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Climate change and hunger are driving a refugee crisis in the African countries bordering Lake Chad

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Climate change can fall hardest on the backs of the world's poorest people. That's true in and around Lake Chad. The lake, once one of Africa's largest, has shrunk by some 90% over the last few decades. For people on what were or still are its banks in Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon, persistent drought is mixing with poverty, poor governance and the conflict in Ukraine making food prices higher to create a combustible set of circumstances. Willem Marx has this report.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: For more than three nights and days, Haoua Gawlou Moussa walked, swam and floated her way to safety. The Islamist group Boko Haram destroyed her home in western Chad and shattered her family's life.

HAOUA GAWLOU MOUSSA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: "During the night while we were sleeping, at around 3 a.m., they set the village on fire," she says. "Some people died. Some escaped. Some people escaped but left their children behind, like me. I left three of my children behind." She lost sight of those children in the chaos and, despite desperate searching, never found them. She assumes they must be dead. Now, safe in her brother's village, she pulls together dinner for her remaining children from the little she has - water with flour and twigs for a fire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: As meager as it is, Haoua's food supply is relatively secure. But for the thousands of residents living in a camp close to the waters of Lake Chad, life is more precarious. Like Haoua, they've also fled Boko Haram attacks on their homes in northern Nigeria. They must make do in tents, relying on occasional distributions from the United Nations World Food Program. Yagana Ali Abakar is struggling to make those supplies stretch among her family of nine.

YAGANA ALI ABAKAR: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: "The food given to me is not enough to feed myself and my children," she says. "I sell some of the basic food I am given to buy ingredients for soup. I've said I needed to do something to help myself and my children." She owns almost nothing except cooking utensils she now uses far too rarely. She hopes to establish herself here as a seamstress with a rented sewing machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE NOISES)

MARX: But deep in debt since her last food handout several weeks ago, she takes her children door to door requesting charity from camp neighbors.

She has no food today for her kids. Are there many people like that?

NASURI SAIDU: A lot of people.

MARX: Nasuri Saidu is a former fisherman. He used to fish in the shrinking waters of Lake Chad. Now he's also reliant on U.N. rations that were recently reduced due to funding shortfalls.

SAIDU: Due to lack of food, you know, whatever you have, you'll be able to sell it and buy food for your children.

MARX: U.N. supplies are only shared out every seven weeks, though Nasuri says some of the luckier camp residents who earn an income can buy food from makeshift markets. Across Chad, a vast expanse of scrubland on the south of the Sahara desert, the government's presence is limited. And besides United Nations and NGOs, the most visible authority in many towns is the country's military, one of the best armed and financed in the region. Chad's decades of on-off civil conflicts have calmed slightly in recent years, meaning the war against Boko Haram has become more central to the army's mission. But food shortages help the group recruit fresh fighters, according to Agassiz Baroum, a think tank director focused on the conflict.

AGASSIZ BAROUM: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: "There is a connection between the insecurity caused by Boko Haram and food insecurity," he says. "Because most people that we interviewed at Lake Chad made us understand that if they joined Boko Haram, it was in search of food." And his field research has found that continued violence only exacerbates the problem.

BAROUM: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: "This is where the conflict has accelerated food insecurity," he says, "because of the fact that Boko Haram carries out abuses, attacks, prevents the local population from going fishing, for example, from going to plough fields, all activities are on hold and that's the reason why we're seeing an increase in this food insecurity." Back at the camp, former fisherman Nasuri says he is grateful for the small support he does receive.

People here in Chad, are they welcoming? Are they helping you?

SAIDU: They are welcoming, and they're helping us.

MARX: But he's frustrated, too, after arriving here seven years ago. His children are now hungrier than ever before, he explains as he introduces his family.

SAIDU: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

SAIDU: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: (Non-English language spoken).

Laughter is rare on Chad's western border. Fear, uncertainty and empty stomachs are not. For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in Dar es Salaam camp in western Chad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx