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Vanishing waters: An overview of the water crisis in the landlocked countries of West Africa and Central Asia

20 June 2023

A planetary dilemma

It is hard to address the impact water stress is having on minorities and indigenous peoples across the globe without considering the plight of water first. Not as resource. Not as thing. Water as living cycle. The planetary disruption of the water cycle is having a systemic impact not only on human beings, but all animals, plants and fungi on this planet. In short, the issue of water access and water shortage – of floods and droughts – is planetary. Not global – planetary. The inadequacy of global, international and national governance is evident when it comes to water. Governments can just about align when it comes to climate change, not so when it comes to water. Water is understood in terms of integrated river basin approaches at best, yet water is not only territorial. It is also atmospheric, oceanic and subterranean. Atmospheric rivers are super-saturated streams of water vapour, some containing more water than the Amazon River, which move according to distinct meteorological and geographic patterns.

Can these atmospheric rivers be mapped? Can they be included within the framework of territorial and state-based governance? Waters are cross-boundary and cross-regional. Disruption of the water cycle is happening at a planetary level. Unless states act in the interest of the planet and can include planetary forms of thinking and acting within their current water frameworks, it is hard to see a way out of the impasse. Destabilization of oceanic and atmospheric currents, the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, the drying of rivers and lakes, are sending the world’s climate into chaos. Nowhere is this collapsing planetary balance felt most strongly than in the arid regions of Central Asia and West Africa.

For many people across this mega-region, whether minority or majority, whether indigenous or non-indigenous, water means everything. It is an existential matter. As such, water is not merely an issue for development narratives and the Sustainable Development Goals – it is a living entity that exceeds the human ability to control and manage. Water is not a line in a map. As vividly shown in the opening chapter of this report, water is First Law. Water is governed by its own principles and laws. First, water is a cycle. Second, water is freely available. Third, water is diverse – it takes on many forms and colours. Fourth, water purifies and filters itself. By interrupting its cycle, most current global, international, national and regional frameworks for water management are blind to the planetary nature of water, insisting on a territorial mindset that is inadequate when it comes to comprehending, let alone preserving, water’s flow.

This chapter appeals to a planetary and therefore interconnected understanding of water, which is often found not in state laws but in indigenous forms of governance. To illustrate this underlying point, we focus on the world’s largest continuous land mass, the Asia and Africa mega-region, which are interconnected by common climatic atmospheric systems and patterns of rainfall distribution. The mega-region we focus on also includes the world’s largest landlocked countries, where a trail of disrupted ecological systems, as well as recurring signs of extreme water stress, have become commonplace.

Across West Africa and Central Asia, lakes, rivers and aquifers are drying up. Drought has become extreme across large swathes of these regions. Desertification has also become a grave reality across many landlocked countries and nations. Large sections of land have become uninhabitable or are in the process of becoming uninhabitable for human life, sending tens of thousands of local populations into forced displacement. Many of the most vulnerable belong to minorities and indigenous peoples, as their lives are often so closely intertwined with their local ecosystems. Multiplying this immediate environmental threat is the systemic exclusion and discrimination they face, adding to their vulnerability if displaced. The impact of the planetary water crisis on minority and indigenous communities can hardly be more direct and acute.

Along with the vanishing water, countless local cultures, many of them minority, indigenous or marginalized by displacement and other factors, may dwindle or, worse, disappear.

The landlocked predicament

The Sahara and Sahel are often cited as two of the regions of the world most seriously affected by climate change. The Western Sahel is a semi-arid area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean eastwards to Chad, bordered by the Sahara Desert to the north and the Sudanian savannah to the south. The region is also one of the poorest and most environmentally degraded in the world. This is partly due to the fact that many of the countries in the region are landlocked. The landlocked predicament, as we call it, is a major factor slowing down both the regeneration of Sahelian countries and the depletion of water sources, not least given the vulnerability of water bodies found in dry regions, far from the cooling and humidifying effect of seas and oceans. Indeed, the Sahel is one of the regions that is most vulnerable to climate change, with temperatures expected to rise 1.5 times higher than in the rest of the world. Climate vulnerability is compounded by the region’s heavy dependence on rain-fed agriculture, rapid population growth and chronic humanitarian crises due to recurrent droughts, floods, food insecurity, epidemics and violent conflicts.

