Refugees International would like to thank Charles Uche for providing significant research and writing contributions to this brief.
The dangerous link between climate change and conflict is clear in countries across the Lake Chad Basin, including Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. For more than a decade, attacks by Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) have destabilized the region. The Lake Chad Basin crisis is often viewed through the lens of regional security. However, insufficient attention is paid to how climate change has fueled insecurity and the forced displacement of civilian populations. Together, these factors have displaced 3 million people and left 11 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.
Over the last decades, competition for land, water, and food has increased – leading to an uptick in intercommunal fighting and displacement. The unfolding situation in Cameroon’s Logone Birni commune in the Extreme North Region is a prime example of climate change-fueled violence and displacement. In mid-2021, climate-driven scarcity triggered tensions between fishing, farming, and herding communities. The result was an eruption of violence. The ensuing hostilities have caused an estimated 60,000 Cameroonians to seek refuge in neighboring Chad.
UN agencies and aid groups responded quickly. However, the living conditions in the two camps that house many Cameroonian refugees in Chad deteriorated during the last rainy season. Of equal concern are the many Cameroonians still waiting to be transferred from transition centers to the two camps. For the Cameroonian refugees with whom the Refugees International spoke in Chad, one thing is clear: they do not want to return before their government addresses the competition over scarce resources that is at the root of the violence.
Chadian and Cameroonian authorities have failed to effectively resolve these types of clashes. Even worse, they are actively contributing to the region’s violence. According to aid workers and displaced people Refugees International interviewed, high-ranking Cameroonian and Chadian officials have been purchasing large herds of cattle and hiring armed herdsmen who use violence to control water points and grazing pastures.
Much more needs to be done by Lake Chad Basin countries to tackle the link between climate change, violence, and displacement. An important first step would be to make this nexus a top priority for the Lake Chad Basin Commission’s Regional Stabilization Strategy. In addition, regional governments should invest in local mediation efforts to address community conflicts exacerbated by climate change.
For their part, donors and aid agencies should fund humanitarian and development efforts, and work with governments to improve conditions in camps and transit centers for those displaced by the mix of climate change and conflict. Donors also need to fund aid groups to collect data across the Lake Chad Basin countries to better understand the causes and frequency of displacement.
The Third High-Level Conference on Lake Chad Basin Region will be held in Niger on January 23 and 24, 2023. This conference marks an important opportunity for the Lake Chad Basin countries, donors, and aid agencies to meaningfully engage on the key challenges that plague the region. Together, regional governments and the international community must commit resources to address climate change, violence, and humanitarian need and create sustainable solutions for affected populations.
The Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) must:
- Address the nexus of climate change, violence, and displacement in its Regional Stabilizations Strategy (RSS). The current RSS fails to tackle the link between climate change and increasing community violence across the region. Nor does it adequately address the displacement and humanitarian need generated by these two trends. Given that the RSS is slated to be updated in 2024, the LCBC should either add the issue as a tenth strategic pillar or amend the current pillars to include ways to better mitigate and respond to this issue.
The government of Cameroon must:
- Take a leading role in resolving resource competition and associated violence between farming, herding, and fishing communities in the Logone Birni area. The Governor of the Extreme North region of Cameroon, Midjiyawa Bakary, must take the lead in mediating between these communities and ensure that significant progress has been made before planning begins for the return of refugees and internally displaced Cameroonians to their communities of origin.
The governments of Cameroon and Chad must:
- Ensure that government staff are held to account for their role in limiting access to scarce natural resources and fueling instability. According to numerous accounts, high-ranking Chadian and Cameroonian authorities have been buying large herds of cattle and heavily arming men who, in turn, violently control community water points and grazing fields. Chadian and Cameroonian civilians in affected communities report that these armed herdsmen act with impunity because they were hired by government officials.
UN agencies and humanitarian organizations in Chad must:
- Conduct thorough intention of return surveys of Cameroonian refugees currently in Chad. Plans to return people to their areas of origin must not take shape before aid agencies have conducted thorough return intention surveys, through which data on the intentions of displaced people and the factors influencing their intentions are collected in order to inform the aid response and assess the possibility of returns.
