Unpacking the influences of the Small Lake Chad on rural livelihoods
The rural livelihoods contexts
Several households in the study villages are migrants (Table S1)Footnote 4 from around the Lake basin. Their tendency to co-habit within small villages around one primary livelihood activity informed their placement into three livelihood groups. Table 3 sets out the assets held by different groups. More than half of all households, focus group discussants and key informants noted the relative weakness of household assets in terms of contribution to local livelihoods. The livelihood context is largely conditioned by high dependency on seasonal variations in natural assets. The SLC is a more accessible water source to farmers and fishermen than pastoralists, who on several occasions need to travel more than 50 km to the Lake’s water. Whilst fishermen who fish the open waters are required to pay certain charges, the wetlands and floodplains near several villages offer free fishing spaces for anyone during the rising flood seasons. The cultivation grounds of the Lake’s wetlands and recession beds provided fertile soils for food and cash crop cultivation in the past. Farming currently requires huge investments in fertilisers, pesticides and gasoline for motorised irrigation pumps to enable higher yields.Footnote 5 Several farmers reported unimpeded access to arable land under the freehold and short-term use arrangements, except for the ‘new’ land spaces following the Lake’s contraction and in the forest areas. Landholding is based on smallholder arrangements over dispersed areas of 0.5–5 ha per household. Some fishermen and pastoralists who own or can access land sometimes engaged in crop cultivation as an additional activity.
Almost all participants expressed concern over not receiving enough income to cover important household expenditures, such as food, water, housing and clothing. Access to remittances and credit is limited; a few households who have access reported that their incomes and livelihoods had not improved. Although membership in social groups that have productive livelihood benefits is low, several households attend mosques regularly, relate with religious doctrines that influence local cultural values and interact more readily during challenges (e.g. periods of low harvests, food and income) and festivals. These forms of social cohesion are common amongst farmers and fishermen who live a sedentary lifestyle. Although tendencies to specialise in one activity are high, a few households referred to having access to a range of different livelihood options that are not directly based on water and land, such as small trading in local markets, brick making, repairing of fishing nets and boats, and seasonal wage labour in nearby towns. Basic physical assets around villages and islands are dilapidated. Except for boreholes and mobile phone facilities that are accessible, schools, markets and hospitals are either non-existent or widely dispersed and poorly equipped. Poor rural roads affect the distribution of harvested produce. People live in weak, traditionally built houses, constructed with materials such as wood, sand, clay and papyrus, gathered around the Lake.
Influences of the Small Lake Chad
Interviewees, particularly village elders, recalled the ‘good’ times of the Normal and Average Lake Chad when rains were regular, and crop and fish yields were plentiful. During these phases, livelihoods benefited from a rich Lake ecosystem characterised by abundant flora and fauna. The Lake’s hydrological cycle enabled steady water supplies, and the region’s fishery productivity and food crop output flourished, whilst pastoralists had several pastures and succulent grasses (Odada et al. 2006). In contrast, the SLC phase is notable for the population pressure it triggered at the southern portion of the basin as the northern pool desiccated (Mekonnen 2016). This has caused new villages and temporary camps to emerge, whilst competition over limited resources intensified. The SLC phase first appeared in the mid-1970s during severe droughts in the Sahel region. It later re-appeared in the late 1990s and has since fluctuated between 3 and 14 000 km2. Although limited narratives prevent a complete understanding of livelihood conditions during the mid-1970s, pertinent to respondents’ current livelihoods is concern over local aggression towards the Lake’s changing state and declining income levels. Although aggressive attitudes towards land and water claims resulted in several conflict outcomes during the 1980s Dry Small Lake (Okpara et al. 2015), most respondents who reported aggression as a limiting factor stated it is often expressed through village-based urges to grab and scramble for scarce public resources, regular confrontations at water points, and limited sharing and cooperation.
