By Kendra Patterson – It took less than fifty years for Lake Chad, in West Africa, to lose over ninety percent of its surface area. Its retreat is thought to be due to a combination of poor water and land management and decreased rainfall resulting from climate change. In the 1960s four countries shared Lake Chad: Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon. By 2001 it was shared by only two of those, Chad and Cameroon. Its regional governing body, the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), has been unable to keep up with the challenges created by the disappearing water, particularly that of environmental refugees.
In the 1980s Nigerian fishermen began migrating into Cameroon, following the retreating waters, and in the mid 1990s more than thirty Lake Chad Basin villages founded by Nigerians were counted in Cameroon. A border dispute between the two countries that had existed since colonial times meant these villages were considered by Nigeria to be Nigerian territory, and they were incorporated into the Local Government Unit (equivalent to a county) of Ngala in Borno State. Tension arose between Nigeria and Cameroon when the former established state control and public services in these Nigerian-populated villages, including military and police forces, schools, and health centers. The situation caused a number of military encounters between the two countries in the 1980s. In the 1990s the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) attempted to negotiate a solution, and failed. The case was then taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which settled in Cameroon’s favor in 2002 and ordered Nigeria to withdraw its troops and police forces.
The ICJ may have settled the border dispute, but the essential problem of there being less water available to the people of the Lake Chad Basin remains. The Nigerians who followed the water are at the mercy of the government and the local inhabitants of the new territories in which they find themselves. Nigerians fishing the waters claimed by Cameroon and Chad report being harassed by police and having their nets confiscated, as well as violence between themselves and locals from Chad and Cameroon over fishing rights.. The Nigerian refugees are not the only victims: the local fishermen into whose lands they have encroached are similarly finding their livelihoods threatened by the shrinking lake and increased competition. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on conflict, Jan Egeland, made a recent tour of the parched Western Sahel, reporting from the field that there are an estimated thirty armed groups around Lake Chad and that “the potential for increased conflict is endless.”
What had begun as a border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon became a clash about water when Lake Chad began to shrink, causing the significant influx of the Nigerian refugees into Cameroon. Originally formed to regulate and plan Lake Chad water use, the LCBC became embroiled in a conflict that was much larger, and outside of its jurisdiction and capabilities. This in part explains the failure of the LCBC to negotiate a solution at the regional level, and demonstrates the complexities of both water governance and water conflict. As the impacts of climate change are increasingly felt on large transboundary water resources, other regional governing bodies will find themselves similarly pressured by a convergence of circumstances such as those in the Lake Chad basin. A stronger region-level dialogue that is focused on practical results is needed to mitigate disputes over water rights and improve the fate of environmental refugees and conflicts associated with loss of livelihoods and human upheavals. Although some regional initiatives for governing transnational water resources in Africa have made significant progress in facilitating cooperation between riparian states-most notably the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)-all have yet to meaningfully address climate change, and they are vulnerable to drastic changes in ecological circumstances.
The LCBC, which consists of all its original members and the recent addition of the Central African Republic, is currently investigating how to divert water from the Congolese Rivers to the River Chari, the only source of water to Lake Chad. While refilling the basin may help return livelihoods and mitigate some conflict, the region will continue to experience the impacts of climate change and water shortages. Lake Chad is only the beginning. Building climate change considerations into frameworks for governing shared water resources now will help regional initiatives negotiate the transnational challenges of the coming century.
 Madiodio Niasse, Climate-Induced Water Conflict Risks in West Africa: Recognizing and Coping with Increasing Climate Impacts on Shared Watercourses, Human Security and Climate Change workshop, Oslo, 21-23 June 2005.
 Senan Murray, “Lake Chad fishermen pack up their nets,” BBC News, 15 January 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6261447.stm.
 “Sahel: Jan Egeland’s Sahel climate change diary,” IRIN News, 7 June 2008, http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=78626.
Kendra Patterson is a Research Associate with the Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project.