Lake Chad, shared by Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, has shrunk by 50% compared to its 1963 level, partly due to more frequent and severe droughts as well as decreasing average rainfall.
As a consequence, the basin’s natural resources have become increasingly scarce, with severe consequences for dependent local communities, who have begun competing over land and water. Moreover, the diversion of the lake’s waters has sparked several conflicts among co-riparians over water, fish, and land resources.
Several, sometimes violent, interstate conflicts have ensued as a consequence of the lake’s natural resource depletion. The most notable disputes are a conflict between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi Peninsula, as well as a conflict between Nigeria and Chad over the status of new islands that had emerged, which caused 84 fatalities.
Lake Chad - which straddles Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria - is one of the largest lakes in Africa, as well as a vital ecosystem for approximately 35 million people living around its basin. The combination of large irrigation projects and environmental change has been responsible for the depletion of the lake, which has shrunk by 50% compared to its 1963 level (Hendrix, 2014).
As the lake started to recess, the four riparian states formed the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) in 1964 in order to effectively manage the lake’s waters and foster cooperation at the regional level. However, despite these measures, the LCBC’s weak institutional mechanisms were not able to prevent the member states from pursuing unilateral projects in the lake region. These unilateral initiatives led to tensions, which escalated to conflicts at several occasions.
Today, violent conflicts between states have been settled due to external bodies and the co-riparians collaborate on several restoration projects with the support of a number of international organisations. Nevertheless, despite these projects, weaknesses in the LCBC institutions remain and tensions still persist between the member states.
Partial cooperation and competition over water
In 1964, after signs had become visible that Lake Chad was waning, the four riparian states of the lake created the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) (FES, 2011). This was considered a cooperative success (Oregon State University, 2011), which demonstrated the willingness of the co-riparian states to address the ecological challenges of the basin (Bächler and Spillmann, 1996). Several mechanisms were put in place to ensure effective management of the lake, including the obligation of member states to inform the commission prior to conducting projects (Ibid.). Throughout the 1970s, further instruments were created to reinforce the institutions of the LCBC (FES, 2011).
Despite these efforts, the LCBC’s institutions have remained weak (Ibid.). The absence of international monitoring and sanctioning bodies (Odada et al., 2006) as well as loopholes in the agreement between the co-riparian states (Bächler and Spillmann, 1996) have deprived the Commission of any power to enforce the LCBC’s mechanisms. Moreover, the member states never reached any agreement on water allocation (Ibid.) nor did they harmonize their national water policies (Metz, 2007).
After the region was hit by severe droughts in 1972, the co-riparian states initiated national hydrological projects to be able to cope with future climatic shocks (Bächler and Spillmann, 1996). However, the member states did not comply with the obligation to inform the LCBC beforehand. Nigeria initiated the South Chad Irrigation Project in 1973; Cameroon constructed dams on the Chari-Logone River – a main tributary to the Lake – “in obvious violation of the treaty provisions”(Ibid.), whilst Niger constructed dams on the bank of the Komadougou-Yobe River (Odada et al., 2006). At the beginning of these projects, water diversion was minimal, but started to increase betwen 1982 and1985 (Bila et al., 2014). During this period, the volume of diverted water accounted for nearly 50% of the lake's decrease in surface (Metz, 2007).
Disputes between co-riparian states
As the co-riparians increasingly diverted the lake’s waters, several conflicts over water, fish and land resources emerged during the 1980s and the 1990s (Bila et al., 2014). The most salient inter-state disputes, which happened during this period, are a conflict between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi Peninsula – which was settled by the International Court of Justice – as well as a conflict between Nigeria and Chad over the status of new islands that had emerged as a consequence of the lake’s recession, which caused 84 fatalities (Ibid.).
Unilateral water projects have worsened the environmental situation
Moreover, by erecting improperly-designed dams and reservoirs and conducting uncoordinated operations – in pursuit of their narrow national interests – the riparian states have aggravated the consequences of increased droughts and decreasing rain falls on lake depletion (Odada et al., 2006; Onuoha, 2010). As a consequence, the basin’s natural resources have become increasingly scarce, with severe consequences for local communities, who depend on them (Onuoha, 2010). This has led to increased competition and conflicts over land and water, which have not yet been solved (see Lake Chad - Local Conflicts over Livelihood and Survival Resources).