In order to feed growing populations in the region, it is necessary to deploy vast amounts of resources, including for instance food relief. Unfortunately, given the ongoing food, humanitarian and security crises in Chad, Niger and Mali, it is difficult to mobilize aid from nearby ports to the landlocked countries of the Sahel. For example, in addition to depending on Libya and Sudan, Chad depends on seaports in Cameroon and Nigeria. Niger’s economy and commercial activities rely on the ports of Nigeria. Drought and famine have considerably increased the need to import food and other basic necessities into landlocked regions. However, the presence of jihadist groups such as Boko Haram have made routes from Nigerian ports to Chad and Niger almost completely impassable. Insecurity has made it difficult to supply assistance and relief to vulnerable populations in areas affected by famine, water stress and insecurity, especially within remote, landlocked regions.

The Sahel and Sahara are still recovering from food crises caused by the severe droughts of 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2012. Research suggests that more than 20 million food-insecure people and nearly six million malnourished children live in the Sahel alone. With significant population growth (on average 3 per cent per year) and recurrent problems of environmental degradation, widespread poverty and political instability, climate change in the Sahel and Sahara will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. Water scarcity, longer dry seasons and the impact of rising temperatures could trigger new conflicts and forced migration across Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad.

As we will see in the rest of the chapter, the dilemma faced by arid, landlocked countries in West Africa is not dissimilar, in general terms, to the case of landlocked countries in the arid regions of Central Asia. Indeed, as the 2022 Water Risk Atlas produced by the World Resources Institute highlights, the world’s most ‘extremely water stressed regions’ are found in the large swathe of landmass from West Africa through to East Asia, covering the Sahara, the Sahel, the Middle East and Central Asian regions.

Young Tuareg girls looking for water line up outside the camp’s only water point, Menaka, Mali. Credit: Tiécoura N’Daou.

Burning water problems across Central Asia: Melting glaciers

One of the most dramatic ways in which water systems are being affected by human activity is the melting of permafrost. The capacity for the planet to store water in a solid state is fast declining. There are numerous consequences to this environmental issue. Melting ice is exacerbating global warming. Releasing fast-running waters onto the land is also causing floods and inundations, which reduce the capacity for soil to retain water, not to mention the devastating effects of major flood disasters on human and animal populations. The phenomenon is particularly acute in Central Asia.

Increased meltwater production in the high mountains of Central Asia threatens the populations of this arid region of the planet with water stress. Meltwater also masks predatory forms of water use. In the Tien Shan mountains of China (also known as the Tenghritagh mountain range), where the sources of the Ili River and many other Central Asian rivers lie, peak meltwater production has not yet been reached for most of the existing glaciers. Meltwater production is expected to increase in the next two decades, before it starts declining. The situation may then change dramatically overnight.

‘When glaciers shrink to a small fraction of their current size, river flow could drop rapidly, with severe consequences for many Central Asian regions’, says Todd Katzner, Research Wildlife Biologist for the US Geographical Survey. Melting ice will affect not only river flow, but also the survival of many lakes in the region. Nurtazin Sabir from the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University reminds us that the volume of water in Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan is equivalent to less than seven years of water input from the entire basin. This means that Balkhash is extremely sensitive to abrupt changes in glacial melting or evaporation.

Vanishing lakes

In spite of the overwhelmingly arid climate, the Central Asia region is a rich hydrological network of rivers, lakes and mountain catchments. The Caspian Sea, which is shared by Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia, is the world’s largest inland body of water. The Aral Sea, shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, used to be the fourth largest lake in the world. Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan is the third largest in Asia and fifteenth largest in the world. Thus, the five Central Asian states that gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union not only share borders but also major water systems. From the Communist period onwards, however, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have inherited outdated water infrastructures and predatory approaches to water use. At the same time, the region is particularly endangered by the intensified effects of climate change.