- Ensure that Cameroonian refugees are moved from transition centers into the Guilmey and Kalambari camps and take steps to improve living conditions in both refugee camps. Although it is crucial to offer more long-term accommodation to those living in transition centers, the conditions of the camps are not yet up to standard. Aid groups must work to repair and rebuild shelters and latrines.
- Fund aid agencies and relief groups to collect more detailed information on the causes and frequency of displacement. Significant funding shortages across the Lake Chad Basin countries have left significant gaps in humanitarian data on why and how often people are displaced. Donor support is needed for the humanitarian community to collect more detailed data and make more information available to relief groups during their planning processes.
- Pledge more funding at the Third High-Level Conference on Lake Chad Basin Region in Niamey, Niger in late January 2023. The conference will bring together government representatives from the Lake Chad Basin countries, humanitarian, development, stabilization, and peace actors, as well as international donors to mobilize resources and set shared goals and strategic priorities for the coming year. Regional and international donors alike must commit to long-term engagement and funding to respond to the region’s humanitarian and development needs. Adequate funding would allow groups to provide for refugees and IDPs, as well as people affected by climate change who may not yet be displaced.
Refugees International traveled to Chad from July to August 2022 to assess how climate change is fueling violence and displacement in the Lake Chad Basin Region. The Refugees International team conducted interviews with Cameroonian refugees in Chad and internally displaced Chadians in the Lac province, and representatives of national and regional authorities. The team also met with UN agencies, donor governments, and local and international non-governmental organizations providing humanitarian assistance and implementing development programs. The research was complemented by phone interviews with national and international organizations working on climate resilience and preparedness, as well as humanitarian and peacebuilding efforts in Cameroon’s Extreme North region.
In recent years, the populations of the Lake Chad region have grown highly vulnerable to both climate change and persistent conflict often related to the presence of extremist groups. Both trends have helped drive an explosion in humanitarian need across the region. These trends are also increasingly linked as climate change exacerbates resource competition across communities, which then spills over into violence.
For more than a decade, the presence of Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the Lake Chad Basin has been the focus of regional and international engagement. Violence erupted in 2009 when Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group, launched its armed campaign in northeastern Nigeria. Insecurity has since spread to neighboring countries along the shores of the Lake Chad Basin: Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. In recent years, infighting within Boko Haram has caused the group to splinter and weaken. One of the offshoots, ISWAP, is now the main purveyor of violence in the region.
Understandably, international actors and regional governments have focused attention and resources on the security threat these insurgent groups pose. But they have ignored the interplay between climate change, community violence, and the forced displacement of civilian populations.
Local and displaced communities in Chad told Refugees International that before the rise of insurgent groups, competition over natural resources was already driving conflict across the region. This competition often took place at the community level and focused on land and water. It frequently occurred between different occupational groups, such as pastoralists, fishers, and farmers. These conflicts initially became less prevalent with the emergence of extremist groups and insurgencies. However, fighting over resources made scarcer by climate change has recently resurged, displacing communities in the region. Now both armed groups and intercommunal violence are forcing people to flee their communities. As a UN worker told the Refugees International team, “climate change maintains insecurity” through the Lake Chad Basin region.
Today, 11 million people across the region are in need of humanitarian assistance – half of whom are experiencing acute food insecurity. More than 3 million people have been displaced – most of them within the borders of their own countries (see Graph 1). The levels of internal displacement are highest in Northeast Nigeria. Most displaced people in this area were driven from their homes by violence linked to armed groups like Boko Haram and ISWAP, which have strongholds in the area. Unfortunately, the crisis in Northeast Nigeria has overshadowed the situation in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Insurgent violence has also led many donors and aid agencies to ignore how climate change fans the flames of violence in the region more broadly. Despite these pressing needs, the humanitarian responses of all four countries of the Lake Chad Basin region go underfunded year after year. By the end of 2022, each country’s humanitarian appeal had only received between 42 and 59 percent of the funding required for aid groups to provide assistance (see Graph 2).