Restoration of Stability
As of today, violent disputes amongst the co-riparian states of the Lake Chad have been settled with the support of international bodies, such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the case of the conflict over the Bakassi peninsula (ICE, 2005). Even though tensions between states have not disappeared – for instance Nigeria still contests the decision of the ICJ today (Metz, 2007) – the many organisations involved in the restoration of Lake Chad, such as UNEP, WWF, FAO and the World Bank, have been key in achieving more stable diplomatic relations between the co-riparian states (Asah, 2015), but also in promoting basin-wide cooperation to prevent a further degradation of Lake Chad (Odada et al., 2006; FES, 2011).
Awareness of the necessity to act
Since the beginning of the 2000s, growing awareness of the urgent need to protect and restore Lake Chad have led the co-riparian states and the LCBC to engage in a number of joint water management initiatives with the support of a number of international organisations (Odada et al., 2006; Onuoha, 2010). These include a major project to transfer the waters of the Congo basin (Oubangui) to Lake Chad in order to replenish the lake (Onuoha, 2010) and a sustainable development programme for Lake Chad, which was launched in 2009 (FES, 2011). Moreover, frequent meetings between the LCBC members (Ibid.) and the improved commitment of the latter to their financial obligations towards the Commission indicate that the co-riparians’ political will to cooperate has greatly improved (Odada et al., 2006).
Obstacles to the implementation of restoration projects
Nevertheless, despite these signs of cooperation, reports have pointed out that the riparian states have failed to implement several projects initiated by the LCBC (Metz, 2007). In 2011, for instance, an assessment of the progress of the sustainable development programme for Lake Chad pointed out that only 15% of the programme's activities had been implemented (FES, 2011).
In fact, several factors are still hindering the implementation of restoration projects in the Lake Chad region. First, there is a clear lack of personnel and experts at the national and regional level (Ibid.). Second, international agencies involved in restoration projects often fail to effectively coordinate the work of their regional partners. This has led to important delays, as in the case of the Lake Chad GEF PDF-B project - originally planned to last eight months, the implementing agencies –World Bank, UNDP and UNEP– took three years to develop a report (Odada et al., 2006). Finally, the increasing threat of Boko Haram in the region is a major obstacle to the technical implementation of projects, such as the Oubangui transfer project, as the presence of the group makes it impossible to safely send technicians and experts on the ground (Galy, 2014).
Weaknesses of the LCBC
These problems are further compounded by important loopholes in the mechanisms of the LCBC, which hamper continuous and sustainable cooperation between its members. Experts, therefore, point out the necessity for the member states to harmonise their water policies (Metz, 2007) and to agree on clear water allocation rules (Odada et al., 2006). The FAO is currently assisting the LCBC in studying water allocation options (Ibid.). Furthermore, creating monitoring and sanctioning mechanisms, thereby making agreements enforceable, is critical to guarantee that member states will comply to the rules set by the Commission (Ibid.). In fact, agreements amongst the co-riparian states have only been voluntary so far, and, therefore, have often failed (Ibid.) Finally, it is critical to endow the LCBC with the necessary power to settle conflicts between member states - the LCBC was unable to settle the conflict over the Bakassi Peninsula, for instance. This is critical as tensions between member states have not completely disappeared.
Other possible sources of inter-state tensions
Further factors, such as the presence of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, are a source of tensions between co-riparians states (Asah, 2015). Moreover, as climate change continues to erode the lake's resources, new tensions over water allocation could emerge (Ibid.).
To conclude, it is clear that projects to restore the lake must be combined with a strengthening of the LCBC. In particular, cooperation could be strengthened by clarifying water allocation rules amongst the LCBC member states. The LCBC Commission has in fact already taken an important step in this direction by requesting the FAO to support it in assessing different allocation options. Yet, new water regulations will also need to take into account the possible impacts of climate change on the Lake's resources. Given these challenges, international organisations involved in projects in the Lake Chad region will continue to play an important role in fostering sustainable water management and promoting cooperation between co-riparian states.