top of page

Water Scarcity as a Threat Multiplier in the Lake Chad Basin

Eric Suyru, Ethics and Public Policies Laboratory of the Catholic University of Central Africa (EthicsLab), Cameroon


Water scarcity in Lake Chad is a serious threat multiplier to peace and security in a region already threatened by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Water scarcity has not only destroyed livelihoods and invaluable biodiversity but has also exacerbated pre-existing conflicts between riparian communities. Nearly 30 million people depend directly on the Lake Chad Basin’s water resources for their daily lives. But today it is one of the areas most exposed to the phenomenon of water stress in Africa and in the world (Sambo, 2013; Suyru, 2021). Over the last six decades, the size of Lake Chad has decreased by 90 percent due to overuse of water and the impact of climate change (UNEP, 2018). The surface area of the lake has plummeted from 26,000 square kilometers in 1963 to less than 1,500 square kilometers today. While researchers at the French Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) argue that Lake Chad is not disappearing, and that its alleged disappearance is a hydropolitical myth, the effects of water scarcity on the riparian states including Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria are indisputable.


Each year Lake Chad experiences extreme waterrelated events, including heatwaves and extended droughts that often lead to conflicts. Cameroon, for instance, experienced a violent dispute over water between fishermen and herders in a town near the border of Lake Chad in December 2021 that led to the death of 22 people and the displacement of another 100,000 (Scher, 2022).


The main objective of this study is to analyze the impacts that water scarcity has on peace and security issues in the Lake Chad Basin. The growing impact of the combined effects of climate change and anthropogenic activities on the availability and distribution of Lake Chad’s water resources creates the risk of a resurgence of water-use conflicts, until now contained within the cooperative framework of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC). My research highlights the central place that water bodies occupy in regional peace and security issues. My research methodology is based on data collection, primarily papers published by academics and other sources of information on the internal dynamics of Lake Chad water management, as well as an examination of geopolitical manuevering.


In the search for solutions to preserving the water resources of Lake Chad, and strengthening their integrity and sustainability, a theme has emerged in the rhetoric of the official speeches of riparian state leaders: Lake Chad is threatened with extinction, and everything must be done to save it. Their rhetoric is supported by some African academics inspired by several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on climate change and forecasts based on satellite observations carried out by NASA in the region during the last five decades. These scholars argue that if no emergency measures are taken for the rescue of Lake Chad, it will soon disappear under the combined effects of climate change and strong demographic pressures. This rhetoric is a powerful bargaining tool used by African states to fundraise from international donors for various development projects likely to allow better mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Thus, during the COP 21 held in Paris in 2015 the alarmist rhetoric over Lake Chad wielded by the riparian states overwhelmed the scientific opinion of the IRD scholars.


As a prelude to the official opening of COP 21, a mini summit brought together former French President François Hollande, ex-African Union Commission President Dlamini Nkosanana Zuma and 12 African heads of state, whose declaration of principles deplored “the progressive drying up of Lake Chad by linking this drying up with the insecurity which reigns today in the region” (Usigbe, 2019). With this official declaration, the policymakers sought to sound the alarm and draw the attention of the international community to the situation prevailing around the water resources of Lake Chad. Former Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno also expressed his dissatisfaction with the lack of response to the catastrophic situation. Later, at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, President Buhari of Nigeria added that “Lake Chad is shrinking as its population explodes. It is a critical situation, the decrease in cultivable land and rainfall is a source of unprecedented problems’’ (Usigbe, 2019). Following these official statements, civil society organizations focused more on the socioeconomic difficulties confronting local populations, and IRD researchers reiterated their reservations about the claims of the possible disappearance of Lake Chad (Suyru, 2021).

Water Scarcity Due to Human Activity or Climate Change?

