Geography's Nature and Perspectives
Imagine that you could transport yourself back in time to the early 1960s and visit the Lake Chad region in Africa. You would find yourself wandering along the shores of one of the largest lakes in Africa - a lake straddling the boundaries of four newly independent countries: Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger. You would see a rich lakecentered ecosystem providing life-giving water and food for a few million people living near its shores. Most of the people you met would rely on the lake's abundant fish harvests, but you would notice farming and pastoralist communities as well. You might hear stories of tensions between different ethno-cultural groups, but not of armed conflict. During your explorations of the physical environment near the lake you would find significant woodland stands in some places, but sparser vegetation elsewhere because of the challenges presented by the long winter dry season. You might well be aware of the ecological fragility of the region, but you would be encouraged by an agreement entered into by the four states sharing the Lake Chad Basin setting forth a plan for cooperative management of the Basin's development.
A visit today would be a very different experience. You would find a lake that has lost 90 percent of its 1960 surface area ( plate 1 ), and a fish population that is a shadow of its former self. You would see a human population more than twice its 1960s size, but with abandoned villages in some areas and newly established makeshift settlements in others. As you wandered around you would encounter far fewer people making their living from fishing and far more from agriculture, and you would see evidence of major land-use conflicts resulting from the expansion of agriculture into pasture land. You would also likely be aware of deep tensions between the different states controlling parts of the Basin - and indeed between state authorities and local peoples.
You would also see the impact of Boko Haram, a radical Jihadist insurgency movement that took root in northern Nigeria in the early 2000s and instigated an armed uprising aimed at establishing an Islamic state grounded on strict (many would say corrupt) Sharia law principles. Boko Haram's advance into the Lake Chad region, and the military response of autocratic governmental authorities (often with support from the West), resulted in the displacement of well over two million people, the loss of thousands of lives to conflict and abduction, and a food crisis that has left some 20 percent of the people in the area facing acute malnutrition.
How can we understand what has happened to the Lake Chad Basin (LCB) - or its relative invisibility in much of the wider world? (In late 2017 the New Yorker referred to the LCB as the site of the world's most complex, troubling humanitarian disaster, 1 yet outside the surrounding area and the confines of a handful of international aid organizations, few people know anything about it.) The situation is enormously complex. Long-term fluctuations in the size of Lake Chad are driven by natural forces, but its rapid shrinkage in the late twentieth century was also tied to the expansion of irrigated agriculture in response to population growth and a shift to larger-scale commercialized farming of export crops. Simultaneously, drought conditions have worsened in the face of a lethal combination of global climate change resulting from the burning of fossil fuels around the planet and air pollution emanating from Europe that has affected air circulation patterns. Moreover, decades of poor governance and economic marginalization have made it difficult for many of the inhabitants to respond to changing conditions and have helped pave the way for the rise of the Boko Haram movement, which itself grew out of a more widespread turn toward radicalism in Southwest Asia and North