As with other landlocked countries around the world, including Bolivia in South America and the African states mentioned earlier, the Central Asian region is affected by its landlocked condition, which means that these countries are deprived of the balancing hydrological effects and rainfall brought on by oceanic currents and air pressures. Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, and it encompasses areas which are further away from the ocean than any other landlocked region in the world. Uzbekistan is also a major landlocked country, as are its neighbours Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, home to one of the world’s highest mountain systems. Many river basins in Asia are formed in the mountain ranges of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Yet the particular problems experienced by landlocked countries are causing major water issues for populations across the five former Soviet Republics of Central Asia, especially among minorities and indigenous peoples marginalized within the discriminatory centralized policies operating across the region.

As is the case in West Africa, Central Asia is heavily dependent on agriculture. Farming – especially intensive or industrial farming – is impossible without irrigation. Due to poor water management policies inherited from Soviet days, the region is not only experiencing serious issues around water access, but also major national and international water conflicts. A region rich in water has become increasingly water-stressed and vulnerable to the consequences of receding water bodies and greedy national policies intent on turning water ‘resources’ into economic profit. Perhaps the world’s most iconic case in this regard is the Aral Sea.

Young Tuareg girls fetching water with the help of donkeys in front of the camp’s only water point, Menaka Region, Mali. Credit: Tiécoura N’Daou.

The death of the Aral Sea

Central Asia has suffered one of the most spectacular man-made environmental disasters of the twenty-first century: the destruction of the Aral Sea. This water body, previously boasting a surface area of 68,000 square kilometres, sustained the livelihoods of thousands of people. The lake was brought to near extinction within a matter of decades. The decline of the Aral Sea has led to severe environmental, ecological and social upheavals with dramatic consequences across this already volatile region.

The cause of the Aral Sea disaster was extreme overuse of the two main rivers feeding the lake: Amu Darya and Syr Darya. In the Soviet Union era, water from these two mighty rivers started to be diverted for agriculture, especially in the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which needed water to sustain large-scale cotton and rice production. One of the ambitious water engineering projects that made use of Amu Darya’s waters was the Karakum canal. Construction started in 1954 and continued for three decades. Karakum remains one of the largest irrigation and water supply canals in the world. Over-ambitious production plans designed in Moscow forced local administrations to boost agricultural performance, resulting in unsustainable levels of water consumption. The water was allowed to run through open channels and much of it evaporated or soaked into the ground before reaching its destination. Soviet agriculturalists also used enormous amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, many of them hazardous, which were then washed off into the local drainage ditches and into the Aral Sea.

The first signs that the lake was receding were detected in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, boats had to be moved several hundred metres to reach the water line. In the 1980s the shoreline was already many kilometres away from human settlements once located by the lakeside. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, the Aral Sea was a shadow of its former glory. Its rapid decay caused alarm among local populations and scientists. The calls of the people of the Aral region, including many minority and indigenous communities, were ignored by central authorities, who believed the waters of this ‘unproductive’ lake would evaporate in the hot Central Asian climate. Today, the vestiges of the Aral Sea are three bodies of water: North and South Aral and Barsakelmes Lake, which represent some 10 per cent of the former lake surface. In many parts, salinity levels exceed those found in the Dead Sea. The rest of the Aral seabed has turned into the Aralkum desert – thousands of square kilometres of sand covered in dryland shrubs and rusting shipwrecks.

In an effort to save the North Aral, Kazakhstan constructed the Kok-Aral Dam. Finished in 2005, this dam blocks the flow from the North Aral into the South Aral, which is at a lower elevation, in Uzbekistan. The dam has helped water levels to rebound significantly, and even wildlife and fisheries returned to the basin. This shows that with some attention and proper action, the process of desertification can be stopped or perhaps even reversed. For thousands of square kilometres of land and its inhabitants, however, this realization came too late.

