In the first world, we generally understand our privilege when compared to many other countries. We know that there’s more terrorism in the Middle East, less government stability in Venezuela, and the Maldives is disappearing due to climate change.
The thing about most of these situations is that they receive some national attention—enough that we can’t, as a society, completely ignore them without feeling some level of guilt. Imagine now, living in a situation where you had to deal with constant and immediate threat from climate change, terrorism, and dysfunctional government, but for some reason nobody seemed to be that interested. That area is the Lake Chad basin.
The complicated situation in Lake Chad has been referred to as “the world’s most neglected crisis”. It has been in the making for a long time, but some of the major factors are very recent. In 2013, increasing attacks by Boko Haram, an extremist group based largely out of Nigeria, led the government to declare a state of emergency in 3 northeastern states: Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. These repeated attacks, which killed thousands, displaced massive amounts of citizens between 2013 and 2015. As Boko Haram gained influence, they spread throughout the rest of the Lake Chad basin, including Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. During this time, it became more difficult and expensive to import food. Most infrastructure, including hospitals and roads, deteriorated as well. While the price of food staples was already going up, many of the farmers, herdsmen, and fishermen who depended on the lake were forced to leave their homes due to Boko Haram. As of March 2017, there are 1.7 million IDP’s (internally displaced persons) in the 3 Nigerian states alone. With fewer producers, it’s important for those who stay to have ideal weather conditions to get the job done. Sadly, Lake Chad has suffered from extended drought, and has come dangerously close to drying up. It has gone from about 25,000 square kilometers to in the 1960’s to about 1,350 square kilometers today. This means that the Lake has lost around 90% of it’s mass. Although it’s hard to say exactly how much, a significant part of this loss is due to climate change.
Increasing desertification caused by climate change is happening all along the edges of the Sahara, where Lake Chad is located. The other main cause of water loss in the lake is its overuse due to a boom in population. With a higher population, more food is needed to support it. To produce that food, most of the lake’s tributaries have been exploited, which has shrunk the lake more. For years, this has led to regularly violent conflict among farmers, herdsmen, and fishermen along the lake. The government understood the looming crisis of the shrinking lake, territory disputes, and population boom, but did little until it was too late. As has been seen in other parts of the world where terrorism is a major threat, this inaction has led many in the area to grow dissatisfied with the government, which probably has led to more people joining Boko Haram and continuing the cycle.
Are there patterns here? Indifference has led potentially solvable problems to worsen, which then creates additional issues, and the system repeats like that until there is no easy solution. Currently, in just Nigeria, USAID estimates that there are 8.5 million people requiring humanitarian assistance. There are 223,600 internally displaced persons in Cameroon—a 17% increase just since January. Lack of hygienic facilities and clean drinking water have led to a surge in cases of meningitis, with 4,600 cases and 489 deaths being reported since the beginning of 2017. The Lake Chad basin is on the brink of famine, and the lean season (which usually lasts from June-September) is expected to begin early this year (April or May). If the crops for this season fail to make it, there will probably be no local food production until 2018. While the Multi-National Joint Task Force, consisting of military from the four basin countries and Benin, has taken back much of the territory from Boko Haram, isolated attacks from the group are still regularly killing massive amounts of people. The Nigerian military has also been accused of human rights violations, excessive force, and sexual abuse of displaced people, which can be added to the 1 in 3 women in the region who report being sexually abused by Boko Haram. It’s hard to imagine the situation for these people, who can’t afford food, can’t stay to grow it due to possible violence, can’t find drinking water, and can’t even depend on the military or government, as anything but grave.
There’s plenty of effort from the United Nations and humanitarian groups to help, but there are so many competing factors that it’s hard to isolate and fix them. In March, the UN’s World Food Program helped around 1.2 million people in Nigeria to get food, which makes it their 4th consecutive month helping over 1 million people. In February, at a conference in Oslo, international donors pledged the equivalent of 672 million U.S. Dollars, plus $19 million from the UN itself. That makes up just under half of the $1.5 billion the UN estimates it will need for the area in 2017. One notable absence from the donors is the U.S., which abstained from pledging at the conference and is currently working on passing Donald Trump’s new budget plan. In 2016, the US contributed $418,872,342 to humanitarian work in the area. Under the new budget proposal, there’s a 29% cut in the State Department, which is the department USAID runs under. In the proposal, the president has called for significantly cutting funding for climate change prevention programs and UN peacekeeping operations, and reorganizing/consolidating USAID. The deadline for congress to decide on the budget is this Friday. In the meantime, the UN recommends that citizens interested in helping make cash donations to humanitarian organizations operating in the area. A list of many of those organizations can be found at www.interaction.org.
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