analysisBy Philip Obaji Jr
Water shortages in northeastern Nigeria are leading people to be displaced and discouraging others from returning home. Camps are struggling to cope.
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Earlier this year, when Bala Aminu left the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Madinatu to finally return home, he thought he was saying his final goodbyes. He had fled Boko Haram around four years ago, but was now ready to make the 100 km journey back to Pulka. He was sad to leave behind the friends he’d made at the camp near Maiduguri, but looked forward to cultivating the land he’d acquired in his home town shortly before he escaped.
When the 36-year-old returned to his village in April, however, he found it suffering badly from drought. Water levels were at around 8 litres per person, far below the minimum 50 litres per person recommended by the World Health Organisation. This was barely sufficient to survive let alone farm.
“You can’t get water anywhere in Pulka except in the IDP camp,” says Aminu. “Even at that, the water points in the camp provided by humanitarian organisations are often emptied within minutes.”
After weighing up his options, he returned to Madinatu along with two dozen others.
Aminu’s experience is being replicated across northeastern Nigeria as it struggles with a severe water shortage. The threat from Boko Haram may have diminished relatively-speaking, but now hundreds of people in the region are seeking refuge in IDP camps to escape drought and conflicts over water.
“So far this year, more than two hundred people have arrived at Madinatu from communities around the Lake Chad Basin,” says Yusuf Mohammed, a member of the Borno Community Coalition. “Most of them said they came here because they lacked basic commodities, especially water, in their communities.”
Some camp entrants who left their homes say they first travelled to neighbouring towns to access water, but were turned away by locals concerned at their own stretched resources. When Musa Abdullahi, 30, and eight others left Pulka for a nearby village, for example, they were told to leave and eventually chased off.
“We told them we needed water and had nowhere else to go to, but they insisted we must go,” says Abdullahi, who now lives in a Maiduguri camp. “We finally left when they tried to attack us with machetes and sticks.”
In IDP camps, people may have better access to water than in their home towns, but there are now around 1.7 million displaced persons in northeast Nigeria. Humanitarian agencies are struggling to keep up.
“The population has increased much more than the capacity of water,” says Luis Eguiluz, Head of Mission of Doctors Without Borders Head of Mission, which works in the IDP camp in Pulka. “We are talking about 60,000 people living there… The water level is not enough to cater for that many people.”
“Our concern is not how we’re going to get home”
The current water shortages in the region are partly due to Boko Haram. According to UNICEF, the insurgency has damaged or destroyed 75% of the water infrastructure across northeast Nigeria, which is home to over 24 million people. “Water and sanitation systems have been attacked, damaged or left in disrepair to the point of collapse,” said UNICEF’s Global Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene last year.
However, underlying the crisis is climate change. In the last 50 years, Lake Chad, which used to be the main source of freshwater for 40 million people in the wider region, has almost completely disappeared. Once the size of Rwanda, 90% of the lake has dried up in just a few decades, contributing to widespread environmental change. Back in 2008, before Boko Haram became a threat, the UN Environment Programme warned: “the changes in the lake have contributed to local lack of water, crop failures, livestock deaths, collapsed fisheries, soil salinity, and increasing poverty throughout the region.”
These dynamics have worsened since, making people’s lives and livelihoods much harder and unpredictable. Added to the conflict, this has contributed to a situation in which 10.7 million people in the Lake Chad Basin are now in need of humanitarian assistance. About 8.5 million of these, according to the UN, are in northeast Nigeria.
As water resources have dwindled and become more stretched, many struggling Nigerians have been forced to leave home. Some have eventually turned to IDP camps, joining the hundreds of thousands displaced by Boko Haram.
Over the past couple of years, the threat from the armed group in the area has diminished though attacks continue. Various government and security agencies have urged people to return to their liberated communities, a moment for which many like Bala Aminu had long been waiting and hoping. Yet the growing numbers of people now arriving at the camps in need of humanitarian relief due to water shortages has added another dimension to displacement in the region. This has made residents wary of returning home to dire conditions.
“We are told it is very difficult to get water back home,” says Baba Usman, who fled from Monguno to Maiduguri in 2014. “Our concern is not how we’re going to get home. It is about how we are going to survive.”