Yakowra Malloum commands respect as she enters the Sultan’s compound in the centre of Bol, near Lake Chad. Covered in a bright coloured scarf, with an intricate floral henna design running down her arms, she looks like many of the other women who have gathered in the later hours of a hot sunny afternoon. But this trained pharmacist, who has spent the last 20 years working with the Ministry of Health, is different. Report by Shantha Bloemen
VIDEO: UNICEF’s Jonah Fisher reports on the malnutrition crisis in the region around Lake Chad, which has been shrinking in size for decades as water levels recede.
As a child, she defied her parents by not getting married at 12 and, instead, continuing her education. Her purpose today is to discuss a recent cholera outbreak that took the lives of 174 people and infected more than 6,000, and to hear from the women about how they are managing.
Ms. Malloum has returned to her hometown of Bol with UNICEF. She is part of a team that will be based there to address the many health problems, such as cholera and malnutrition, that are increasingly taking their toll on the district’s children.
‘Water is life’
Chad, a land-locked country in Central Africa, is home to an estimated 11 million people – more than half of whom are under the age of 18. It is one of the poorest places in the world. Bol was once situated on the shore of Lake Chad, when it was one of Africa’s largest freshwater lakes. Since 1960, the lake has shrunk in size by 95 per cent. According to scientists, if nothing is done, it could disappear over the next 20 years.
Ms. Malloum remembers when the town was a large trading port and the water was deep enough for large boats.
“When I was young, it was beautiful and there was plenty of water and food to eat,” she says as she walks along a dry riverbed – one of the dried-up branches of the lake. “Water is life, but now that there is not enough, people suffer,” she adds. “People rely on farming, yet there is not enough grass for the cows to eat, so they no longer produce milk.”
As a result, malnutrition is on the rise in the region and across Chad, where it already contributes to one third of the deaths among children under five.
Bol’s Mayor, Ahmat Tidjani Boukar, believes the situation is directly linked to climate change.
“Yes, there is a problem with water management, and some of the water from the lake is being diverted,” he says. “But it is clear that this only a small part of the reason. Each year, more and more of the lake disappears, and it is those of us in Africa, and especially this region who suffer.”
Agricultural engineers have been working for two decades to boost Lake Chad region’s productivity by building irrigation schemes. So far, they have increased the area under irrigation to 140,000 hectares, including 30,000 from an electric pump scheme that was started in 2005. But water levels are too low for these schemes to operate as they should. Instead of growing, the region’s agricultural productivity has fallen, compounded by years of scant rains. An estimated 35,000 tonnes of annual food production has been lost.
Some 20 to 30 million people are dependent on Lake Chad, notes Mr. Boukar. “As the lake disappears,” he says, “more and more men are leaving in search of jobs in neighbouring countries.”
Ms. Malloum worries most about the women and children who remain behind.
“Women have few choices in Chad,” she says. “Many are girls when they marry and start having children. On average, a woman will bear six children. They are rarely able to make decisions about their child’s health or education without the permission of the father. If the men are not here, they are often trapped, waiting for the little they send back.”
In October 2010, a meeting of the Lake Chad Basin Commission was held in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital. At the meeting, attended by leaders from neighbouring countries, promises were made to give high priority to preserving what is left of the lake. In December, international experts met in Cancun, Mexico to work on global agreements in response to climate change.
The people who live near Lake Chad hope these distant debates will translate into policies that preserve their environment, provide them with safe water and ensure they have alternative livelihoods for their children’s future.
Yet not everyone is waiting for the solutions to come from the outside. Saleh Sougoubu, 25, heads up a small local group called the Association for the Protection of the Environment. It has about 50 young members who plant trees in the villages worst affected by desertification. On the outskirts of Bol, they have a small nursery where they grow indigenous seedlings.
“We believe that we can fight against desertification by planting trees. We have a lot to do to make sure that people understand the importance of the trees and protect them,” says Mr. Sougoubu.