Lake Balkhash

Located in south-eastern Kazakhstan, the sickle-shaped Lake Balkhash stretches over 600 kilometres and covers an area of approximately 17,000 square kilometres. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that the lake consists of two parts featuring different water compositions. The western freshwater part is divided by a narrow strait from the eastern, brackish one. A fifth of Kazakhstan’s population (over three million people) lives within the lake’s basin. Balkhash is crucial for the local energy sector as well as a number of important large- and small-scale industries. The lake supports local populations engaging in fishing, animal husbandry and farming. The Ili River, which flows into the lake, creates the largest remaining natural delta in Central Asia, supporting a unique ecosystem for both wildlife and domestic animals.

Balkhash lies entirely within the borders of Kazakhstan. However, it takes most of its waters from the Ili River, a transboundary waterway that Kazakhstan shares with China. The Ili originates in the Tien Shan mountains and flows through what is nowadays the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China before it reaches Kazakh territory. Out of the Balkhash’s total catchment area of 413,000 kilometres, only 15 per cent is located in China. Nevertheless, this fraction is of strategic importance, as the Ili contributes as much as 80 per cent of the lake’s waters. Herein lies the crux of the problem.

The demographic situation of Xinjiang and its strategic importance to China has a direct impact on the Ili River and Lake Balkhash. Home to the Uyghur minority, Xinjiang is a target of the Belt and Road Initiative, a gigantic Chinese infrastructure programme launched in 2013. Massive investment and development projects aim to transform the region, inhabited mostly by Uyghurs and other ethnic minority populations, into the main demographic and industrial centre of western China. Thousands of migrants, mostly Han, have settled in Xinjiang. This population growth is placing the fragile environment of this arid region under increased pressure. Within just the last decade the population in the area has increased by 20 per cent. Satellite images show an explosive growth of croplands in the upper Ili, as well as a number of hydroelectric power plants that have been constructed to produce energy for the expanding cities and new industries.

According to different sources, China diverts as much as 43 per cent of the water from the Ili River. Information on the water flows in the upper Ili is extremely limited. China is reluctant to share data, referring to this issue as an ‘internal affair’. The River Ili crisis illustrates China’s general approach to water relations with its neighbours, and also the Chinese government’s appalling treatment of ethnic minorities.

Frameworks such as the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (the UN Water Convention, 1992) and the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN Watercourses Convention, 1997) regulate the management of transboundary water resources only in theory. Kazakhstan has ratified them, but China has refused to do so. Beijing claims that these legal texts fail to represent the interests of ‘upstream nations’ and constitute an attack on the country’s national sovereignty.

Rather than signing international treaties on transboundary water management, China insists on bilateral agreements with its neighbours. Forced into an arrangement that jeopardizes water flows and the safeguarding of Lake Balkhash, the Kazakh government has proposed a barter contract for a ten-year food supply to China in exchange for more river flow. China has rejected this proposal. Thus, Kazakhstan remains dependent on the goodwill of China and can only hope for a fair deal that would allow the necessary water flow to ensure the survival of Balkhash.

Boys exercise alongside a canal in Nukus, capital of Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan. Credit: David Trilling.

The Kazakh side of the problem

The government of Kazakhstan is likewise cautious about publishing data about Lake Balkhash. Instead, it prefers to focus on reversing the negative effects of the construction of the Kapchagay reservoir, which is not being filled to the maximum currently, in order to protect the lake. Independent media reports show that the water levels in Balkhash are fast declining. Between the 1970s and the beginning of 2000s, the southern part of Balkhash is said to have lost about 150 square kilometres of water surface. Desertified lands now cover one-third of the basin. Of the 16 lake systems located around Balkhash, only five units have been preserved. The shallowing process affects especially the western (less deep) part of the lake. At the same time, the salinity of the whole lake is increasing, and the Ili River delta faces biodiversity loss.

‘It is not only China’s fault’, says Nurtazin Sabir, professor of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, who has been working on Lake Balkhash for years. Sabir stresses that Kazakhstan has also contributed to the lake’s problems. This has been particularly clear since the Kapchagay Dam was constructed in the middle reaches of the Ili River in 1969. The Kapchagay reservoir is important for electricity production and irrigation for farming. Already, in the planning phase, critics warned of the project’s negative impact on Balkhash and its ecosystem. The voices that raised concerns over the lake’s future were, however, ignored by Soviet authorities, who pushed for extravagant water engineering projects and for intensified agricultural production at any cost.

