Editor's note: This article was originally published June 1, 2016; it was updated March 9, 2017 to reflect the latest information.
Across the Lake Chad Basin, climate change, massive displacement, chronic underdevelopment and conflict due to Boko Haram’s violent insurgency have converged to create a severe humanitarian crisis.
Many areas in NE Nigeria are at risk of famine and at least 55,000 people are already experiencing famine-like conditions in Borno State, Nigeria alone. Food insecurity, low crop yields and high staple food prices, combined with political unrest, mean that millions of people will continue to have urgent food needs.
Boko Haram’s cycle of violence has uprooted and displaced approximately 2.3 million people around the already fragile and drought-afflicted Lake Chad water basin, which includes portions of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
"As we’ve had better access to these areas, the level and urgency of the need we see is horrifying and demands immediate action."
- Iveta Ouvry, Mercy Corps country director in Nigeria
It is a complicated and massive humanitarian crisis. Some 10.7 million people — out of a total population of 20 million living in the areas of affected by Boko Haram — are in need of food, water, shelter and other humanitarian assistance.
In Nigeria alone, 5.1 million people are in need of urgent food assistance. Throughout the Lake Chad Basin region, more than half a million children are severely acutely malnourished, 75,000 of whom could die of starvation if not urgently assisted.
Now, as the Nigerian government has recently regained control of areas previously occupied by Boko Haram, we have uncovered extreme levels of suffering.
“As we’ve had better access to these areas, the level and urgency of the need we see is horrifying and demands immediate action,” says Iveta Ouvry, Mercy Corps country director in Nigeria. “We are working as quickly as possible to expand our ongoing delivery of food vouchers, financial assistance and water, sanitation and hygiene support.”
There has been progress. In Nigeria, the number of people receiving food assistance grew 250 percent between August 2016 and December 2016. While an improvement, this is drastically short of the 5.1 million people who need food.
Learn how we are meeting the urgent needs of families affected by this crisis and working to build stronger communities, and find out how you can help.
A history of hunger and water crises
Habiba walks to collect water near her displacement community in Borno state, where she cares for her three nieces and nephews, Hawa, 5, Rayanatu, 3, and Fatima, 1. Photo: Tom Saater for Mercy Corps
The Lake Chad Basin has been grappling with the effects of poverty, climate change and weak governance for years. In both Nigeria and Niger, Mercy Corps has been working with the local communities to improve access to food, safety and security, while fueling economic development and other interventions that make communities stronger.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an annual per person income of less than £120 Unpredictable rain patterns due to climate change severely affect farmers’ ability to grow enough food. A failed harvest at the end of 2011 left Niger and the entire Sahel region of West Africa in a water and food crisis.
Ten percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition and 44 percent are chronically malnourished, according to the World Food Programme.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, but about 70 percent of the country lives in poverty. As many as 80 percent of women in some regions are illiterate and lack access to resources and information to help them better their lives and contribute to their families and their country.
Crisis made worse by Boko Haram
This family living in Bajoga, Nigeria, has welcomed two families displaced by Boko Haram violence. Nearly 40 people sleep together on the ground in two rooms of a small house. Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps
Boko Haram emerged in the region in the early 2000s as an anti-government Islamic sect, but began to gain notoriety in 2009 when its actions became more radical and deadly. The group made international headlines after the 2014 abduction of 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria.
Most of the people who’ve fled are farmers, herders and traders. They’ve left their land, homes and livelihoods with nothing – and often watched them being destroyed as they fled.
The region affected is in northeast Nigeria, at the nexus of Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria. Most people have taken refuge in host communities in this area.
The massive displacement is stretching already scarce resources beyond the breaking point.
Now, as the Nigerian government has regained control of certain areas and the region has gained some stability, the severity of the problem has come to light on the world stage and exposed the need for urgent action.
What is Mercy Corps doing?
Fati, 31, is a leader mother for a mother care group tasked with teaching proper health care and nutrition for children under 2. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
At the heart of our work is a focus on the root causes of food insecurity across the region.
In Niger, we work to improve access to food, nutrition information and connect local farmers with seeds, livestock and veterinary services so they can better support themselves.
We also focus on helping women and girls become more involved in community decision-making.
More specifically in Nigeria, we have been working in the northeast part of the country to provide emergency help in response to those uprooted by the violence.
We are providing emergency food assistance with electronic and paper vouchers, distributing non-food essentials and cash. And we’re increasing access to water and sanitation, and giving livelihood support so displaced people have the means to care for themselves and their families.
The interventions that we already had in place have become even more critical as we move to reach desperate families in areas that were previously inaccessible due to their occupation by Boko Haram.
The Mercy Corps team in Nigeria is quickly working to expand its humanitarian response to previously inaccessible areas of Borno state, where an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 people are living in burned villages and unstructured camps with little-to-no access to food, aid or income.
Many people in these communities survive by selling foraged firewood, begging or laboring for less than the equivalent of $1 USD per day. The planting season is approaching, but due to continued insecurity many farmers have been unable to access the land where they used to cultivate food to eat and sell.
We plan to help families meet their urgent needs, and introduce long-term programming that will focus on reducing conflict between the displaced and host communities, increasing access to financial services, and improving the wellbeing of women and girls.
Because we have been in the region for several years, we have specific research around Boko Haram. We have studied how the group recruits youth and what factors help prevent youth from joining Boko Haram.
We are also implementing programming that will more specifically target youth who are vulnerable to joining Boko Haram and address the root causes of conflict and violence.
“This is not a crisis that will be solved with one silver-bullet solution,” says Ouvry. “Both international donors and governments in the region need to respond quickly with short and long-term solutions, such as directing more resources to address immediate needs and developing policies to tackle the underlying causes of the crisis."
"Put simply, the world cannot afford to wait another moment to take action.” Learn more and read our recommendations for the global response ▸
How you can help
- Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to families living in the Lake Chad Basin and around the world.
- Sign the petition. Tell Congress not to cut international aid. Around the world, people are in need of lifesaving assistance — including those affected by famine. We must continue to support them.