The Complex Link between Climate Change and Conflict in the Lake Chad Basin Region

By Rory Wilson



The Lake Chad Basin Region Crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis you have never heard of. 


The United Nations estimates that 10.7 million people are in humanitarian need, 2.5 million displaced and 3.5 million at critical levels of food insecurity in the conflict-ravaged region. The crisis began in 2014, caused by the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency. In 2017, members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) visited the Lake Chad Basin Region (LCBR) on a risk assessment mission, subsequently adopting Resolution 2349, which ‘recognises the adverse effects of climate change and ecological changes among other factors on the stability of the region’. This was the first UNSC resolution linking climate change and conflict. Despite pressure from member states, the UNSC had not linked these pressures before, making this a strong and calculated statement. This raises the question, what did they see in the LCBR that drove them to link climate change and conflict?


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The LCBR spans four countries across the semi-arid Sahel: South-West Chad, the Far North of Cameroon, North-East Nigeria, and South-East Niger. The 13 million strong population is predominantly rural, with 2 million settled on the lakeshores and significant urban enclaves only in N’Djamena and Maiduguri. Around 90% of local livelihoods depend on climate sensitive natural resources. 


The Sahel is one of the most vulnerable regions globally to climate change, with the Basin’s climatic conditions deteriorating over recent decades. A common misconception is that climate change and water abstraction are causing Lake Chad to shrink, risking its complete disappearance. Instead, rather than shrinking, increased temperatures and rainfall variability cause increased variability in water levels on monthly, annual and decadal cycles . The impacts of climate change are not confined to the lake; regionally they promote groundwater scarcity and pastoral land degradation. These cause falling agricultural, fishing and pastoral outputs, putting severe pressure on climate-sensitive livelihoods. With studies predicting regional increases in temperature up to 1.6°C within the next twenty years, it is likely that these impacts will intensify and become even more devastating. 


As with climatic conditions, socioeconomic and political conditions  have deteriorated regionally over the last 40 years. The LCBR has been politically and economically marginalised by all four central governments, resulting in poor governance and extremely limited economic growth. This created a region characterised by mass poverty, alienation towards respective states, and a dearth of economic opportunities, especially for young people. Socioeconomic development indicators for LCBR are among the lowest globally, and rapid population growth intensifies these demographic pressures. Additionally, the region is historically volatile, fraught with conflict deeply rooted in ethnic and religious divisions.  The social tensions and instability caused by the combined effect of all these factors meant that the potential for conflict to manifest was high. 


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Two main types of conflict occur in the Basin. The first is conflict between ‘local resource users’, namely farmers and herders. Since 2017, over 3,600 have been killed which exceeded the death toll of Boko Haram in the same period. The scale of these conflicts is steadily escalating as are the associated sociopolitical divisions it is causing. The second major conflict is the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, estimated to have killed 35,000 since 2013. Boko Haram was founded in 2002 in North-East Nigeria as a non-violent movement promoting Islamic revival to cure regional socioeconomic woes. They were radicalised after their leader’s extrajudicial assassination in 2009 by the Nigerian government, sparking a brutal anti-state insurgency. Boko Haram’s territory peaked in 2015, when they controlled vast swathes of North-Eastern Nigeria and the LCBR. Since then, significant Nigerian military gains led to governmental claims that Boko Haram are defeated, which are often disputed by international observers. Worryingly, regional destabilisation allowed other Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) to emerge, such as Islamic State (IS) West Africa Province. These groups are more geographically dispersed across the Basin and aim to win the populace’s hearts and minds, with many security experts predicting they will soon eclipse Boko Haram as a threat. 