As critics expected, the construction of the Kapchagay reservoir seriously disturbed the water balance of Balkhash. Between 1970 and 1985, when the reservoir was being filled, the lake’s volume declined by almost 40 cubic kilometres. By 1987 the water level of the lake had dropped by over two metres. Although the situation has stabilized, the water quality has significantly deteriorated, and it has become increasingly saline. Pollution levels in the lake increased as well. Finally, the reservoir has also had a negative impact upon fish populations. Declining groundwater levels have made long-term farming along the lake’s shores impossible.

In Kazakhstan, farming also relies on the Ili River for irrigation. Irrigation is carried out in a rather outdated manner. Water travels through open, clay or concrete canals, many of them built in the Soviet Union era. Infrastructure lacks proper maintenance. It is estimated that water losses due to leakage and evaporation reach as much as 40 per cent. At the same time, flooding remains the main irrigation method. The government of Kazakhstan encourages the use of more water-saving technologies and pushes for change in the consumption habits of its population. However, many actors in the Kazakh agriculture sector cannot afford the transition to more sustainable practices. Only large companies or landowners can buy expensive sprinkle technologies. Smaller farmers have only one option: to flood.

Toxic sands

The lakes of West and north-central Africa and Central Asia are not disappearing without a trace. Inhabitants of the former Aral Sea basin, for instance, know this better than anyone. Where once the Aral Sea was, today Aralkum, the world’s youngest desert, spreads its sands. Dust storms carrying sulphates, phosphates, chlorinated hydrocarbons and other toxic substances found in fertilizers and pesticides which accumulated in the lake over the years, travel across large distances. Inhabitants of towns and villages located hundreds of kilometres away from the lake tell of storms covering the ground with thin layers of toxic salt. ‘If I watered my garden later, it would burn all my vegetables’, a local farmer in Nukus, Uzbekistan, says. ‘And to make matters worse, we have to breathe burning air,’ she adds.

‘We’re paying for this brutal case of water mismanagement, and we’re paying with our health, our climate and our livelihoods. If the water stops flowing, we are the first to feel the consequence.’

Salinized soil loses its value for farming and livestock breeding, pushing local populations into economic precarity. According to local sources, six million hectares of agricultural lands were destroyed due to salinization and desertification brought about by the decay of the Aral Sea. Thousands of people who worked in fishing and fish processing industries lost their economic base. Unemployment ravaged the region, forcing people to migrate internally or abroad, for legal or illegal work. In Kazakhstan, many of those who worked on the former shores of the Aral Sea sought jobs in the fishing sector in Kapchagay reservoir and Balkhash. In Uzbekistan, the areas around the former Aral Sea still have the highest poverty levels in that country.

Even more dramatic is the impact desiccation of the Aral Sea has had on human health. Inhabitants of the former Aral basin lack sustainable sources of potable water. The water that is available is often brackish and not appropriate for consumption. Due to dust storms carrying salt and other toxic particles, respiratory diseases, liver and kidney ailments and anaemia are common. At the same time the infant mortality rate, especially in Karakalpakstan, an ethnic minority region in the southern Aral basin of Uzbekistan, soared to levels never before recorded.

The desiccation of the Aral Sea has impacted the climate as well. Summer temperatures have increased, and winter temperatures have decreased by several degrees Celsius. ‘We’re paying for this brutal case of water mismanagement, and we’re paying with our health, our climate and our livelihoods,’ says Yusup Kamalov, a minority rights activist from Uzbekistan, who has fought for the preservation of the Aral Sea. The case of the Aral Sea, he argues, shows the extent—and inhumanity— of regional and ethnic discrimination. Downstream regions face water shortages or are forced to use waters polluted in the middle and upper basins. ‘This is the case of Aral, but also Balkhash and other rivers and lakes,’ he says. ‘If the water stops flowing, we are the first to feel the consequences, also in our health and economy.’

