Climate, Chad, and Humanitarian Crisis

Kevin Xu
6 min readFeb 1, 2022

I spend some time working with my university’s policy center to do research about climate mitigation policy.

The past semester, I’ve been looking into climate-related problems within the Lake Chad basin with other Penn students.

Background — Why Chad

Why did I choose Chad?

Lake Chad is one of the largest lakes in Africa and supports the livelihoods of over 30 million people (Frimpong, 2020). However, over the last six decades, climate variability has significantly depleted the size of the lake and its resources. In the 1960’s, Lake Chad had an area of over 26,000 square kilometers but has dwindled to less than 1,350 square kilometers by 2014 (Frimpong, 2020). This represents a 90% decrease in water volume and a 90% decrease in aquatic commodity production (Frimpong, 2020). The alarming depletion of the lake’s resources is a result of increased temperatures, desertification, soil infertility, and other environmental degradations. An estimated 2.3 million refugees are displaced within the Lake Chad region due to issues relating to water and over 10.7 million people are impacted by the lake degradation (Tower, 2020).

The problems that exist in Lake Chad are also not entirely unique to the rest of the world. For example, Lake Urmia and the Aral Sea in Central Asia have seen similar drastic reductions in water volume in recent years due to climate change. The Kazakhstan basin faces potential similar problems of displacement and violence. (Tussupova, 2019). The Lake Chad situation is particularly dire, and it’s something I was interested in. What’s happening in Chad is also relevant for the rest of the world

The Findings

I’ve summarized some of the findings below regarding problems, and added some excerpts in quotes from research I’ve done. We can summarize the problems into two main buckets

Legal Ambiguity

Pre-existing lack of consensus in the international community on terminology such as climate migrants has rendered many interventions ineffective or otherwise complicated.

Exacerbating Existing Conflict

Climate change has exacerbated existing obstacles for the inhabitants seeking relocation and created new ones. In addition to issues such as violence, poverty, and food insecurity

Legal Issues: A Deeper Dive

There’s significant ambiguity on whether people affected by climate change qualify as refugees under the existing legal definitions or if a new framework is needed.

For example, if climate change induced crop failure leads to economic issues and widespread civil unrest, which factor ultimately pushed people away from their homes? Another important question surrounds issues of socioeconomic status and coping with adverse conditions. A region devastated by extreme heat might not technically be uninhabitable, but only those with sufficient financial resources would be able to maintain their livelihoods in the increasingly adverse conditions. How should the international community refer to displaced individuals in such circumstances, are they economic or climate migrants? These nuances in definitions impact the policies surrounding this issue and are a critical consideration at the foundation of this policy project.

Equally important in contributing to the ambiguity surrounding climate change-driven migration is the distinction between migrants and refugees. Migrants are people who have voluntarily moved, either within their country of origin or across borders. The factors leading migrants to move may be multifaceted but at the highest level, the most widely accepted definition of migrants is that they can potentially return home without fearing for their safety. Some factors that may cause people to migrate are natural disasters, famine, extreme poverty, and education. In contrast, refugees require ‘international protection’ after moving outside their country of origin out of fear of, among other things, persecution, conflict, or violence. Refugees require sanctuary in countries outside of their home countries because returning home would be too dangerous for any number of reasons. While the terms migrants and refugees are often conflated, the legal protections defined for these two groups under existing international law vary (UNHCR, 2016).

Exacerbating Existing Problems

Whereas the legal framework for migrants versus refugees is unclear, the effect of climate on existing problems in the Chad Region is clear.


Extreme heat conditions have led to diminished yields, increased transportation times, and conflicts related to geographic shifts, all of which has contributed to forced displacement.

Historically, heat has been a leading cause of displacement in other regions. 10% of the increase in total migration between 1970 and 2000 is linked to access to water (World Bank, 2021). Extreme heat events play a critical role in the worsening of droughts, alteration of weather patterns, and creation of conditions vulnerable to wildfires. All of these factors affect access to water. And as the average global temperature rises, once sporadic heat waves are predicted to become longer, more frequent, and more extreme.

When we look at Chad specifically, one case study on a group of villages on the Chad portion of Lake Chad found that more than half of all households noted a high dependency on seasonal variations in natural assets compared to household assets (Okpara, Stringer & Dougill 2016). This means that the lake tends to be more accessible as a water source for farmers and fishermen than to pastoralists who often must walk long distances around 50km to reach the Lake’s water (Sarch, 2002). The receding lake has created a variety of wetlands, floodplains and swamps which provide fertile soil for food (Frimpong, 2020). Unfortunately, farming requires large investments in gasoline for irrigation pumps and digging wells in addition to the cost of fertilizer, pesticides which limits ability to enable larger crop yields (Okpara, Stringer & Dougill 2016).

Nearly all the participants from Lake Chad in the interviewed expressed concern over having enough money for basic household needs such as food, water, clothing, and housing (Okpara, Stringer & Dougill 2016). Few households have access to credit and market opportunities for harvested produce is limited due to poor rural road systems (Okpara, Stringer & Dougill 2016). Although fishing activities themselves were not thought to have decreased amongst the inhabitants, the size and quantity of fish catches have declined while the distance travelled, and costs associated with fishing have grown tremendously. This can be seen in a FAO report stating a decrease from 220,000 tonnes of fish in the 1960’s to about 100,000 tonnes in 2000 and further declines since (Okpara, Stringer & Dougill 2016; FAO, 2012).

Overall, the shrinking of Lake Chad has had several impacts on the livelihood of its inhabitants though they are often difficult to directly quantify but can be seen through a reduction of household livelihood and resiliency as more individual families attempt to diversify their income streams in an attempt to cope with receding waters.


Chad has a long-standing, complex web of historical violence and conflict, and insurgency groups and warring actors continue to target the increasingly large vulnerable population to further their agenda.

Insurgency groups continue to attack herders, and seize herds of cattle to finance their operations or feed on in their hideouts (Takway, 2020). Insurgency groups have accelerated the formation of regional alliances with pastoralists and farmers, promising an exchange of convenience.

More recently, the area has become a stronghold for “a large number of former fighters of the Chadian and Central African civil wars and the Boko Haram insurgency and other groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Daesh or the Islamic State (IS) and multiple splinter or allied groups in the greater Sahel-Sahara, ranging from Mauritania, Mali, Algeria” (Takway, 2020). Between May 2011 and 31 July 2020, more than 37,500 people were killed in the conflict (Mohanty, 2021). Though military forces fight against these armed groups — focusing on a strategy of military containment — they have barely been effective in preventing civilians from combat and terrorism. In the Lake Chad Region as a whole, around 17 million people are living in areas affected by violence resulting from the conflict between official state militaries and non-state armed groups (Doctors Without Borders).

Climate change has directly made this conflict worse in some aspects. As the former lakebed dries up, for example, small islands emerging from formerly submerged environments have become hideouts and chokeholds for insurgents (Boko Haram and ISWAP, in particular) and criminal groups living with fishing communities. As farmers and pastoralists continue to be displaced, the convenience of alliances with stakeholders in the conflict is increasingly enticing.