Why is Lake Chad drying up?

Credit: Wikimedia

Rebecca Scott
Culture Editor

Rebecca Scott examines the impact of the climate crisis on this vital body of water.

Whilst it’s now common knowledge that our planet is undergoing an unprecedented and rapid period of global heating, it can be hard to visualise this in our daily lives here in Scotland; the rain stays lashing, it feels as cold as ever, and environmental policy change is being enacted at a snail’s pace. But by looking beyond our own horizons, it becomes clear that the Earth is going through some concerning and extensive changes across its surface.

Lake Chad, one of Africa’s largest bodies of water, has been shrinking since the mid-twentieth century, primarily as the Sahel to the north experiences severe levels of increasing average temperatures and desertification. Between 1963 and 1993, the lake’s surface area shrank from 25,000km2 to 2,500km2, representing a loss of 90% of its water mass. Over 30 million people live within the Lake Chad water basin — which encompasses the nations of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria — and the depletion of this lake has had a severe impact on the livelihoods of their communities, since most of the population relies on subsistence farming. It is estimated by the UN that almost 10 million people in this region now require emergency humanitarian assistance, with the majority facing the threat of starvation as their access to Lake Chad’s water resources — and thus, their ability to successfully irrigate farmland and their access to fertile land to grow crops — dwindles. 

This climatic instability and associated widespread suffering experienced by those who rely upon Lake Chad as a natural water resource has driven many individuals residing within the region to join terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram. Though not a direct cause of the foundation of such militant groups, the region’s changing climate and subsequent retreat of Lake Chad have served to exacerbate individual feelings of hopelessness regarding agricultural livelihoods, prompting people to look elsewhere for a means to survive. Boko Haram welcomes them with open arms.

Violent attacks carried out by Boko Haram on the land surrounding Lake Chad throughout the past decade have won the group control over the lake and its utilisation as a water resource. As a result, millions in the region have either been kidnapped by the organisation or forced to leave their homes as violence escalates and access to the lake (and, by extension, access to dependable agriculture) diminishes.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental activist from Chad, has sought to bring this issue to light, most recently through speaking at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland earlier this year. Ibrahim’s discussion of the lack of equitable access to water in the Lake Chad basin, particularly for women in the region, was both poignant and powerful; speaking from her lived experience of growing up around the Lake Chad basin area, watching the shorelines recede further and further away, Ibrahim provided a stark reminder of how rapidly the landscapes upon which we live can change before our eyes and within our own lifetimes. Global heating, for its popular conceptualisation as a long-standing and slow process, can just as easily occur within a 30-year time frame, decimating an entire region. Ibrahim’s explanation of the issues surrounding Lake Chad was important, as it encouraged more people to consider the implications of climate change further afield, and worked towards getting Lake Chad’s disappearance and its militant control recognised and addressed by the appropriate people in power, helping to reinstate the livelihoods of the regions and their communities.

Recent satellite imaging has shown Lake Chad to now actually be growing in surface area – as of 2013, the lake was measured to contain 14,000km2 of water. However, the monopolisation of access to water that terror groups like Boko Haram have garnered throughout much of Lake Chad’s basin means that the quality of life has yet to improve for millions residing within the region. Fear and uncertainty regarding access to water are still rampant issues for communities living throughout the basin, and it is imperative that terror groups be effectively disbanded in order for improved management of Lake Chad’s waters to be able to begin.


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