Numerous factors drive these conflicts and determining the relative effect of climate change is very difficult. For this reason, linking climate change to conflict has been contentious in the security field. However, there is now acceptance amongst elite actors (such as the Pentagon, UNSC and G7) that, in certain situations, climate change acts as a ‘threat multiplier’. This means climate change does not directly cause conflicts, but instead exacerbates existing security risks and worsens fragile situations. Only in certain contexts where a population is highly vulnerable to conflict will climate change trigger or intensify conflict. This concept entered public awareness with a much publicised yet controversial study on the Syrian civil war, which concluded that climate change-induced drought acted as a threat multiplier in the conflict. In contrast, the threat-multiplying role of climate change in the LCBR is widely accepted by experts and policymakers, although the exact extent and scale of its role is debated. 


The threat-multiplying role of climate change in local resource conflicts is relatively direct. Natural resource scarcity, particularly that of lakewater, groundwater and pastoral land, is exacerbated by rainfall variability, and land degradation. Resultant pressure on livelihoods manifests as conflict via two main pathways. Firstly, local competition for scarce remaining resources intensifies, increasing contact between users and contributing to social tensions. As land only supports a limited number of users, one group encroaching on these resources inevitably increases the risk of conflict. Herders are most vulnerable to scarcity due to their nomadic lifestyle, and hence most likely to engage in resource-based violence. The Basin is no stranger to drought and famine, so traditional customs (such as segregated grazing lands) were mutually agreed by herders and farmers to prevent conflict. However, the severity of climate change-related scarcity has forced herders beyond traditional grazing routes in search of water and pasture, increasing contact with competitors. In North-East Nigeria, lakewater variability results in farmers moving closer to the emerging shoreline for cultivation, whilst rainfall variability and land degradation results in increases pressure on the remaining lakewater. Encroachment of farmlands of uncertain ownership by herders increases contact with farmers and subsequently increases the potential for conflict outbreaks. 


The second pathway is paved through the impacts of climate change exacerbating livelihood insecurity, increasing migration and cross-border movement within the Basin. Competition between migrants and locals for increasingly scarce resources stokes inter-community tensions, often leading to resource conflicts. The most migratory group are herders, and they are consequently most involved in conflicts. Since the 1990s, lakewater variability has driven inter-country migration of armed Nigerien herders into Northern Nigeria, resulting in sustained violence against local herders and farmers. Other climatically driven impacts, such as rainfall variability, have resulted in previously seasonal migrations of North-East Nigerian herders into Nigeria’s Middle Belt becoming permanent, invading local farmers’ cropland and causing conflict. There is an ethno-religious element to this conflict between Muslim Fulani herders and Christian farmers, two groups with limited contact before these migrations. As Nigeria is divided into a majority Christian South and Muslim North (with a history of conflict between them), the current President Buhari (of Muslim Fulani background) is accused by critics of turning a blind eye to the conflict. These clashes show no signs of slowing and will likely exacerbate future Nigerian political instability. 


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In contrast, the threat-multiplying role of climate change in the Boko Haram insurgency is more subtle and indirect, again with two main pathways. The first pathway links the impacts of climate change to natural resource scarcity, resulting in livelihood loss. This has caused mass internal migration, particularly of rural young people to cities like Maiduguri, worsening socioeconomic conditions in already deprived urban centres, rife with unemployment and extreme poverty. Poor governmental response to provide employment has exacerbated poverty, unemployment and compounded anti-state feelings. As the socioeconomic desperation of young men is often taken advantage of for by Boko Haram and other NSAGs, it can be argued that, as a factor worsening the socioeconomic conditions, climate change is also impacting insurgency and political stability. 


The second pathway links increasingly frequent and intense local resource conflicts to the emergence and spread of NSAGs. These resource conflicts exacerbate existing fragility and instability in Basin areas with a low state presence. This creates an environment where NSAGs thrive, operating more freely; engaging in organised crime to generate revenue, recruiting displaced communities by force or persuasion, and filling the security vacuum left by the governments to foster sympathy and control communities. A vicious circle is created, in which climate-related resource conflicts aggravate fragility, subsequently benefiting NSAGs, and further destabilising the region. 