The literature devoted to hydrographic and hydropolitical studies of Lake Chad reveals that there is debate over the real causes of water scarcity in this region. While some believe that global climate change is the primary cause of water scarcity, others point towards human activities. Western researchers from the IRD argue that the causes of water scarcity in Lake Chad are less to be found in climate change than in overuse of water and demographic pressure. Lake Chad is a fragile ecosystem because of the persistence of intensive agricultural irrigation activities implemented by the riparian states, which has over time led to the depletion of water resources (Lemoalle and Magrin, 2014). Michael Foe and Jonathan Foley similarly affirm that Lake Chad is threatened with disappearance because of irrigation practices, which are estimated to extract more than 10 cubic kilometers per year (Foe and Foley 2001). This amount of water represents half of the annual contributions of Logone-Chari River, the main tributary into Lake Chad in the period 1994–2004, which is a huge level of extraction that has had irreversible consequences (Foe and Foley, 2001).

Whatever the cause of its scarcity, water is a strategic asset for all states bordering Lake Chad. Each of those states has intense needs for water to realize their development projects. Lake Chad water resources occupy a central place in the agricultural and pastoral activities practiced within the territories of each riparian state, especially for irrigation and also for the creation of incomegenerating activities, in particular for women, and food security (GIZ-CBLT, 2016). In Chad for instance, agriculture consumes about 190 million cubic meters of water per year. Such irrigation is very recent, dating only from the great drought of 1973. The rice growing perimeter of SateguiDeressia extends over an area of 1,850 hectare and is supplied by a water canal on the Logone river with a capacity of around 50 cubic meters per hour, while the water requirement amounts to 1 million cubic meters per year (GIZ-CBLT, 2016). On the Cameroon side, rice production draws on the Logone-Chari hydrosystem, made up of water retention dams including Maga (625 million cubic meters), Mokolo (5 million cubic meters), Tourou (804,000 cubic meters), and Oumbeda (144,000 cubic meters).

Like Chad, Cameroon undertook a major program of hydro-agricultural development mainly for the production of grains, including wheat and rice, during the 1970s and 1980s with support of international funds (Ebogo, 2013). The estimated water needs for Cameroon’s irrigation represent nearly 70.28 percent of the total water needs in the Lake Chad Basin. The water resources of Lake Chad are therefore highly strategic for Cameroon, because it is far more important to agriculture than the basin of the coastal waters (49 percent) (Ebogo, 2013).

In Nigeria, the Kano River Irrigation Project in Kano State has water needs estimated at 25,000 cubic meters per hectare. Water reservoirs mainly built in Nigeria have enabled many inhabitants of the area to obtain water supplies and to ensure, and even to diversify, their crop production. An example is that of Alau Dam, which supplies the city of Maiduguri with water. However, the extent of Nigeria’s withdrawal of water from the area of Lake Chad has remained significantly lower compared to Chad and Cameroon. Withdrawals by Nigeria are estimated over the past 10 years at about 2,500 cubic meters/year including 1,800 cubic meters for irrigation and 200 cubic meters for livestock watering.

The Consequences for Peace and Security in the Lake Chad Region

Despite the institutionalization in 1964 of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) as a multilateral framework for the concerted management of water resources (Saibou, 2004; Ahidjo, 2010), there remains inequality in water distribution between riparian states and communities because of existing disagreements in the governance of Lake Chad resources. As a transboundary body of water, the Lake Chad water resources do not only follow the borders of the riparian states. Access to the water is highly interdependent. Increased exploitation of its upstream basin by certain states produces effects on the water quantity and quality of the downstream basin. According to Armel Sambo, “the construction for example of water retention dams by these countries leads to the reduction of the flow of the rivers which cross the countries located downstream, and this fact provokes protest from the latter and very often leads to conflicts’’ (Sambo, 2008).


Every state in the Lake Chad region covets access to and exploitation of its water resources for the implementation of agricultural projects, which are part of the national strategies of all the riparian states. Since the eve of their independence in the early 1960s, conflicts have arisen over the management and use of water resources. These conflicts relate to the diversion of water, to the management of land and the exploitation of fish resources. While such conflicts have often been ironed out thanks to the multilateral mechanism of the LCBC, others persist and reflect the primacy of state sovereign interests over the collective management of resources.


