Last Sunday morning, N'djamena city rang with the sound of thousands of clashing pots and pans. It was a few minutes of noisy defiance in Chad's capital, an indoor expression of rage. Indoors, because when women demonstrated in the streets a few weeks ago, it turned ugly – police and soldiers had broken up the crowds, and protesters were beaten. So now, from the safety of their kitchens, the women continued their protest, a protest against the government’s ban on charcoal – used by almost the entire population as household fuel. It is a step, the government insists, that is vital to prevent desertification.
Since the ban, Chadian media have reverberated with indignation. The problem is that there is just no alternative fuel, yet the ban remains in place. Charcoal now changes hands on a thriving black market, but at four times its normal price. People struggling with last year’s big increases in food costs are breaking up their furniture, and even parts of their houses, to burn for fuel.
But the problem is real. Much of Chad is a semi-arid Sahelian place and has a delicate ecosystem where pastoralists and agro-pastoralists have for generations been engaged in an elaborate dance with each other and with nature to ensure that life remains sustainable. But in the east, population movements and destroyed livelihoods have interrupted these rhythms, and competition over natural resources has become one of the main drivers of the humanitarian crisis.
The influx of refugees and the concentration of the internally displaced are having a profound impact on the environment and are likely to compromise the livelihoods of the local population in the longer term.
Some 15% of refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons - about 80,000 people) depend on the collection and sale of firewood for income-generation, and they are stripping the countryside bare. In villages with swollen populations, tensions between farmers and herders are mounting as increased numbers of cattle graze on diminishing pasture. Water is another problem.
Towards the north of the conflict-affected area near the border with Sudan, less than 8% of the population have access to safe drinking water; in the camps, refugees survive on a few litres of water per person per day – well below what is acceptable or reasonable. By a hydro geological quirk, much of the refugee, IDP and local population draw on the same aquifer, and now everyone is having to dig deeper and deeper.
There are three reasons why this all matters. The first reason is simply that people who are scrabbling to get by in a harsh environment are more vulnerable. Quite apart from what it does to people’s dignity, destitution makes people more likely to succumb to disease or hunger.
The second reason is that the possibility of a sustainable long term solution to the crisis recedes if irreversible damage is done to the environment. How can people return if the forests are gone, and the desert has swallowed up grazing land?
The third reason is that desperate people tend to fight. When they try to return, many of the displaced are going to find that their villages and farmland have been take over by pastoralists; it is a short step for this kind of tension to take on an ethnic dimension.
So what can we do? Much is, in fact, already being done by partners such as UNHCR, WFP and Oxfam, with DFID support (more of this in following blogs). In the meantime, it is vital that those attempting to address the humanitarian crisis in eastern Chad adopt a holistic approach to the problem. But there is still a long way to go; for lasting solutions, DFID and others must continue to beat their pots and pans.