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Jan Egeland's Sahel climate change diary - Day 5

Jan Egeland at the site of Lake Faguibine.
(Nicholas Reader/IRIN)

The UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on conflict, Jan Egeland, is travelling in the Sahel this week to draw attention to a region the UN says is experiencing the worst effects of climate change in the world. He is sharing his thoughts and experiences every day with IRIN. This is the fifth and final instalment, this time from Lake Chad, Niger.

When I embarked on this mission I think there were those who asked why a Special Adviser on Conflict Prevention should go on a trip to see climate change and environmental disasters. Well, this trip has convinced me that there is a very clear link between climate induced resource competition and conflict, and I will be using what I have seen here to convince sceptics ahead of the Copenhagen meeting in 2009.

Today we visited what was once Lake Chad in eastern Niger, which as recently as the 1960s covered a total 25,000 sq km, of which 4,000 sq km were inside Niger. Since the droughts that have been recurrent since the 1970s the lake has now has shrunk to nothing inside Niger.

This is a very dramatic environmental crisis, with enormous consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. For me the visit was epitomised by an old customs boat which is now stranded in the middle of the desert, a desert covered in sea shells. Next to the boat I visited an old fishing village where the fishermen no longer have a lake to fish in and have instead tried to make it as farmers harvesting meagre crops of millet and beans to keep their families alive.

It took us five hours to get to Lake Chad – three hours of air time and two hours on invisible desert roads, but it was worth it because we were there in the presence of the Ambassadors to Niger from the US, France, Germany, Denmark, Egypt and the European Community and we saw together both the scale of the problem, and that there is a feasible solution to it.

There is now a Lake Chad Basin Commission consisting of all the countries around Lake Chad – Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Central African Republic and Nigeria. These countries in a recent summit agreed to study whether water can be brought from one of the abundant Congolese rivers to the River Chari, which is now the only remaining source of water for Lake Chad.

As was explained to me by the Nigerien minister of water who travelled with me in one of the many cars in our convoy through the desert, there are already many conflicts between and among nomads and agricultural people in Niger, and between various ethnic groups, because of the scarcity of resources. Others have estimated that around Lake Chad there are as many as 30 or more named armed groups, and the potential for increased conflict is endless.

As I wind up this intensive trip to three countries and dozens of sites over the last five days, I more and more think that this journey should become obligatory for all the delegates going to the Copenhagen climate change conference at the end of next year. It would have reminded people what it is all about, namely life or death for millions of people. There is so much at stake, so much has already been lost by the most vulnerable people.

But this trip also served as an encouragement. People can adapt to climate change - if they are helped. We saw people living on the old seabed of Lake Chad and Lake Faguibine in Mali. People are also devising new ways of harvesting water. But with the current population growth, there must be more investment in overall climate change adaptation. The millions of new mouths to feed will not be fed if people are left to fend for themselves.

So is the answer to be found in Copenhagen? Billions, if not trillions, must be spent on climate change mitigation, but equal amounts must go to adaptation, especially in countries in the first line of defence here in the Sahel. Hopefully one day these boats that are now beached on Lake Chad can be on water again, and new shell fish can come where there are only dunes.

''These could be rich, flourishing places if there was more water and more ways of using the existing water resources''

I am also hopeful that governments of the region, including the government of Niger, would be willing and able to really undertake inclusive reconciliation and conflict prevention policies vis-à-vis pastoralists and with the help of the international community. Nations like France and China and the Arab countries which are all heavily involved in exploiting the natural resources of Niger must do their utmost in this area. The US, which has military training programs here, must also do its bit to help prevent conflict and promote dialogue.

I will now report to the Secretary General, and my recommendations will be for increased UN attention to the problems here and the need for conflict prevention. I will meet donors and experts in Geneva and New York and keep advocating for investment in these countries at the bottom of the Human Development Index.

These could be rich, flourishing places if there was more water and more ways of using the water resources that do come every year and do exist, if in ever shorter supply, even if the predicted warmer climate does materialise.

Hopefully this trip, the advocacy I will do afterwards, and the scores of interviews I have given to local and international news agencies along the way, will make a little contribution to helping the people of the Sahel.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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