The Lake Chad region is caught in a conflict trap. Climate change and conflict dynamics create a feedback loop where climate impacts feed additional pressures while conflict undermines communities’ coping capacity. Whilst the region around the lake, bordering Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, is a priority for stabilisation efforts for many international and regional military actors, to date these efforts have failed to de-escalate the violence. Indeed, in some cases, military responses are making the situation worse. I argue that climate risks have to be tackled as part of stabilisation efforts if the region is to break free of the conflict trap and once again become an engine for sustainable livelihoods and stability.
Since 2009 the region has been destabilised by alarming violence between armed opposition groups (such as Boko Haram, and Islamic State West Africa) and state security forces. As a result of the ensuing humanitarian crisis, over 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes, leaving vast areas insecure, and tens of millions of people lack adequate services. Currently, an estimated 10.7 million people are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance.
While the current crisis was triggered by violence linked to non-state armed actors and state security forces, the situation has deep roots in longstanding developmental challenges, namely widespread inequality and decades of political marginalisation of the communities in the region. This has instilled an entrenched sense of exclusion and lack of trust between communities and the government. Against this backdrop, the region also faces major climatic stresses.
Indeed, climate change has an undeniable impact in exacerbating and prolonging the existing crisis. But the tendency to draw a direct line of causation between the alleged shrinking of the lake as a driver of the conflict misses the real role of environmental transformations in this scene.
As demonstrated in the climate-fragility risk assessment of the region conducted by Adelphi, the increase in volatile and unpredictable rainfall patterns as a result of climate change is having a seriously detrimental impact on the livelihood diversification options – such as fishing and farming the fertile lands around the lake shore – and the resilience of communities across the basin. These pressures are eroding social cohesion and increasing tensions and conflicts at all levels, from within families to between different ethno-linguistic groups. In turn, regional insecurity and violent confrontations in the region significantly undermine the ability of the population to adapt to climate change and to address climate risks.
Another aspect to be mentioned is the rise in recruitment into and the retention rates of armed groups, that is linked to increased livelihood insecurity due to climate change, manmade ecological damage (namely deforestation and land degradation), conflict and the lack of equitable service provision in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. To be clear: climate change does not create terrorists, nor does it turn law-abiding citizens into criminals. But a warming world acts as a threat multiplier, worsening existing risks, making it harder to work on solutions and increasing the attractiveness of the financial incentives offered by armed opposition groups.
Furthermore, climate change is exacerbating violent competition over natural resources. Before the conflict with Boko Haram there was a trend of increasing conflicts around natural resources, in particular over land and water, often between different occupational groups, such as pastoralists and farmers. However, these clashes have decreased in the context of the ongoing conflict with armed opposition groups, but are seeing a recent resurgence. A future stabilization of the Boko Haram crisis will likely let these disputes gain in salience; it is yet uncertain how they will play out in the new context of less resilience.
Taking all the mentioned risks together, they create a self-enforcing feedback loop between increasing livelihood insecurity, climate change vulnerability, conflict and fragility. Conflict and fragility are decreasing the resilience of communities, making them more vulnerable to climate change, which at the same time is further undermining livelihoods and exacerbating the competition for ever-scarcer natural resources. If not broken, this vicious circle threatens to perpetuate the current crisis and take the region further down the path of conflict and fragility.
Despite the significant role climate change plays in shaping the risk landscape, there is yet no peacebuilding, stabilisation, humanitarian or development process that explicitly takes into account the role climate change plays in either risks or shaping appropriate responses.
The most effective solutions will be the ones that address the underlying causes of the crisis, that are sensitive to the environmental changes brought about by climate change. That means ensuring that stabilisation, humanitarian and development efforts in the region better understand the interactions between environmental and climatic factors and the security and humanitarian context to inform effective responses. This would involve greater knowledge of the linked conflict, humanitarian, environmental and developmental risks in the region, taking steps to ensure that interventions do no harm to climate-fragility risks. For example, reintegration and resettlement programmes should include a clear focus on livelihoods and planning around these livelihoods needs to acknowledge the variable climatic conditions in the region to ensure they are viable in the face of increased climate variability.
A climate-fragility risk assessment is a good first step to understand the joint risks and inform joint solutions to the complex problems faced in the Lake Chad region, and indeed in all such contexts facing both climate change and conflict risks. But any assessment will only be as good as the institutional will and capacity to take up and respond to its findings. This also means moving from purely military responses to neutralise armed groups, towards preventative climate and conflict risk management approaches to deal with the conflict’s root causes – namely poverty, marginalisation and absence of governance provision.
 Adelphi, with support from the Dutch and the German governments, conducted a climate-fragility risk assessment of the Lake Chad region to better understand these risks from the ground up. With a team of local conflict researchers and climate change experts from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), the assessment brought together nuanced qualitative conflict data from over 250 community level interviews across the region, with brand new satellite observations of the lake to better understand the joint risks and inform linked solutions to the region’s complex problems.