The Water Wars in Northeast Nigeria, By Ahmad Salkida
Amsatu is in her mid – 20’s and has just gone into labor for her fourth child. News has begun to go round in the village in Yunusari Local Government Area. Amsatu’s husband was seen walking breathlessly to the scene of the delivery in the house with the prominent traditional birth attendant in the village. On hearing the arrival of newborn, the women began to take their empty water cans to embark on a walk to the neighboring village to fetch water. Water would be the most precious article in Amsatu’s home and the women would trek the 11-kilometer distance to fetch water.
The trek to the next village has in the past years been strewn with life-threatening possibilities. It took the women about six hours to present various water cans to Amsatu’s house, their first present traditionally reckoned with in honor of the newborn. Water cans of various sizes and designs flooded Amsatu’s house from fellow women folk. It was a solidarity show. The underlining importance and scarcity of water in this locality has become legendary and its acuteness increases with the year.
In northern parts of Borno and Yobe, the raging water scarcity has led to the creation of new “water culture.” The Lake Chad region is facing multi-pronged human emergencies that are grossly under reported.
Severely short official attention span in these life threatening conditions is not only embarrassing, it questions every of their claim to humanness. We have heard sing songs made on the bond between water and life. Nothing dramatizes the living threat to life in these communities better than the rapidly receding Lake Chad waters.
The water basin of the lake is drying up. So also the economic activities that are indigenous to the people in the region. People tie their most benevolent show of humanity in these communities to water gift. Water is also loaned in the manner a cash-strapped business or indeed an innovative business start-up gets money loan. Water is the currency of life and economic activities in the Lake Chad region. There is even a local lingo for contributions of water to a distressed
neighbor: Adashen ruwa as exemplified by the response of the women to Amsatu’s child delivery.
As soon as Amsatu has weaned her baby and is back on her feet it becomes incumbent on her to contribute water to the families of other women in the village that have gone into labor. Ceremonies such as wedding attract similar water contributions. Vegetation and water that have been a common attribute of the Lake Chad region are disappearing before our very eyes. “Climate change, both by nature and precipitated by man is deemed responsible for the drying up of the Lake Chad and rivers in the region,” says Professor Abbas Gisilanbe, an official with the Centre for Disaster Management, University of Maiduguri, Nigeria.
Abbas, a respected Biometeorologist in the region, said human activities such as damming of the rivers and the dumping of refuse on water channels are among the main causative factors of this emerging environmental catastrophe. In Borno and Yobe States in particular, “the potential evapotranspiration is more than five times the total annual rainfall and temperatures are generally very high during the hot dry season” hence the drying up of the rivers.
In recent years, the region has witnessed both the drying up of rivers and drought, the result of this is an ensuing competition by locals to migrate to communities in areas where there are pastures. The visitors, when armed face little or no resistance at all, but when they are desperate and vulnerable villagers they may be forced to migrate.
Nothing ever gets reported of these little wars because they get swallowed up in the bigger conflict that is the Boko Haram insurgency.
Investigations by this reporter also reveal that availability of vegetation and water are often a motivation for Boko Haram insurgents’ invasion of communities in the past four years. The incidence of clashes between villagers that are mainly farmers and armed herdsmen in areas where there is water resource has refused to go away. There are also other villagers that are either fleeing from insurgency or drought, but on arrival in new settlements, are turned back. Often, in
such situations with their backs against the wall, such situations stir further conflicts.
These sub-conflicts have often resulted in the destruction of communities with attendant loss of human lives.
In April and May alone, the two factions of the insurgents in the region have clashed over control of locations with greener pastures around Meine-Soroa, around Damboa and in old Marte earlier documented by this reporter. As the population grows around rivers, streams and wetlands in the Lake Chad region incidences of dumping of refuse in the channels that cause downstream hemorrhage on the environment increases. Abbas has warned that, “Irrigation water abstraction on the
banks and from digging wells and puddles on the dry bed lead to an unprecedented drying up of rivers.”
A villager, Abubakar Grema said, the situation in his village close to Banki town at the border with Cameroon was very dire, “sadly, we have resisted other villagers from settling in our village in order to safeguard our scarce water resource.” They have often used the water in their village to appease the insurgents who also are in need of it, and because of this arrangement, they were hardly attacked by them. “If we have used water and other resources that come with water to buy
peace, we can’t afford to accommodate other visitors that may speed up the drying of our stream. As long as we have water resources our survival is secured,” Grema concluded.
Long before Boko Haram’s terror reared its head the impact of the vanishing Lake Chad and surrounding rivers and streams in the region was so severe it created a string of untold calamities. The unemployment that came with it was an easy fuel for the Boko Haram doctrinaires. According to experts, it is too late to educate villagers to avoid harmful practices that are worsening the environmental landscape in the region. There are hardly any official or conservative groups that can move freely in these communities, barely populated now to engage and share new ideas and safety measures with them such as efficient water utilization because of insecurity and the fear of terror.
Communities such as Grema’s are becoming more conscious of their rights to the common resource and are easily agitated when these rights are infringed upon. At a higher level, the fears of the Yobe State government over the proposed Kafinzaki dam on the Kumadugu Yobe River in Bauchi State has been a source of official tension between the two state governments. In these North-eastern states, particularly in Borno and Yobe, potable water is already a very scarce commodity and the drying up of rivers in the already water deficient Sudano – Sahelian parts of Northeast Nigeria are moving beyond scarcity to catastrophic levels. People, especially women and children are seen trekking hundreds of kilometers in search of water. In some places, wells are hundreds of meters deep and water can only be fetched by the use of draught animals like camels and donkeys. Many families have to rely on water gifts or contributions like in the case of Amsatu.
Lately, it has become too risky for men to travel in search of water, firewood or food. “You may either be killed by armed groups or arrested by security forces,” said Bana, Amsatu’s frail looking husband.
Salkida is an Independent Journalist and a conflict analyst.