Whilst these pathways are logical, questions remain regarding the strength of supporting evidence. It is inherently difficult to quantify the degree to which climate change acts to multiply existing threats. As regards the pathway linking climate change’s socioeconomic impacts to Boko Haram recruitment, other and potentially more significant recruitment drivers exist, such as anti-state agendas due to poor governance and corruption, economic marginalisation, extreme religious ideologies and forced recruitment. Furthermore, some Nigerian politicians are suspected of over-emphasising the role of climate change in Boko Haram’s conflict in order to minimise their responsibility in creating such a vulnerable region. This makes international groups wary of supporting the NSAG-climate connection. Despite this, expert groups (including the Centre for Climate and Security, Planetary Security Initiative and the Adelphi climate think tank) agree that sufficient evidence exists to support a causal relationship between climate change and local resource conflicts, but request further research into NSAG climate conflict dynamics. Based on this, the G7 commissioned a working group in 2018 to further research NSAG climate conflict dynamics in LCBR. 


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Our increased understanding of the links between climate change and conflict provides the opportunity for conflict prevention through the development of targeted strategies to minimise climate impacts on livelihoods and communities. Conflict prevention strategies for resources involve improving management policies to prevent conflict outbreak over water and pastoral land in times of scarcity and migration. Giving local governments the authority to implement and enforce pastoral corridors and grazing belts separating farmers and herders could promote a more peaceful co-existence. Other methods, such as climate adaptation programmes promoting resilient agricultural strategies, or conflict-sensitised social cohesion programmes improving relations between displaced migrants and host communities, may be used in order to tackle the multiplex drivers of conflict. 


The regional governmental approach to Boko Haram has been purely militaristic, which despite significant gains, has resulted in persistent instability and emergence of new NSAG groups in the Basin. Recognising local causes of discontent which NSAGs manipulate is critical to prevent their further spread and emergence. There is a particular need for job creation for the millions of poverty-stricken young people - which has led to the proposed Lake Chad Basin Transaqua Rejuvenation scheme. This involves revitalising Lake Chad through large-scale water transfer from the Ubangi river, developing an international river and land transport network in the process. It aims to deliver regional economic revival, mitigating the effects of climate variability,  minimising livelihood loss and migration, and preventing the poverty that conduces vulnerability to recruitment. However, it is extremely expensive (estimated cost $15 billion) and the feasibility of construction in the conflict-ravaged Basin is low.


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It seems that on their visit to the LCBR, the UNSC realised that linking climate change to conflict deepens our understanding of climate-conflict risks, which can be applied to other vulnerable regions globally, and provides scope for implementing climate-sensitised conflict prevention strategies. In line with expert opinion, further research into the climate-conflict dynamics of Boko Haram and other NSAGs is required to determine the extent of climate change’s threat-multiplying role. Furthermore, recognising climate change as a catalyst to sociopolitical change highlights that current humanitarian-based developmental interventions neglect climate-conflict risks. To reduce the threat multiplying effect of climate change, climate-sensitised developmental interventions must be implemented, ranging from local resource management policies to large scale projects such as Transaqua. 


We urgently need to conduct further NSAG climate-conflict research and implement conflict prevention interventions to stabilise the LCBR. Time is running out, as increasing future climate variability will amplify climate change’s threat multiplying role. As the region goes further down the path of conflict, the difficulty in combating climate change’s threat multiplying impacts will exponentially increase.

Rory Wilson is a final year medical student at the University of Glasgow, having studied the Global Health intercalated BSc at Imperial College London last year. Within global health, his interests lie mainly in Health Emergencies and Planetary Health, particularly regarding climate change and health. Due to these interests, for his iBSc dissertation he completed a systematic review on climate change and conflict in the Lake Chad Basin, from which this article is adapted. In the future, he hopes to conduct further research connecting the climate-conflict nexus to health and humanitarian crises, an area he believes is worryingly neglected.


Art by Kristian Hallet

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