over land and water
Consequently, in this region, which is amongst the poorest in the world (EJA, 2014) the basin’s natural resources have become increasingly scarce. This led to competition and tensions over land and water access, which intensified in the 1980s (Hendrix, 2014). The deprivation of their livelihood led many to migrate, causing tensions with host populations. Communities crossed borders to follow the receding lake, leading to inter-state conflicts (Onuoha, 2010). Similarly, herders migrated to ensure grazing for their cattle, triggering disputes with farmers in the across the regions (Ibid.). Moreover, given the high numbers of ethnic groups in the region (Ibid.), disputes over resources have been structured along ethnic lines (UNEP, 2011). The inability of the political institutions and structure to resolve competing claims over natural resources has been a main reason for conflict escalation (Onuoha, 2010).
Creation of the Lake Chad Basin Commission to manage the Lake
Even though Lake Chad’s co-riparian States created the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) as early as 1964 to foster better water management and cooperation between its members, it was only in the 1980s – when the lake recession became obvious –, that the riparians started taking action to replenish the lake and restore its ecosystem (see Lake Chad, Africa: Inter-state Conflicts and Cooperation) (Onuoha, 2010). Despite this, “constant arguments” over water and land access continue to erupt within communities, often leading to violence (Murray, 2007), whilst the proliferation of weapons in the region has become an additional risk for violence escalation (Djourdébbé and Ngaryamngaye, 2011).
Inter-ethnic competition and conflicts create security issues in the basin region
Since 2005, at the lake’s southern pool, the most-populated area of the basin, interethnic competition and conflicts have continued creating security issues. The growing threat of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region since 2014 could increase this risk (Coghlan, 2015). In fact, based on surveys and interviews conducted in 2013 in Nigeria, Freedom Onuoha – Nigerian specialist of Boko Haram – draws a link between poverty and lack of education and the vulnerability of the communities to join radicalised groups such as Boko Haram (Onuoha, 2014). This would induce that environmental changes, which deprive communities of their livelihood resources, could lead the latter to join radicalised groups. Nevertheless, not all specialists on the topic agree to say that there is a link between the endemic poverty of the region and the engagement in Boko Haram’s insurgency actions. According to the French specialist on Nigeria, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, the misallocation of the military budget by the Nigerian government as well as the “blind repression” of the Nigerian army – who arbitrarily slaughtered and raped people in the North –, has led many to join Boko Haram forces against the government during the period 2009-2012 (Malagardis, 2014). According to the researcher, it is not yet possible to draw conclusions on this link between poverty and radicalisation (Pérouse de Montclos, 2014).
Therefore, not all scholars agree to say that there is a link between environmental changes – which threaten and destroy livelihood, increasing the risk of poverty – and the engagement in Boko Haram's insurgency actions . Even though this link is not clear, the fact that the group has been responsible for over 10,000 killings in the region (Bila et al., 2014) and has been spreading terror in the Lake Chad basin remains a drawback to restore stability in the region.
Failure to increase cooperation over water management
As the lake further recessed, the co-riparian started taking actions in the 1980s with the support of a large number of governmental and non-governmental international institutions, such as UNEP, WWF, GIZ, World Bank and FAO (Onuoha, 2010; Djourdébbé and Ngaryamngaye, 2011). However, the weak institutional mechanisms of the LCBC as well as the lack of political will of the co-riparians failed to increase cooperation over water management (Odada et al., 2006). As a consequence, inter-state disputes over water and territorial claims punctuated in the 80s and the 90s (Bila et al., 2014). Since the 2000s, the support of international organisations and agencies as well as the heightened awareness of the lake’s degradation has succeeded in re-boosting cooperation amongst the co-riparian states (Asah, 2015).
Interstate initiatives to address the issue of depletion
The LCBC is currently conducting a project to transfer the waters of the Congo basin (Oubangui) to Lake Chad in order to replenish the water basins (Asah, 2015). However, such initiatives alone cannot be enough to solve the conflict at the local level, as showed the resurgence of violence at the Lake’s Southern Pool (Bila et al., 2014). Projects to slow down the consequences of climate change must be combined with measures to address the root causes, which make the basin population more likely to engage in conflict. In fact, the conflicts triggered by resource scarcity are embedded in structural problems such as political instability, high level of poverty and lack of awareness of the communities regarding how to exploit the region’s natural resources in a sustainable way (Ibid.) Even though projects to restore the lake’s ecosystem would reduce competition over scarce resources, a sustainable strategy would need to address these deeper issues.
Some international bodies such as the World Bank and DFID are supporting the LCBC in conducting a number of support and poverty-reduction projects for the communities, however this aspect does not appear in the priorities of the “Lake Vision for 2025 and the Region’s Principal Objectives” (Odada et al., 2006). Considering the predictions of NASA, according to which – at this pace –, the lake could disappear within 20 years (Djourdébbé and Ngaryamngaye, 2011), it appears critical to support the local communities in finding alternative livelihood sources in order to reduce their dependence on natural resources and to help them adapt to the reduction in resource availability (Bila et al., 2014).
Necessity of inclusiveness and capacity-building measures
Scholars also highlight the importance for governments of including communities in water-management processes and of engaging in capacity-building measures to empower the latter to preserve the Lake’s ecosystem (Onuoha, 2010). The lack of mitigation actions could deepen poverty and lead to increased engagement of the communities in criminal activities as a means to sustain their livelihood, thereby increasing insecurity in the region (Bila et al., 2014).
Boko Haram, a major drawback for conflict resolution measures
However, all these elements of conflict resolution have to take one major drawback into account: the insurgency actions of Boko Haram in the region. In fact, the presence of the sect does not only make it difficult for the LCBC to conduct any large water-management project in the region (Galy, 2014)–preventing the ongoing replenishment projects –, but also foster instability in the region.
To conclude, efforts to tackle the conflict induced by the depletion of the Lake Chad should not only focus on strategies to restore the lake’s ecosystem. They should also address the root causes, which make the population highly vulnerable to the environmental changes happening in the region and therefore more prone to conflict. Although international organisations such as DFID or the World Bank are currently conducting initiatives to address these root causes, such actions need to be at the core of the riparians’ strategy. However, this objective does not appear in the priorities of the “Lake Vision for 2025 and the Region’s Principal Objectives” (Odada et al., 2006).