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Water Scarcity in Cameroon Leads to Intercommunal Violence

By Airi Price

The implications of climate change extend far beyond the physical destruction of natural disasters. Environmental disruptions of many livelihoods have driven tensions between those competing for increasingly-scarce resources. Intercommunal violence in Cameroon illustrates the severity of such predicament. The country’s northernmost region has long experienced chronic drought, fostering harsh working conditions for the major agricultural and pastoral communities of the region.

Borgen Magazine explains that increasing temperatures, first observed in 2006, have led to progressively arid lands in rural Cameroon. The resulting water scarcity is closely accompanied by meager harvests and general food insecurity. While some migrated to the city in search of greater resources, others remained on drought-stricken land with intentions of adapting to the new conditions.

Weak infrastructure in rural Cameroon inhibits governmental measures for broad drought mitigation – leaving communities to develop their own strategies for re-establishing sustenance. This has resulted in a fatal clash of livelihoods and resource needs. Over the past six decades, the Logone-Birni floodplain (bordering Lake Chad in the northernmost region of Cameroon) has seen its once-overflowing tributaries lose 95% of surface water, per UN News.

Fishermen and farmers of the area mediated this by digging large basins in the ground for water and fish retention. This seemingly innovative response had unintended, yet costly, outcomes.


| "What followed was the destruction of 19 villages, as well as the displacement of 23,500 people."

The basins generated animosity among herders, as their cattle would fall down the steep slopes and get injured, or even drown. Herders’ frustrations with the basins peaked on the morning of August 10, 2021. As reported by UNHCR, they raided fishing and farming villages with threats of death if the basins were not immediately filled. What followed was the destruction of 19 villages, as well as the displacement of 23,500 people.

The two main actors of the conflict were the Musgum fishermen and Choa cattlemen. The two communities have long co-existed in their respective provinces before climate change-induced conditions forced the Choa further into the Musgum-inhabited floodplain this past year.

Majority of displaced persons fled to nearby Chad, a country already home to an estimated 1 million refugees. With women and children comprising 80% of displaced Cameroonians, the Chadian government and UNHCR expressed their determination for accommodating refugees. According to UN News, however, they only have half the funds needed as of December of 2021. With the absence of dedicated camps, displaced Cameroonians have settled in Chadian villages along the Logone River or in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital city.

This placement is intended to be temporary, as many remain optimistic about reconciliation. In comparison with its Nigerian and Chadian neighbors, Al Jazeera explains that ethnic disputes in Cameroon are relatively rare.

Such hopes for resolution were bolstered by the signing of an informal peace agreement between the Musgum and Choa on August 14, 2021. 12,500 IDPs from the August 10th violence subsequently returned to what was left of their villages. Nevertheless, true peace is yet to be a reality, as conflict among fishermen and herders re-emerged on December 5, 2021.

Through the ensuing violence, VOA News accounted the ruin of 10 villages, and the fleeing of an additional 6,500 people to Chad. The total population of Cameroonian refugees in Chad has now reached 30,000, with thousands more internally displaced within Cameroon.

Security forces have been dispatched to the floodplain, yet tensions are slow to de-escalate given the persistence of water scarcity. In fact, the UN projects temperature rise in the Sahel Region (where Cameroon is situated) to be 1.5 times faster than the global average. To worsen matters, 80% of farmland in north Cameroon has already been disintegrated by pre-existing drought. Despite the alarming data, no feasible plan for water renewal currently exists.

Given this lack of provisions, many displaced Cameroonians refuse to return. In speaking with those resettled in Chad, UNHCR illustrates persisting fears; “I am traumatized and I don’t want to return until real peace is restored,” asserted Assiam Yere, a Musgum refugee who experienced the brutal murder of nine men in her village.

Others detail the insomnia developed from the fear of surprise attacks at night. In addition to the trauma, growing concerns of famine deter refugees from returning to Cameroon. In fleeing their villages, Musgum fishermen and farmers were forced to abandon crops and fish basins – their only sources of food. Returning now, with no improvements in water availability, would almost certainly result in extreme food scarcity.

Dire conditions in Cameroon may foreshadow the devastation associated with delayed response to climate change in high-risk areas. As previously mentioned, global warming is rapidly changing environmental conditions in the Sahel region. Given this, Chad and other neighboring countries, currently aiding Cameroonian refugees, may fall victim to similar predicaments in the near future. Greater effort in targeting core environmental concerns is imperative in slowing the effects of climate change and preventing further displacement.

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