Climate change and Africa's vanishing lake

Five-year-old Fatime Owye’s emaciated body evokes memories of famines such as those in 1980s Ethiopia.

But Fatime and 4,3-million other children who are suffering from chronic malnutrition are victims of a more permanent crisis—the disappearance of Lake Chad.

As South Africa prepares to host the United Nations climate change summit in Durban this year, Lake Chad is living proof of the continent’s environment in crisis. It was almost double the area of Gauteng just four decades ago but has shrunk by 95%. It is now smaller than Johannesburg.

For Fatime’s anxious mother Halime Djime, climate change theory means nothing, but its impact on her family is painfully clear. “My two youngest children are dead,” she says. “There is no food. It has got worse and worse.

The lake has dried up and the trees have died. Our camels no longer produce milk—they have no grass to eat. We see animal carcasses everywhere. It is very dry.”

The 29-year-old, who lives on the equivalent of R2 a day, travelled for nearly a week to carry her daughter to a feeding clinic in the Chadian town Mao. After a month on milk medicine Fatime still can’t stomach solids and weighs 6kg—a third of what she should weigh.

Fatime’s father Owye (45) left Chad two years ago when drought killed his camel herd. He now works as a builder in Libya. Like thousands of others, he is a climate change refugee.

Scientists have warned that the rise in world temperatures will likely double from 2°C to 4°C by 2060—which could cripple Chad completely. World environment chiefs, who will meet in Durban in November, are under pressure to forge a practical plan to cut the emission of greenhouse gases.

Uphill battle for Chad
Meanwhile, Chad faces an uphill battle against the elements. Thermometers often hit 45°C. Flash floods fall, but can’t be absorbed for crops as the earth is baked solid. The average rainfall since 2007 has been half of what farmers need.

Satellite images show how Lake Chad has been reduced from 25 000km2 in 1963 to just 1 300km2 today. Most experts agree global warming is at least 50% to blame. But people are also draining the lake of its final remnants because there isn’t enough rain. It was 25m deep 30 years ago; now it is 1m deep.

Fisherman Paul Mbayon (39) said: “I caught no fish yesterday, or the day before. Today I got four tiny ones. I used to catch 50 a day. I don’t know how we will survive the lake has no space for fish anymore.”

The UN children’s agency Unicef has set up 204 feeding hubs where children get a calorie-rich tonic paste called Plumpy Nut for free. But with hundreds of kilometres of sand separating families from such centres, many kids simply starve.

Unicef Chad nutrition chief Roger Sodjinou said: “It’s a severe and silent problem. Our latest figures show that 225 000 children are dying every year from malnutrition in Africa’s Sahel belt.”

In Bol, a town that once was on the shores of the lake, environment chief Faradj Dembell begged nations like South Africa to curb pollution from transport and industry that is contributing to Chad’s emergency. He said: “I am pleading with the rest of the world to help stop climate change so we can survive.

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