Building peace in the minds of men and women

BIOsphere and Heritage of Lake Chad (BIOPALT) project

Cultural and natural landscapes of Lake Chad

Lake Chad is the fourth largest body of water on the African continent and the third largest enclosed lake on the planet. Its main tributaries are the Logone (between Cameroon and Chad), itself a tributary of the Chari (between the Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroon and Sudan), the Komadugu-Yobe (between Niger and Nigeria) and three rivers draining the Borno in Nigeria. The altitude of the lake fluctuates with the seasons, around 280m. The lake itself is shallow, around 3m at the moment.

Lake Chad has the particularity of being covered by hundreds of islands, many of which are permanently or seasonally inhabited.

Surrounded by arid deserts, this wetland represents a center of life that has made the lake one of the most important economic and cultural hubs between sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa for thousands of years. Today, the lake continues to play a major role in the life of the sub-region by producing resources that benefit millions of people and by providing land for asylum and protection to populations fleeing conflict. The lake is part of a very flat landscape, where the mineral colours of sand and earth and the elements of vegetation dominate. The bodies of water between the islands meander in a moving labyrinth of groves of aquatic plants and islets that only the inhabitants of the area can control. Many floodplains surround the lake, they shelter aquatic plants such as papyrus or spirulina but also many animal species including birds, which use these plains as resting places.

UNESCO is supporting Member States in their efforts to inscribe the Lake Chad basin on the World Heritage List, with the organization Craterre, and to identify certain sites that could be established as biosphere reserves: 
World Heritage refers to a group of cultural and natural properties of outstanding interest to the common heritage of humanity. 
A biosphere reserve is a site designated by UNESCO as a model region that combines biodiversity conservation, research and sustainable development.


Young girl spreading spirulina to dry. Chad. @Sébastien Moriset

Fishing on the lake

Fishing is the most visible activity on the lake. It is almost entirely practiced by native fishermen on their canoes following traditional practices.
It is a source of income that contributes to poverty reduction. Fishing and fish processing create many jobs and generate significant income for local communities. Lake Chad fish is sold in all riparian countries and makes an important contribution to the food security of lake populations and urban centres in the region.
Within the framework of the BIOPALT project, UNESCO and its partners are implementing a pilot action to restore a spawning ground that will increase fish production and help to make fishing more sustainable.

Fishing is also a vector of social cohesion. Collective fishing takes place over several days during the hot season (March-May). Fishing demonstrations sometimes also accompany weddings and religious holidays. According to fishermen, fishing can only be done in silence because spirits do not like noise and they hunt fish.

Spirulina, a tradition from Lake Chad

Women harvest spirulina, an edible seaweed rich in minerals and proteins, increasingly recognized around the world for its detoxifying and nutritional properties.
Harvested mainly in the Kanem and Lake Chad regions, spirulina grows in the water bodies of oases (wadi) around the lake. The water from the ponds is collected in iron containers and poured into a spherical tank in the sand. This filters the water and leaves algae deposits. These deposits are then poured into the sand in the shape of a 2cm wafer and left to dry in the sun. The patties are then cut into pieces and the sand is removed. They are sold on the market or exported to neighbouring countries.
Spirulina is a plant rich in protein (60 to 70% of dry matter). In comparison, 15g of spirulina contains as much protein as 100g of beef.
These values make spirulina a particularly interesting food to fight malnutrition.

UNESCO is supporting local populations in their green economy projects concerning algae production and in an ecological restoration project.
The Organization has also produced a documentary that traces the history of spirulina, from its discovery in the Lake Chad basin to its use today and highlights the challenges of its sustainable conservation.

Beliefs of the lake

Among the faiths existing around the lake, the geniuses are particularly linked to the lake and its waters : a multitude of fantastic creatures that inhabit the waters of the lake and exercise their power over the inhabitants. Each village would have one and each spirit has its own form: giant snake, human figure, element of nature, etc.

Chari Kandra is a sacred tree that has grown in place of a human grave on an island. Eating its leaves kills, cutting its branches brings problems. To obtain its protection, it must be offered food such as flour, eggs or butter.