The situation of Central Asian minorities and indigenous peoples

One of the population groups most affected by the desiccation of the Aral Sea are Karakalpaks. This Turkic-speaking ethnic minority native to Uzbekistan inhabits the southern part of the former Aral Sea basin and the lower reaches of Amu Darya. Estimated to number over 700,000, Karakalpaks are Uzbek citizens, but the majority live in an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan. Karakalpaks were given autonomous status within the Soviet Union and were able to preserve this status until now, although not without difficulties.

Covering 40 per cent of the landmass of Uzbekistan, Karakalpakstan used to be a fertile agricultural region. Traditionally, Karakalpaks lived a nomadic lifestyle, while embracing a mixed economy that relied not only on livestock breeding but also on farming and fishing. When the waters of the Aral Sea shrank and the salty seabed was exposed, it was the Karakalpaks who had to cope with this dramatic change. At the same time, the economic and social benefits of their fishing, farming and tourist industries came to an end. The 1990’s and early 2000’s brought dramatic droughts. Virtually no water from Amu Darya reached the region, and the periods without precipitation continued for as long as half a year at a time. A number of international organizations entered Karakalpakstan with aid projects and well construction technologies; however, the Uzbek government seemed uninterested or unwilling to support international efforts to assist ethnic minorities within its borders.

Today, Karakalpakstan is the least prosperous region of Uzbekistan, and one of the poorest regions in Central Asia. Official sources state that unemployment is at 9 per cent, and the poverty rate exceeds 16 per cent. Many inhabitants who lost their jobs in agriculture or fishing due to the death of the Aral Sea migrated to neighbouring countries, mostly Kazakhstan and Russia. Relatives left behind rely on remittances sent from abroad. This makes local livelihoods highly insecure and unstable in the long term.

During 2022, the region witnessed a wave of political protests in response to the Uzbek government’s attempt to strip the republic of a significant part of its autonomy: the right to secede. Peaceful demonstrations were crushed with brutal force. Official sources state that 14 civilians lost their lives. Local protesters claim that the number of dead and injured was in the hundreds. Prison sentences for demonstrators followed. Although the government withdrew the proposed amendment to the Constitution, the situation in Karakalpakstan remains tense. The prospect of gaining speedier access to gas and oil resources in the region might explain why reducing Karakalpak autonomy may benefit the Uzbek government.

Investigative journalists have disclosed a state-driven policy of forced sterilization of Karakalpak women. Although the policy was documented mostly in the 1990s, some cases were reported as recently as 2012 and 2019, which suggests that the state takes active measures to keep the Karakalpak population low. Plagued by water crisis, poor health and economic poverty, Karakalpaks can only hope for a future where their rights and freedoms are respected.

A similar panorama across the Sahara and Sahel

Like the Aral Sea, Lake Chad is gravely threatened by the effects of climate change. As in the case of Karakalpak people in Uzbekistan, the drying of Lake Chad is causing a major humanitarian disaster in West and north-central Africa. The countries bordering Lake Chad are Cameroon, Republic of Chad, Niger and Nigeria. In the past, this lake was one of the largest water reservoirs in the world. Due to water overuse and changing climate over the past decades, the lake has shrunk by 90 per cent, from 25,000 square kilometres in 1963 to less than 1,500 square kilometres in 2001. If the water level continues to fall at its current rate, this lake could disappear, as climate forecasts and satellite imagery produced by the US space agency NASA clearly show. Despite the unusual amounts of rainfall experienced in 2022, which caused heavy flooding throughout the region, the increase in water levels in the lake and its main tributaries, the Chari and Logone rivers, was short-lived. Given the fast-flowing nature of floods, waters withdrew or evaporated, and were not absorbed by soils, groundwater aquifers or local vegetation, only causing further soil erosion and depletion of local environments.

In addition to the 60 per cent drop in fish populations, pastures have deteriorated leading to a drop in fodder availability (by 46.5 per cent in some areas in 2006) and a reduction in livestock and biodiversity. The Lake Chad Basin Commission, established in 1964, and officials from riparian countries, meet regularly to regulate and control the use of water and other natural resources in the Lake Chad Basin. Despite actively seeking new models of adaptive water management that take into account both traditional and modern agricultural techniques, the future of many minorities in the region, including Kanembu and Kanuri peoples, remains uncertain.