The combined effects of human activities and climate change on Lake Chad’s water resources have intensified the competition between states. Because of the inability of the LCBC to efficiently fulfill its mission of collective management, the riparian states have taken unilateral initiatives to serve the needs of their respective populations in terms of water access and fish resources. These initiatives can be understood, in part, as an unequal distribution and exploitation of water resources by each state and by the demographic weight of the population which depends on these resources for daily survival. For instance, in the early 2000s, Chad accused its neighbor Cameroon of diverting water from the Logone river by over-irrigating the rice crops of Maga in far north Cameroon and by constructing water retention dams, such as that of Lagdo in North Cameroon. Another example is that a large part of Chad’s fish production—some 100,000 tons a year—goes to Cameroon and Nigeria without control or official authorization (Bouimon, 2010). Cameroon invoked its right to exploit the resources of its soil and its subsoil by posing as the sole guarantor and manager of the resources resulting from its territorial heritage. However, Nigeria challenged this sovereignist management of water resources by Cameroon, causing significant power rivalries between Nigeria and Cameroon over the management of the Lake Chad water resources. For example, in the 1980s, Cameroon created a dam in the locality of Maga used for rice irrigation, while Nigeria developed two irrigation projects by digging canals that dried up the water on the Cameroonian side (Ahidjo, 2010).


The growing constraints on Lake Chad water linked to its scarcity and unequal distribution raises concerns about the potential for future conflicts (Sambo, 2013). The possibility for conflict is heightened because of the acceleration of internal migrations of people searching for areas conducive to the development of fishing, agriculture, and livestock activities. Since 2010, Lake Chad has become a space of asymmetrical conflicts between not only the armed forces of the riparian states but also the non-state armed groups that are proliferating and attempting to control the sources and strategic resources of the lake. The emergence of these criminal gangs around Lake Chad is not the result of chance. They are not only the result of the political and security history of an area long marked by the recurrence of political instability and armed conflicts, but also the result of a shifting regional complex characterized by the Islamist thrust in the Sahel since the collapse of Libya. Taking advantage of the weak adaptation and mitigation capacity of the riparian states facing climate change, the non-state armed groups settled themselves in the periphery of Lake Chad with the aim of capturing for their benefit the rents linked to the exploitation of its resources. The abundance of resources, the intensity and diversity of trade, including illicit products, weapons, and drugs, the importance of monetary circulation, the existence of four borders and the obstacles to territorial control clearly appear as the main issues that favor acts of criminality (Lemoalle, J and Magrin, 2014). States in the area have responded militarily to the security threat that these groups now represent not only to people but also increasingly to their national security.

The illicit activities that have taken root on the roads leading to the large trading areas of Lake Chad have also spread into its waters. The Chadian politician Ngalejy Yorongar affirms that at “Lake Chad these thugs aboard speedboats intercept itinerant traders coming from Maiduguri (Nigeria) or Chad to dispossess them of their goods. Lake Iro in the middle Chad region is also not immune to this piracy. The itinerant traders who sail on this lake are frequently ripped off by organized soldiers’’ (Yorongar, 2010). The theft of cattle, kidnappings, and hostage-taking with a view of ransoming wealthy traders are the primary activities of these non-state armed groups. In any case, whether enabled by roadblocks or sporadic incursions and attacks by uncontrolled elements of certain armed forces, criminality in Lake Chad is a diffuse phenomenon that follows the route of water resources. According to Issa Saibou, “the essential issue of cross-border crime in general and highway-banditry in particular within the Lake Chad [Basin], lies in determining the nationality of criminals than in their transmigration.” (Saibou, 2005). 


The specter of imminent water wars has long been invoked in a context of water scarcity in the Middle East and in certain African regions (Zeitoun and Warner, 2006; Chellaney, 2013). It is in this context that a security discourse on water emerges on the part of national and international institutional actors who are intervening in the Lake Chad region. A panoramic look at the official documents of these institutional actors shows that access to the water resources of Lake Chad now constitutes a security issue (UNDP, 2006).

bottom of page