The Impacts of Climate Change in the Lake Chad Basin Region
The Lake Chad Basin is an oasis in the Sahel’s arid climate. It has long been an important source of freshwater and fish and served as the region’s main trading hub. The lake’s water once supported the livelihoods of 30 million people across four countries, but the consequences of climate change and more than a decade of violence have complicated its use.
The prevailing narrative around the impact of climate change is that it has caused the lake to dramatically shrink decade after decade. The reality of the lake’s evolution, however, is more nuanced. Indeed, the lake shrank following severe droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving it at a mere 2,000 km² by the 1990s. This was a far cry from its 25,000 km² size in the 1960s. The shrinkage had devastating effects, but the size of the lake subsequently increased and is now argued to be stable at around 14,000 km². This stabilization is good news, but still comes after 50 years of water scarcity and has not brought the lake back to its high point of the 1960s.
Population growth has also been an important factor. As a UN aid worker told the Refugees International team, despite having grown again since the 1990s, “the lake still shrank overall, all while the population in the Lake Chad Basin region dramatically increased.” The four countries that surround the Lake have a combined population of 246 million people, having grown significantly over the last few decades. This trend will continue, as the Lake Chad Basin countries are expected to double their population within an average period of 25 years.
This combination of the net size reduction of the lake and the needs of a rapidly growing population has curtailed livelihoods such as fishing, farming, and cattle herding, as well as limiting access to water, and increasing tensions among the various groups that depend on it. Communities explained to the Refugees International team that some parts of the lake’s shores have become increasingly crowded. This has led to tension between herders bringing their livestock to drink, communities trying to fish along the shores, and those trying to collect water for their fields or for personal use. For agricultural communities, there is less arable land for growing crops, and the location of these fields has changed—forcing some agricultural communities to move to new areas to follow the shorelines.
In short, tensions have increased among growing populations over scarce natural resources. Moreover, since 2009, insurgent and extremist violence has also limited access to the lake and other water points. As fighting forces communities to flee, higher concentrations of people in the areas where they resettle are now relying on fewer sources of water for all their needs.
Nor is the region well-placed to address the ongoing effects of climate change. The four countries of the Lake Chad Basin rank low in Notre Dame University’s ND-GAIN Country Index, which assesses “a country’s vulnerability to climate change and other global challenges in combination with its readiness to improve resilience” (see Map 2). Out of the 182 countries assessed in terms of vulnerability and readiness, Chad comes in very last at 182, Niger stands at 176, Nigeria at 158, and Cameroon at 146.
Map 2 – Notre Dame University’s ND-GAIN Country Index
Chronic weak and corrupt governance from all four national governments, the history of marginalization of communities that surround the lake, and poor efforts to effectively manage the scarce water resources have made matters worse.
An aid worker told the Refugees International team that “when the governments don’t invest in education, they leave people with no choice but to rely on depleting natural resources for food and income.” This is increasing intercommunal violence in the region, most notably between occupational communities such as cattle herders (known as pastoralists), farmers (known as agriculturalists), and fishing communities.
Some important efforts have been made to mitigate these harmful consequences of climate change, but the overall trajectory remains bleak. The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe (BGR), and the Lake Chad Basin Commission have partnered on a project on the Applied Water Resource Management in the Lake Chad Basin. Commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the project aims to improve resource management across the four Lake Chad Basin region countries.
Although this project provides much needed improvements in integrated water resource management and climate change adaptation, more efforts need to be made in order to address the issue. The integrated water resource management ‘hotspot’ map of the Lower Logone floodplain between Cameroon and Chad (see Map 3), created within the context of this project, illustrates that the presence of clashes and the risk for further conflagration over scarce resources continues to be high.