Respondents could not accurately quantify their crop harvests, fish catches and milk/livestock sales over the past 5 years, but could identify trends in income status.Footnote 6 Several farmers reported overall declines in crop outputs, although yields in some years (e.g. 2013) were better than others. One farmer in Guitte reported variations in the extent and timing of floods associated with the contraction of the SLC. These make it difficult for farmers to predict when in the year the floods would reach the farmland around their villages. This is particularly a concern to farmers who cultivate on the Lake beds as they regularly lose crops to floods. FGDs with farmers revealed a link between the current Lake state, water scarcity and low food production. Repeatedly, they referred to high costs of digging wells and pumping water (approximate costs range from USD110—180),Footnote 7 and the labour involved in creating water channels into their farms. These limited their income from annual crop harvests.
Whilst a few fishermen stressed that fishing activities have not decreased, there was general agreement that the size and quantity of fish catches have declined. In 1 week, several artisanal fishermen would enclose approximately 120–180 small fish using hooks, a quantity that most fishermen of the full Lake era would catch in a single night. Fishermen generally complained about long distance fishing, high costs of renting or acquiring boats, strict fishing rules regarding the types of gear to use, high water access charges imposed by local authorities and the intrusion of unlicensed migrants from neighbouring countries, whose better fishing expertise often deny local fishermen access to the large fish. Similarly, pastoralists complained that their livestock were often sick and many had died with the decline in the richness and quality of the SLC pasture. Over half of the herders reported losing livestock in the last 5 years. Ten herders reported that milk output has declined from 2 to 5 litres to 1 to 2 litres per day. Key informants reported a series of other livelihood drawbacks linked to the SLC. Many agreed that the Lake’s shrinking limited local incomes and livelihood opportunities. Most referred to the Lake as creating a pool of unemployed people and provisioning convenient hideouts for insurgent activities, which had further increased the level of deprivation experienced by the locals in terms of physical, human and financial capitals. Increased outmigration, disease outbreak and low food quality were also noted (see Mekonnen 2016).
Current livelihood opportunities for lake dwellers centre on the renewal effects of the aquatic and soil environment associated with the seasonal floods, and the learning opportunities triggered by past droughts. Some farmers reported benefiting from flood-recession cultivation whilst several pastoralists utilised the Lake’s water for dry season herding. Inter- and intra-annual flood pulses enabled the recycling of the aquatic environment, providing multiple options for fishermen. Nearly 38 % of fishermen fished during previous floods and farmed on small land parcels after the floods. Key informants revealed that the flexibility of the Lake shore allowed for diversification and sustained regular interactions amongst migrants, but these often created inter-group competition. One key informant stated:
Two kinds of people exist around the SLC: those who take advantage of the dried Lake by seeking permission to cultivate the ‘new’ land areas and those who follow the Lake to new territories as it contracts. No matter the annual or seasonal condition of the Lake, people have always sought opportunities to better their lots (Key informant, July 2013).
The drying of the Lake has attracted several NGOs and institutions who often visit the areas for field surveys. What is happening now coupled with increased insurgency in the area has made the Lake a policy concern for riparian governments (Key informant, January 2014).
FGDs revealed that the ability of the lake dwellers to take advantage of existing opportunities depended on how long they have lived around the Lake and exploited the Lake’s resources, the range of social networks they can access and how proactive they can be during seasonal fluctuations. Many agreed that the lessons from the SLC period could spur new adaptive behaviours and learning, preparing the lake dwellers for possible future challenges, should sufficient external support become available.
Place-based stressors affecting livelihoods
Respondents noted social conflict, climatic changes and political/institutional instability as major livelihood stressors (see Table S2). Regular conflicts in the Lake Chad region have been reported resulting from environmental degradation, clashes amongst different ethnic groups and between locals and security officials at the Chadian shore (Fig. 4). The Lake’s geo-political location is characterised by instability which several key informants linked to past incidents of civil unrest in Chad, the arming of different ethnic militias and to recent terrorist threats. Periodic raiding of villages and the proliferation of military patrol checkpoints undermine livelihoods. Exertion of authority by the Joint Military Patrol at checkpoints often causes delays and adds unpredictable financial burdens to households moving their agricultural produce to markets. Challenges related to state regulations and local administration of rights to farmlands, pasturelands and open waters were reported during FGDs. High tax charges and inconsistent demands from local authorities constrain the asset profiles of lake dwellers, limiting their net income.
