28 Feb 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

The tale of a disappearing lake

Lake Chad, once one of Africa’s largest lakes, is in distress.

The lake is shared by Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria; its basin – which extends as far Algeria, Libya, and Sudan – offers a lifeline to nearly 40 million people.

Over the last 60 years, the lake’s size has decreased by 90 per cent as a result of over use of the water, extended drought and the impacts of climate change. The surface area of the lake has plummeted from 26,000 square kilometers in 1963 to less than 1,500 square kilometers today. The reduction, which has been called an ecological disaster, has not only destroyed livelihoods but led to the loss of invaluable biodiversity.

In the 1960s, the lake hosted about 135 species of fish and fishermen captured 200,000 metric tonnes of fish every year, providing an important source of food security and income to the basin’s populace and beyond. During this period, it is estimated that there were about 20,000 commercial fish sellers in Chad alone.  

The 1960s were a golden age for livestock keepers in the Lake Chad basin. At the time, the grazing was good and conflicts between herders and farmers were rare. However, droughts over the years have led to the loss of pasture. As a result, many of the herders have fled.

“With around 4.5 million people in the basin being severely food insecure, there is a need to rigorously address the cause-and-effect relationship between the environment and human security.” 

But the communities living in the lake basin have not lost hope that the environmental degradation can be reversed.

“With God, the Earth, the land and the trees can never disappear. God created them, therefore He will preserve them,” the Boulama, a traditional village chief in Mamdi Department of Chad’s Lac Region said.

Since the mid-80s governments from the various nations that comprise the Lake Chad Basin Commission have taken steps to address the continued degradation of the lake’s ecosystem.

This has included carrying out awareness-raising campaigns on sustainable use of its natural resources and the conservation of its ecosystem. It has also involved the holding of conferences bringing together ministers, heads of governments and officials from the United Nations, civil society, and other key players.

Fishing is an important source of income in the region. (Source: European Commission)

These measures have, however, faced several challenges: desertification, migration due to climatic changes, security and financial challenges, and development policies that focus on short-term solutions. The problem has been compounded by a lack of integrated management of water resources at the national and regional levels in the affected countries.

In recent years, the environmental degradation has been complicated by the Boko Haram insurgency, which began in 2013. As of January 2018, more than 2.3 million people had been displaced by the conflict in the Lake Chad Basin region.

“With around 4.5 million people in the basin being severely food insecure, there is a need to rigorously address the cause-and-effect relationship between the environment and human security,” said Erik Solheim, UN Environment’s Executive Director

Over the last 60 years, the lake’s size has decreased by 90 per cent.

In November 2015, the commission’s member states adopted a climate resilience action plan aimed at redressing the lake’s woes. The plan outlines commitments to empower local communities to build resilience to climate change while focusing on securing their livelihoods, thus increasing the lake’s contribution to regional food security and poverty alleviation.

This year the commission, with the support of the Nigerian government and UNESCO, is holding a conference from 26 to 28 February in Abuja. The theme of the meeting is “Saving Lake Chad to restore its basin’s ecosystem for sustainable development, security and livelihoods”.

The rigorous application of water-efficiency strategies will be essential to reversing the lake’s environmental degradation. For this to be successful the states in the region will need to improve their cooperation and update their legal frameworks to protect the shared water resources. They also need to promote environmental education and implement systematic data collection, collation, storage and dissemination.

The Kuri, a unique cattle breed found in the Lake Chad Basin, is threatened with extinction due to retreating waters of the lake and the resulting reduction of its native habitat. (Source: UNOCHA)

By organizing the conference, UNESCO and the Lake Chad Basin Commission are offering a platform for governments and civil society to share best practice on sustainable management of the lake’s natural resources thus securing livelihoods of millions of the region’s inhabitants.

UN Environment is working with countries and communities to prevent, or reverse, environmental degradation and mismanagement which are the root of many of the political, economic and social drivers of migration and displacement.

As the leading global authority on the environment, UN Environment also promotes a more proactive approach to disaster risk reduction in the long term. This will enhance the ability of communities to withstand shocks and environmental change.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.

Further resources

Europe’s Refugee Crisis: A Taste of Things to Come?

Frontiers 2017: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern

Environmental Emergencies Forum