Map 3 – Integrated water resource management ‘hotspot’ map of the Lower Logone floodplain spanning across Cameroon and Chad
Clashes in Cameroon’s Logone Birni
During Refugees International’s research trip to Chad, the team explored the unfolding situation in Cameroon’s Logone Birni commune in the Extreme North Region. As one of the most recent examples of this climate change-fueled intercommunal violence and displacement in the Lake Chad Basin, the conflict in Logone Birni is illustrative of the broader dynamics across the region.
Situated along the shores of the Logone River – which feeds into the lake by way of the Chari River – Logone Birni witnessed an outbreak of violence in mid-2021 when tensions came to a head among fishing, farming, and herding communities.
Deadly clashes erupted after a herder’s cattle fell and drowned in a man-made channel that fishing communities created to lure fish in from the Logone River into ponds. Just a few months later, violence broke out again when cattle destroyed agricultural crops belonging to farmers. The two confrontations between these communities forced an estimated 100,000 Cameroonians to flee their homes, 60,000 of whom sought refuge in neighboring Chad.
Many of the displaced Cameroonians the Refugees International team spoke with in Chad said that these tensions were linked to the worsening consequences of climate change. Cameroonian refugees from each of the three communities lamented that they used to peacefully coexist and effectively share natural resources. However, erratic rainfall – either too little during some seasons, or too much rain causing massive flooding in other seasons – was disrupting each community’s access to food and livelihoods.
To address water shortages, fishing communities claim that they had no choice but to dig these canals and ponds. Pastoralist communities expressed frustration with unreliable rains reducing the availability of grazing fields and drinking water for their cattle, and the dangers posed by the man-made canals as their herds migrate through the region. Farming communities explained that their ability to grow crops had decreased year after year, and hungry herds of cattle had been eating their limited harvests.
Staff from a UN agency complained that the international attention on so-called farmer-herder-fisher conflicts is superficial and plays into old narratives of ethnic and intercommunal rivalries. While these narratives are not entirely false, this aid worker explained that these types of conflicts are more accurately identified as “climate-change fueled competition over scarce resources.”
Both internally displaced Chadians and Cameroonian refugees currently living in Chad explained that Chadian and Cameroonian authorities were not only absent from efforts to effectively resolve these types of clashes, but also that officials in both countries were fueling the violence.
These displaced communities explained that high-ranking officials in both countries are purchasing large amounts of cattle and hiring and arming people to protect their herds. According to the displaced communities, these herdsmen-for-hire do not adhere to traditional resource-sharing agreements (though such agreements are already under severe strain) and often dominate water points and grazing pastures through armed violence. Displaced communities and aid workers alike told the Refugees International team that these armed actors also operate with impunity given their connections to Chadian and Cameroonian authorities.
Refugees International spoke with a handful of Chadian authorities and international aid workers who corroborated such accounts of violent clashes instigated by government-supported herders. There are currently several efforts to negotiate local agreements on responsible and equitable natural resource sharing among communities, many of which receive support from international donors. But all these efforts will be in vain if government officials continue to use their influence to monopolize resources. The governments of Cameroon and Chad must ensure that government staff are held accountable for their role in limiting access to scarce natural resources and fueling instability.
Responding to the Logone Birni Crisis
Cameroonians that fled into Chad are predominantly living in the Guilmey camp (north of Chad’s capital N’Djamena), in the Kalambari camp (south of the capital), or in temporary transition centers awaiting to be formally registered and relocated to one of the two camps. Unfortunately, thousands are still in a state of limbo in the transition centers. The Chadian government’s Commission Nationale d’accueil de Réinsertion des Réfugiés (National Commission for the Reception and Reintegration of Refugees, known under the acronym CNARR), told the Refugees International team this is due to overcrowding in the camps.
Refugees with whom the team spoke indicated that they had no intention to return to Cameroon in the near future. In light of this, aid groups and the CNARR must continue to work together to find longer-term solutions that allow Cameroonians to be moved from transition centers into camps. Doing so, however, will require delivering much-needed improvements to the camps.