Regarding climate influences, especially rainfall shortages, one key informant at the office of the LCBC revealed that:
Current climate variability in the area is hard on the people and it is driving them into poverty; some commit crimes because it is increasingly becoming difficult for them to secure their livelihoods merely by farming or fishing or herding (July 2013).
Several livelihood groups that identified institutional instability (Table S2) related this to unjust governance over water and land whereby bulamas favour close associates and relatives when allocating resources. Although ethnic migrant influx (Table S1) has been increasing in the area, respondents complained that village elders/leaders are not often consulted before permits are granted to migrant fishers. This contributed to several conflicts experienced by locals on the Lake’s islands.
Local response strategies
Livelihood groups employ a broad range of strategies to cope with and adapt to the conditions affecting their livelihoods. Table 4 summarises groups’ adaptive strategies and Fig. 5 shows the seasonal water conditions (in response to monthly rainfall patterns—Fig. 6), including the cycle of local activities. Farmers’ response strategies are largely agronomic and technological. More than half of the farmers followed seasonal patterns in their practice of mixed cropping, crop rotation, timing of land preparation, and planting and harvesting of crops. As indigenous water and soil ‘engineers’, they dig tiny canals through which water encircled their plots and remained as water reserves within the soil to curtail the effects of drought. This allowed crops to grow into maturity. They exploited water in wells or harvested ground water along different flooded water channels during dry months (November to March). Better-off respondents constructed farm-based dams or ponds to store water. Less than half have used improved crop varieties as they were not available locally. When land and labour are available and accessible, most farmers practiced intensification and/or extensification. They referred to cultivating three or more crops in the same or new units of land within the year, although cultivation was largely not mechanised. Farmers that traded or practiced short-term migration did so for economic reasons (e.g. to access land, credit, markets or new wage labour); and those engaged in tree crop cultivation and the exploitation of seasonal floods did so to take advantage of environmental opportunities for better livelihood outcomes. When farmers go fishing, particularly along small water channels during floods, it is usually for subsistence consumption. They often do not engage in pastoral activities, but keep small animals such as fowl, sheep and goats, which are sold to supplement household income.
Most fishermen fish in groups of two or more whilst exploiting the seasonal floods, a form of environmental advantage that allows for increase in fish yield. As various species (Clarias gariepinus—catfish, Tilapiine cichlids—tilapia, and Alestes baremoze—freshwater sardine) are caught, when the fish are tiny, fishers either created or accessed markets for tiny fish. As they live on islands and remote temporary camps close to the Lake, they fish within a short distance of their homes during the rising flood seasons, travelling far away when the floods recede. Most camps are evacuated during flood-recession periods, and fishers sometimes farm the ‘new’ lands within the camps. Almost all surveyed fishing households sold either smoked, dried, fried or fresh fish. Fishermen often desire better fishing tools, including safe and fast moving boats, but few can afford these. They can access weather information better than the two other livelihood groups largely because they are more concerned about water temperatures and wave/wind movements. Around the SLC, annual and long-term fish catch is difficult to estimate due to the large number of artisanal fishermen who do not keep records and the limited capacity of institutions and government agencies to collect and store fish catch data.
FGDs with pastoralists revealed that herders’ adaptive strategies address several challenges, including issues of sick animals and conflicts with farmers when animals stray into farmlands. Pastoralists maintain a specific herd size based on what they can manage or afford per annum, and also considering the availability of water and pasture around the SLC. Average cattle herd sizes are 53.65 ± 17.66 (ranging from 20 to 81 cattle). Camels, donkeys, horses, sheep and goats are herded too, but cattle remain the social identity and represent economic status amongst the nomads. As pastoralists’ income is largely from livestock-related activities, they utilise their social ties to identify favourable grasslands as they migrate seasonally in the surrounding SLC. Water storage in wells along several homesteads serves their water needs in dry seasons when the SLC is not close by. They camp around villages and forest woodlands, returning to the Lake areas during the dry season when they can ascertain that the grasslands and pastures are productive. Some respondents stated that when cows have enough grasses and water, they are able to produce 2–5 litres of milk per day which can add to household income.