While the Republic of Chad faces the alarming desiccation of its two main rivers, in nearby Niger the Niger River is causing equally serious concerns. According to the Niger River Basin Agency, the drying up of the Niger River is alarming and could reach its 1985 critical level (the lowest level ever observed). The low levels of the river are due to the scarcity of rainfall caused by climate change, drought and the silting up of land across the Sahel. Like many other rivers across the West African and Central Asian mega-region, specialists say that the Niger River is heading towards ‘certain death’ if nothing is done.

The capital of Niger, Niamey, will face major water shortages in the future due to the continued drying up of the Niger River. Currently, around 54 per cent of Niger’s population lacks access to clean water, placing this country among the worst for water access in the world. According to local authorities, currently the low water period of the river in Niamey and its surrounding areas covers a period of almost four months, whereas the water shortage period was around 50 days in the years before 1960. At the same time, the flow rate of the river has dropped to 19 cubic metres per second, which has a serious impact on the water supply of the capital, more than 80 per cent of which is supplied by the river. To face this problematic situation, Niger’s Ministry of Hydraulics is calling on the managers of the Niger Water Heritage Company (SPEN) to take appropriate emergency measures, particularly to prevent the river from silting up at the Goudel water retention weir (on the outskirts of Niamey), and to raise the population’s awareness of how to avoid wasting water.

The Niger River is about 4,100 kilometres long and feeds nine countries; it is the third longest river in Africa. It plays a crucial role in the livelihoods of millions, not only in Niger, but in every other country that shares its watercourse. Once again, at the forefront of the impending water emergency in the Niger basin are vulnerable groups, among them displaced communities affected by the Sahelian herder–farmer conflict, the ongoing Boko Haram crisis, as well as inter-ethnic and gender violence, mostly underpinned by fierce competition for dwindling resources.

Men scramble around a rusty shipwreck in the former Aral Sea port of Muynak, in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan. 23 September 2022. Credit: David Trilling.

The voices of Tuaregs

Tuaregs are a large group of nomadic herders found in more than six countries in West and North Africa. This group of indigenous pastoralists have made the Sahel and parts of the Sahara their ancestral home. Tuaregs are estimated to number more than three million in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Tuareg civilization is above all nomadic. As such, trans-Saharan trade plays a significant role in the Tuareg way of life.

In an era marked by the scarcity of water, it is important and urgent to better guarantee the rights of Tuareg communities in their respective countries. Article 8 of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) emphasizes the threats that loom over indigenous peoples throughout the world, and hence over those of the Sahel, as well as the obligation of states to protect them. Drawing on this framework, it is appropriate to argue that, like many of the minority and indigenous communities whose ways of life are threatened by climate change and water crisis in Central Asia, the right of Tuaregs to water security must be one of their core demands. Much like Fulani people discussed in the Niger case study in this report, Tuareg people need access to wells and water sources to provide for their animals. Tuaregs also require access to trans-Sahelian migration routes that connect the rich hydrological landscape with cultural traditions and memory.

Unfortunately, water scarcity, coupled with the weakness of states and their inefficiency in managing water resources in a way that is inclusive of minority and indigenous rights, have aggravated underlying conflicts between herders and sedentary groups, especially in the landlocked countries of Mali, Chad and Niger. West Africa is characterized by endemic problems concerning historical sedimentation of conflict, a traumatic colonial legacy, lack of adequate governance, political instability and insecurity, to which we must add the threat of violent extremism, in particular the continued presence of Boko Haram.

Environmental collapse will most likely lead to further migrations, and the formation of new minority groups, as well as new forms of oppression and discrimination towards displaced communities.

Tuareg populations are used to nomadism as a means to living sustainably. Because of this way of life, Tuaregs have seen their social and family structures broken by discriminatory and brutal administrative restrictions that disrupt their lifestyle through bans on mobility. Tuareg herders are subjected to severe restrictions, such as transhumance corridors, forced sedentarism, mobility restrictions, confiscations of cattle, and denial of water access, so as to avoid conflicts with farmers. Although the reasons cited by local authorities for these restrictions are to maintain peace and social cohesion between the different communities, minority and indigenous communities are suffering gross violations of their human rights.

