Editor’s pickAfrica's shrinking lake shows the impact of climate change on women and indigenous people

03-12-2019
water management,Africa,natural disasters,drought

When Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim was a child, Lake Chad in her home country spanned 10,000 km2. These days it’s around 1,200 km2.

Climate change, rising populations and agriculture mean one of Africa’s largest water sources is now a tenth of the size it was in the 1960s.

From the Mbororo pastoralist community, Ibrahim is an expert in how indigenous peoples and particularly women adapt to climate change. She wants to highlight the impact a warming planet is having on communities across Africa.

“Climate change is real and it's not about our future, it's about our present,” she told the World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit this year. “It's the issue of survival. It's not the issue of economy or power, it's the issue of life of hundreds of millions of people that depend on it.

“We need solutions, we don't have time. It's now time for action and immediate action for those peoples who are getting impacted who didn't create this climate change.”

Shrinking for 50 years
Lake Chad is in the Sahel, the vast semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert. The area is particularly sensitive to drought, and historically the lake has fluctuated dramatically in size during prolonged dry periods. But data from NASA Earth Observatory and others demonstrate the extent it has declined in the last half century.

More than 30 million people rely on freshwater from the lake. It also supports fishing, irrigation and economic activity both in Chad and Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger. But as the lake shrinks communities are struggling and there is competition for the dwindling resource.

In some communities, men have to seek work in bigger cities during dry seasons when the lake can no longer sustain them. Internal migration is increasing, as well as people looking further afield to places such as Europe for work.

The women and children left behind have to fill the gaps and are forced to innovate to maintain food security.

Across the Sahel, many farmers are reviving an old technique known as zai. They dig pits to catch rainwater, then add compost and plant seeds. The technique concentrates nutrients and can boost crop yields by up to 500%.

The price of global warming on Africa
Among the poorest nations in the world, Chad is already struggling with poverty and frequent conflict. 62% of the population are destitute, according to the Multidimensional Poverty Index, and most of the country relies on subsistence farming. Climate change adds to existing political and economic instability, driving further food insecurity.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that Africa will feel the effects of temperature rise more keenly than most. Longer and more severe heat waves will have a profound impact on crop yields and the frequency of droughts.

“Around the world we have all these young people going out on the street asking for justice asking to save their futures,” said Ibrahim, “But I'm going to tell you, the young people in my community are asking for their present.”