Both camps are filled with newly constructed brick shelters, common areas, latrines, water points, and tarp-lined temporary group shelters. For those who have already been transferred to one of the camps, first impressions can be misleading. According to the CNARR officials in both camps, more than 90 percent of the brick shelters are not up to code (despite being new) and had already begun to leak or fall apart at the beginning of the rainy season in late July 2022. In the Guilmey camp, the tarps lining the latrines had already ripped and fallen off—prohibiting any privacy for those using the latrines.
Similarly, many of the brick-constructed latrines in the Kalambari camp had completely fallen apart after the first few rains of the season. This not only decreases the number of latrines available to the camps’ refugee residents, but it also poses significant water and sanitation hazards as heavy rains began to flood the latrines. With donor support, aid groups—both non-governmental organizations and UN agencies—must continue to improve the living conditions in both the Guilmey and Kalambari camps and must prioritize building long-lasting shelters and latrines
Addressing the Root Causes
Cameroonian refugees and humanitarian staff explained that UN agencies and Cameroonian and Chadian authorities had hoped to voluntarily return Cameroonian refugees by July 2022. Although this did not happen, aid workers reported that return plans were still being discussed. Cameroonian refugees told Refugees International that they did not feel ready to return because Cameroonian authorities had yet to address the root causes of the violent clashes. These causes include increasing competition over scarce natural resources, new water canals and ponds, limited access to safe grazing land for animals, and protecting agricultural crops from grazing herds.
The Cameroonian refugees – from fishing, herding, and agricultural communities – expressed disappointment that their governor, Midjiyawa Bakary, and the national Cameroonian government were uninterested in addressing these challenges. They were also concerned that aid agencies were not advocating for the government to resolve these issues before refugees were given the option of returning home. Aid groups and the governments of Cameroon and Chad must not promote premature returns. Instead, aid groups must conduct thorough intention of return surveys, and plans to return people to their areas of origin must begin with significant efforts to resolve the issues at the root of the conflict.
Blurred Lines: The Drivers of Displacement
Aid workers in Chad underscored the complexity of the motives driving many internally displaced people to flee their homes. In interviews, many IDPs indicate that they were displaced because of the violence—or threat of violence—from armed insurgent groups like Boko Haram or ISWA. However, this violence is often actually related to the impact of climate change on local communities.
In July 2021, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the American University published a report titled, “Climate Change, Food Security and Migration in Chad: A Complex Nexus.” The report details the difficulties of identifying the role of climate change as a driver of displacement. The authors observe that migrants “do not explicitly connect the relationship between drivers (such as climate change’s impact on economic opportunities or exacerbating conflict), preferring instead to frame their adaptive responses in more positive terms, as moving toward new economic opportunity.”
To explore this dynamic, IOM conducted a Climate Change Pilot Study. The study uncovered that, while 92 percent of IDPs surveyed in Chad’s Lac province cite conflict as the reason behind their displacement, this data fails to show how climate change limits the availability of natural resources, and thus intensifies conflict. However, IDPs did acknowledge climate change as the reason for their reluctance or refusal to return to their area of origin.
Similarly, many local and international aid workers explained that, when pressed for more information, numerous IDPs told them they were forced to flee when armed rebels came into their towns, villages, or displacement sites and violently stole food stocks or crops.
Many Chadian IDPs have been displaced several times over the course of the crisis. A UN staff member observed that an IDP’s initial displacement is often related to violence. However, many displaced people are forced to relocate repeatedly because of the lack of access to the natural resources needed to survive or for their livelihoods, or because of clashes related to competition over scarce resources.
Due to significant underfunding for the aid response in Chad, humanitarian staff noted that these dynamics had not been properly documented as data collection on causes of displacement had been mostly superficial. Donors must mobilize the funds needed for aid groups to gather more detailed information on causes and frequency of displacement to improve their aid planning process.
The Need for National and Regional Action
Aid workers, as well as displaced Chadians and Cameroonians, repeatedly told the Refugees International team that governments in the region had made little effort to document, mitigate, or otherwise respond to the link between climate change, violence, and forced displacement. The Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) is well positioned to address this shortfall.
