In May 2017, the Chadian government applied to Unesco asking for Lake Chad to be named a World Heritage Site.
This application stemmed from the unique features of the lake’s ecosystem, and the nomination of the lake was expected to contribute to the conservation of its wetlands and oases, and help mitigate the desertification process in north-eastern Nigeria and the Chad Basin as a whole.
It is against this background that the recent request by Chad to withdraw its application continues to draw mixed reactions.
The move has been driven by oil exploration agreements signed by the Chadian government and various companies.
Unesco has said that its rules do not provide for the suspension or withdrawal of an application but, in a blow to conservationists, the process will be cancelled nonetheless by Unesco once Chad begins oil exploration, as the lake will no longer qualify for World Heritage Site status once drilling begins.
The cancellation would mean loss of the prestigious status symbol that comes with the listing, not to mention various socio-economic benefits, including donor funding for conservation projects.
Research has shown that World Heritage status can have a major socio-economic impact.
A 2015 report by the UK National Commission for Unesco found, for instance, that projects in Scotland generated an estimated £10.8 million ($15 million) a year, thanks to their association with Unesco.
Perhaps more significantly, though, is the financial impact the failure to protect the shrinking lake will have on local communities.
The region around Lake Chad has been wracked by conflict, rapid population growth and severe vulnerability caused by the effects of climate change, environmental degradation and poverty.
While the lake itself may border four countries — Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon – the wider Lake Chad ‘Basin’ covers almost eight per cent of the continent, including parts of distant Algeria, Libya and the Central African Republic.
One of the most unstable regions in the world, the countries around the lake are among the 10 ‘least peaceful’ in Africa, according to the 2020 Global Terrorism Index Report.
Abdallah Ibrahim, Director, East Africa Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, told NewsAfrica that the dire economic situation in the countries bordering Lake Chad was a major driving force behind the instability in the region.
‘Widespread unemployment and rampant corruption within the political elite has prompted some young people in the region to join [Islamist terror group] Boko Haram,’ said Abdallah.
‘The acts of violence committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria have spread to areas of the neighbouring Sahel countries in the Lake Chad Basin, specifically Cameroon, Chad and Niger, causing devastating effects on food security and livelihoods.’
He added that Boko Haram attacks weakened the economy of the region, as its members destroy agricultural crops and infrastructure, and block roads, making it difficult for merchants to transport their goods. These measures have catastrophic effects on food security in a region that largely depends on agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry.
A study by Centre for Peace and Security Studies at the Modibbo Adama University of Technology, found that loss of livelihoods has promoted criminality, easy recruitment by terrorist groups and migration to urban centres.
Meanwhile, management of the shrinking lake has caused conflicts among the states that depend on it and this has made it more difficult for them to collectively fight insecurity in the region.
The lake is central to regional stability, according to the Centre for Peace Studies, which said that countries should focus on reviving the lake rather than military activities.
Once the world’s sixth largest inland water body, with an open water area of 10,000 sq miles (25,000 km2) in the 1960s, Lake Chad began shrinking dramatically in the 1970s, and is now less than 10 per cent of its original size.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned in 2009 that the lake could dry up permanently in the near future.
This followed a similar warning by the US National Space Administration (NASA) that the continued decline of the lake water may lead to the disappearance of its area completely in the next 20 years.
A Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) report, published in 2006 by UNEP, states that though the lake has dried out several times in the past, the trend has been severely exacerbated now by the construction of dams upstream of the catchment, without considering its impact on the people and ecosystems downstream.
Also contributing to the lake’s receding water levels is declining rainfall, rising temperatures and increased uncertainty in the timing of the rains.
While the unique geographical feature that allows the lake to split into the two smaller pools also makes it more vulnerable to water loss.
Saheed Babajide Owonikoko, a researcher at the Centre for Peace and Security Studies, said the shrinking of the lake contributes to regional instability in several ways.
One of the main consequences has been a rise in criminal activities, including cattle rustling by people struggling to survive.
‘It’s easy to move cattle over the country borders in the area to evade arrest,’ said Owonikoko, who noted how the activity can then bring the same people into the orbit of Boko Haram.
‘Contemporary rustling has been associated with Boko Haram, who resort to cattle rustling as additional means of raising funds in support of their operations.’
He said that Boko Haram has capitalised on the loss of livelihoods and economic woes in the Lake Chad region to recruit people into its ranks.
He also noted how the drying up of the lake has led to the long-distance migration of people and livestock to cities and rural communities further south.
This has led to competition for resources between the newcomers and the original inhabitants in those regions, exacerbating Nigeria’s ongoing farmer-pastoralist conflict. Between 2016 and 2019, almost 4,000 people died in Nigeria as a result of communal strife between villagers and Fulani herdsmen originally from the Lake Chad region.
‘As the lake has shrunk, the water has shifted towards Chad and Cameroon while the Nigerian and Nigerien sides have dried up,’ said Owonikoko.
‘This forces people to cross national borders to reach the shoreline. Respect for boundaries disappears. A complex web of social, economic, environmental and political issues spills into interstate conflicts.
This conflict relationship, caused by access to and management of the lake, has seriously affected the collective effort of the region’s states to fight Boko Haram.’
But all is not lost.
The Lake Chad Basin countries have stepped up efforts aimed at mitigating the crisis, including a military offensive against Boko Haram.
Efforts are also being made to end the violent conflict between herders and farmers over water and pasture.
Of importance, though, are attempts to find a lasting solution to the drying of the lake, a major cause of poverty in the region.
An ambitious plan to restore the lake to its former glory involves a multibillion-dollar project that will channel water from the Ubangi River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1,500 miles (2,400km) from the lake.
A feasibility study was launched in 2018 to look at the proposal.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is leading efforts to restore the lake, supported by the eight countries that are members of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, an international regulatory body.
Speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2019, Buhari raised concerns over the receding lake, telling delegates: ‘Lake Chad is shrinking while the population is exploding.
'It’s a challenging situation. With less land, less rainfall, these are very unique problems for the country.’
Following this, the UN has in the last two years co-hosted two back-to-back international donor conferences, the first in Oslo, where donors pledged $672 million in emergency assistance, followed by another one in Berlin, where donors announced $2.17 billion, including $467 million in concessional loans, to support activities in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.
Crucially, the discovery of oil in the region poses a major dilemma for all countries bordering the lake.
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) reportedly struck oil in November 2015, but it has been unable to capitalise on the potential windfall because of the presence of Boko Haram insurgents.
However, the Nigerian Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Chief Timipre Sylva, said in November 2020 that exploration would soon recommence.
The announcement has alarmed conservationists and human rights’ groups alike, with the Business and Rights Resource Centre warning Nigeria has proven ‘incapable of protecting oil pipelines from theft and ensuring that oil extraction does not harm local ecologies and communities’ at its existing oil and gas fields in the south of the country.
Meanwhile, with a border dispute that led to skirmishes in the 1970s still unresolved between Chad and Nigeria, finding a solution to the Lake Chad crisis is likely to be anything but plain sailing.