Kiam Karram is a stone that has the power to move and hide, even under the surface of the water. If an animal or a human approaches it, it dies. One can ask for protection by offering butter and milk.

Ngamaram, half human half fish, is both male and female. It protects the inhabitants of the lake who worship it and only attacks foreigners who do not respect it. The inhabitants make offerings to it and bury them. Everyone can have their own practices to respect it.



Market in Goulfey, Presentation of the crafts from the crafting association. Cameroon. @Sébastien Moriset

Herding on lake shores

ivestock farming is the second main economic activity on the shores of the lake. Water, "fadamas" and "yayi" or floodplains with their abundant pasture represent an opportunity for livestock farmers during flood periods. The main species reared are camels, cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys and poultry. The Kouri cow and the zebu Bororo called "Djafan", are the two endemic species of the region, subservient to the lake.
The Kouri cow is a breed that does not allow large migrations like the other breeds in the region, but is perfectly adapted to this lake environment where grazing is difficult. It feeds on agricultural residues or vegetation growing in water. It is common to see herds half submerged in swampy areas or reed beds.

Agriculture on the lake shores and islands

The lake's agriculture is based on the floodplains found on the shores of the lake and on the shores of some islands. This flood recession agriculture is used to grow maize, sorghum and cowpea. The existence of regulations concerning water management at the State level and the equitable sharing of water resources limit conflicts of use. The use of organic fertilizers, biopesticides and the persistence of traditional knowledge are elements of sustainable, non-polluting agriculture.

Lake crafts

The lake's populations use the available natural resources to make everyday objects. Soil, wood, water, fibres are used to build shelters, build houses, shape pottery, boats, traps, baskets. The items are also sold in local markets. There are baskets for cleaning cereals, or poultry baskets, but also large pottery to keep the water fresh or small pearls or net weights for fishermen.


migratory birds mid flight above the lake shores. Cameroon. @Mahamat Aboukar

The biological diversity of the Lake Chad area is due to the fact that it is part of three different ecoregions: the Lake Chad Flooded Savannah Ecoregion, the Sahelian Acacia Savannah Ecoregion and the Western Sudanese Savannah Ecoregion.

A major site for migratory birds

Of the three major Sahelian hydrosystems (Senegal Delta, Central Niger Delta and Lake Chad), Lake Chad is home to the largest bird populations. The lake is a major site for migratory waterbirds from Europe and Asia. At least 70 species of birds stop over there each year. Afro-tropical species are also found there. In addition, the Lake Chad basin is the refuge of all West African vulture species.
Three species belonging to this site are classified as near-threatened in the IUCN Red List (2018) and one species is classified as vulnerable.

A variety of medium and large mammals

There are 44 species of large and medium-sized mammals in the Lake Chad area, including an elephant population. The elephant occupies a central place in the savannah. He is an architect of landscapes and disseminates plant species. It therefore allows ecosystems to be maintained and reduces their vulnerability
The Lake Chad area is home to 4 species of large and medium-sized vulnerable mammals, including the African savannah elephant and amphibious hippopotamus, as well as 3 species of large and medium-sized mammals that are almost extinct. For example, the sitatunga (or water gib, antelope) is considered extinct in Niger. However, a declining population is still present in Nigeria

Lake species, threatened existences

The study of fish is a mirror of the lake's variability. The presence of fish in the lake and the places where they are found depend on the water level in the northern and southern basins and therefore on the resulting ecological conditions (oxygen, vegetation, etc.).
120 to 140 fish species are identified in Lake Chad and its tributaries. The fishing production potential is estimated at 150,000 tonnes. Nevertheless, many species are threatened by overexploitation of populations due to the use of increasingly smaller mesh nets, thus preventing the regeneration of the species.

Plants, a significant element

The climate of the area induces low savannah vegetation that is concentrated on the shores of the islands and the shores of the lake. The most common trees on the islands of the lake are the prosopis or the date palm. 
Usually considered as an invasive species, the prosopis is exploited by Fulani herders and other actors and constitutes a significant source of income through the marketing of firewood, fuelwood and coal.
Two potentially invasive species such as Typha or water hyacinth are listed but they do not pose a threat at this time.