Started in the mid-1960s by Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, the Commission is mandated to work on the joint “management of the Lake Chad and its shared water resources, preservation of the ecosystems and promotion of regional integration, peace, security, and development.” However, members of the LCBC and partner organizations expressed frustration that the Commission had taken a siloed approach to both research and operations across the different areas of its mandate. The Commission has failed to address the link between resource management and regional peace and security and needs to focus on the issue as a matter of priority.
LCBC has grown stronger as an institution over time, and countries are increasingly assigning qualified technical experts to its ranks. Refugees International applauds the governments of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria for their deepening commitment to the LCBC. Similarly, external organizations, such as the UN Development Program (UNDP), have seconded qualified experts to assist the LCBC. Regional governments and international organizations should bolster the number of experts they detail to the Commission.
Unfortunately, the LCBC’s approach often reflects the tendency of governments in the region to securitize the challenges and problems of Lake Chad Basin. At present, the Commission is implementing its five-year Regional Strategy for the Stabilization, Recovery & Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin Region (often referred to as the Regional Stabilizations Strategy or RSS). The RSS identifies 9 strategic pillars1 each with a handful of strategic objectives to stabilize the region. LCBC staff explained that none of the pillars explicitly seek to address the link between climate change and increasing violence, and the displacement and humanitarian need that come from this worsening trend. The LCBC should either consider adding a tenth pillar or amend the current pillars to incorporate the issue. This would empower the LCBC to pressure the national authorities in the four countries of the Lake Chad Basin region to better mitigate and respond to climate change-fueled violence and displacement.
The current Regional Stabilization Strategy is nearing the end of its five-year plan and is due to be assessed in 2023. The Commission is then slated to develop an updated strategy in 2024. This new iteration should include addressing climate-related violence and displacement as one pillar or be explicitly listed as a strategic objective under one of the pre-existing pillars. The new strategy will be the product of consultations among the relevant authorities from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Refugees International calls on all four governments to give this issue priority in the development of the Commission’s new strategy.
In the interim, the LCBC should organize a session to discuss how climate change is fueling insecurity and displacement and share lessons from the region at the next Governors Forum. This event brings together the eight Governors of the Lake Chad Basin Region, from Cameroon’s Extreme North and North regions, from Chad’s Lac and Hadjer-Lamis provinces, from Niger’s Diffa region, and from Nigeria’s Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states. As climate change continues to exacerbate the region’s food security, poverty, and instability, national governments must increase their financial commitment to address and mitigate its harmful consequences.
In late January 2023, the governments of Germany and Norway, along with UNDP and OCHA, will co-host the Third Lake Chad Basin Conference in Niamey, Niger (following the 2017 conference in Oslo, and the 2018 conference in Berlin). The event will bring together regional governors, international donor governments, and humanitarian and development experts to raise funds and build consensus around shared goals for the coming years. Government representatives from the Lake Chad Basin countries and international donors should commit to address these issues over the long term.
The influence of climate change on conflict and displacement in the Lake Chad Basin has been ignored for too long. As a result, donors, aid agencies and national governments have failed to address the dangerous link between climate change, violence, and displacement in the region. All stakeholders need to move beyond a securitized approach to the shared challenges facing the region. That approach not only misses the worsening impacts of climate change and displacement but overlooks how they fuel insecurity. They are two sides of the same coin and must be addressed simultaneously. The Third Lake Chad Basin Conference and the upcoming strategic review of the Lake Chad Basin Commission offer important opportunities to change course and tackle these issues together.
1. Political Cooperation, Security and Human Rights, Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation, Reinsertion and Reintegration of Persons associated with Boko Haram, Humanitarian Assistance, Governance and the Social Contract, Socio-Economic Recovery and Environmental Sustainability, Education, Learning and Skills, Prevention of Violent Extremism and Building Peace and, Empowerment and Inclusion of Women and Youth
Cover Photo: A Chadian boy fills a bucket with water from the Lake Chad on November 8, 2018. (Photo by Michele Cattani/AFP via Getty Images.