In the Sahel, water points are central to the management of grazing land, especially during the dry season. Herds depend on both grazing and watering. Ideally, for Tuareg families to move from one waterhole to another, water points should be open to multiple users. This is often not the case for Tuareg nomads in areas held by sedentary farmers. Even if global warming is kept below the 2° Celsius target set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, it would be judicious to consider disaster prevention and effective protection for minorities and indigenous peoples across the Sahara and Sahel, such as Tuaregs.

Any attempt to relocate or resettle indigenous peoples must be the result of meaningful participation by the communities concerned. Without free, prior and informed consent, there is a serious risk of violating the rights of nomadic populations across the region. In terms of public policy, legal texts at the level of the African Union must include strict provisions to this effect. Policy change must be carried out in the best interest of indigenous communities who, according to the UN Declaration dedicated to them:

cannot be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No resettlement may take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and agreement on fair and just compensation and, where possible, the option of return (UNDRIP, Article 10).

It should be recalled that the states of the Sahara and the Sahel, that is, those in which Tuaregs live, are obliged to establish and implement, in consultation with the communities concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process that takes due account of the laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems of indigenous peoples, in order to recognize and adjudicate on the rights of Tuaregs with respect to their lands, territories and water resources.

What remains?

Unless a balanced approach that takes into consideration the entire water cycle – including atmospheric and underground water – is reached and implemented at a local water-governance level, many more Central Asian and West African rivers and lakes will disappear within a lifetime. Along with the vanishing water, countless local cultures, many of them minority, indigenous or marginalized by displacement and other factors, may dwindle or, worse, disappear. Environmental collapse will most likely lead to further migrations, and the formation of new minority groups, as well as new forms of oppression and discrimination towards displaced communities.

A Tuareg woman sitting next to her empty water containers, Menaka, Mali. Credit: Tiécoura N’Daou.

Solutions are right under our own noses. Answers to what seems like an insurmountable problem are often found in the worldviews and lifestyles of communities who have lived in harmony with their natural surroundings for thousands of years – namely indigenous peoples. Like all living creatures, humans are water’s children and can call upon water to refresh bodies, spirit, fields and forests – a truism well-known and passed down in many minority and indigenous cultures, among them those mentioned or briefly covered in this article: Tuaregs, Fulani, Kanembu, Kanuri, Uyghurs, Karakalpaks and countless others.

If we wish to preserve the future of our planet, we must relearn how to move with water again, and call upon water’s wisdom and memory to help shape a thriving future. We must learn not only the techniques of water storage and conservation expressed through ancient traditions, but also cultural practices of reverence, renewal and respect. It is only since the Industrial Revolution that humans have begun to impact the living body of the planet through large-scale destruction of our biosphere, breaking up the interaction between biomes and the water cycle. Humans are disrupting this metabolism across regions, and not only across the landmass and landlocked countries highlighted in this chapter. Everywhere else in the world it is possible to find the same destructive and predatory behaviour underpinning the planetary water crisis. Life has begun to die back, and we are nearing the tipping point of irreversible freefall.

Many minority and indigenous cultures have known all along that life is interconnected as part of a planetary system. Planetary thinking is a defining characteristic of many traditional knowledge systems across the world, where water often plays a central role as the source of cosmic life. Water carries wisdom and memory and is therefore honoured and prayed to in ceremonies, song and dance. Rivers are life-giving spirits and family members. As are clouds. Modern science is only slowly catching up with this understanding. Western science, technology and the narratives of development must catch up fast with the indigenous ethics of life. Across the world, communities will need to reconnect and learn from ‘those who know’. To restore the abundance that is freely given to us, water and forests are our only gateways to planetary healing. It is this traditional knowledge that holds the key to activating our urgently needed process of planetary restoration.

Photo: A Tuareg woman fetches water from a pond for her daily needs, Menaka, Mali. Credit: Tiécoura N’Daou.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Rob de Laet

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