Lake Chad is shrinking

In recent years, we have witnessed the dramatic rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria and its expansion into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. In addition to sharing borders, these four countries have another valuable asset in common: Lake Chad. The resource remains the primary source of freshwater for irrigation projects in the region, and the Lake’s basin remains one of the world’s most important agricultural heritage sites, providing a lifeline to about 30 million people.

A combination of climate change, drought, and inefficient resource usage has led to a 90 percent decrease in Lake Chad’s size, from nearly 25,000 square kilometers (about the size of the State of Maryland) in 1963 to less than 1,500 square kilometers in 2001. Lake Chad has always been subject to seasonal fluctuations in area and volume, but a combination of climate change and exponentially increasing demand for water has caused an alarming and permanent reduction in recent decades.

This massive reduction of the Lake has resulted in less water availability, decreased agricultural outputs for surrounding communities, and an increase in livestock and fisheries mortality. Moreover, as the human population that depends on the Lake’s ecosystem for survival surges in size, the challenge of decreasing freshwater availability grows more and more acute.

The dire situation of Lake Chad caught the attention of former US Vice President Al Gore who, in his book An Inconvenient Truth, showed pictures of the lake shrinking. In 2009, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization called the situation an “ecological catastrophe” that would contribute to humanitarian disaster if unaddressed.

But the crises caused by the shrinkage of Lake Chad have been aggravated by yet another regional disaster: the rise of terrorist group Boko Haram.

Security problems add to the strain

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Boko Haram’s violence has displaced more than a million people around Lake Chad. They are struggling to find food, water, and healthcare, and many are desperately searching for separated members of their families. Additionally, nearby communities’ resources—already stretched to the breaking point due to Lake Chad’s ecological challenges—have come under even greater strain as a result of the influx of displaced persons. Sharing scarce resources often causes friction and even violence between host communities and displaced persons; it remains to be seen whether this concern will manifest itself in the Lake Chad scenario.

Both humanitarian and security challenges are straining local government resources and capacity. In Niger, preliminary estimates from the World Bank suggest that the fiscal impact of increased security needs and the hosting of displaced persons could cost the country one percent of its annual GDP, crowding out other public investment priorities.

Regional institutions must be strengthened

In the 1990s, Nigeria, Niger, and Chad combined their respective military forces into the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), organized to tackle cross-border security issues in the Lake Chad region. Currently, the MNJTF is entirely focused on the fight against Boko Haram. During the Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) held in Abuja, Nigeria on June 11, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari recommitted his country to the Boko Haram fight, offering $100 million in funding to the regional fighting force.

On the development side, the LCBC, a regional organization comprising Lake Chad’s neighboring countries, oversees water and other natural resource usage in the basin. Its mandate is to manage the Lake and shared water resources of the Basin, preserve the ecosystems of the Lake, and promote regional integration, peace, and security across the Basin.

Unfortunately, since its inception in 1964, the LCBC has experienced difficulties mobilizing adequate resources to fulfill their mission. In April 2014, LCBC countries held a donor meeting in Bologna, Italy to fundraise for a five-year investment plan aimed at revitalizing the Basin (the plan runs until 2017). The plan consists of fifteen programs, at a cost of €925 million. The African Development Bank committed €80 million to the plan, and other partners at the donor meeting also expressed their interest. Unfortunately, the plan’s funding goals remain unmet, though the LCBC might consider tapping into the World Bank Global Environment Facility Program or the UN’s Green Climate Fund to leverage additional resources.

The plan’s key goals are to reverse the degradation of Lake Chad’s resources and ensure the preservation of its ecosystem. Its objectives include raising the quantity and quality of the Lake’s water, increasing the productivity of farmers, fishers, and herders operating around the Basin, strengthening regional integration and cooperation processes, and actively engaging local people in decision making.

In the medium term, the LCBC must convince its partners that the Commission is capable of addressing Lake Chad’s development challenges, and it must solicit the resources needed to do so effectively. One way the LCBC could increase its credibility and relevance would be to give more attention not only to technical matters, but also to political issues. The LCBC, for example, could focus on improving local governance in the region and build on its role as a convener of the region’s leadership to ensure permanent regional cooperation and, hopefully, international support for their efforts to support a healthy and sustainable Basin.

The way forward

In the current context, LCBC countries might seize the opportunity of the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (“COP 21” for short), currently planned for December 2015 in Paris, to increase global awareness about the ecological, humanitarian, and security challenges facing Lake Chad.

It is fair to assume that African countries cannot afford the disappearance of Lake Chad, nor should the world allow the birth of an African “Aral Sea.” The LCBC plan amounts to less than a billion dollars, but its implementation could greatly contribute to revitalizing the Lake and supporting the livelihoods of millions of people. To ensure a successful and sustainable solution, more ambitious efforts are needed.

Abdoul Salam Bello is a senior fellow at the Africa Center. You can follow him on Twitter @as_bello.