The Country Most Vulnerable to Climate Change Fights Back

Why you should care

The landlocked country is on the front lines of the battle against global warming.  

Geo facts & figures
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This OZY original series takes you to the New Frontiers of Climate Change, where some of the most vulnerable nations are coming up with the most innovative solutions.

Think of movies about climate change, and you likely imagine giant waves sweeping coastal metropolises from New York to Shanghai. But while island nations — such as the Pacific Islands and Haiti — and coastal cities risk devastation caused by global warming, there’s a country that’s even more vulnerable. The good news? It’s fighting back and offering lessons to others.

Chad won’t drown. But a combination of extreme poverty, a large refugee population and decreasing rainfall in the agriculture-dependent society mean that short of being physically wiped out, the central African nation could suffer even more from shifting climatic conditions than oceanic countries. According to a 2016 study by British global risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft: 

Landlocked Chad is the country most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

The study shows its safety level on a scale of 10 is a mere 0.11 — twice as bad as the next most vulnerable nation, low-lying Bangladesh, at 0.25. (Norway is least vulnerable, with a score of 9.96.) Indeed, Chad’s challenges are immense. Almost 87 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to Oxford University’s Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, which means any food shortages or loss of employment equals disaster. The country is caring for 300,000 refugees from Darfur and another 67,000 from the Central African Republic, adding pressures on systems already brittle from successive civil wars (the country has been embattled for 35 out of its 58 years of independence).

Traditionally, savanna roamed by nomadic pastoralists has dominated Chad’s landscape. But as the country’s population has grown to 14.5 million, so has agriculture. Satellite images show farmland replacing savanna at a rate of 5 percent per year — among the fastest in Africa, and it’s accelerating deforestation, says Hakim Abdi, a researcher at Sweden’s Lund University who has worked on Chad’s climate change challenge. Woodlands in the country’s south have shrunk by 30 percent over the past four decades.

The best people to develop mitigation and resilience to climate change are the people living in [vulnerable] countries.

Hakim Abdi, researcher, Lund University

This growing dependence on agriculture has coincided with rainfall that has decreased sharply over the past two decades, according to research by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The GIZ, Germany’s international aid agency, in a study for an ongoing project in Chad, found that rain-fed farming accounted for the bulk of agricultural production in its research zone, making it particularly vulnerable to climate change and climate variation. Less rain has meant greater demands on Lake Chad, the giant body of water that for centuries has served as the region’s lifeline (it has lost 90 percent of its volume since the 1960s).

But Chad is battling back. Through a development plan called Vision 2030, it is securing international funding for projects aimed at reducing the country’s dependence on traditional water sources. And it’s sharing best practices with other West African nations to collectively revive Lake Chad.


In a technologically driven world that constantly turns to Silicon Valley for answers, it’s easy to overlook solutions that have worked for generations and could be further improved, notes Abdi. “The best people to develop mitigation and resilience to climate change are the people living in [vulnerable] countries,” he says.

One prime Chadian example: Across the country’s semiarid Sahel — the broad strip of Africa between the Sahara and the tropical savanna — farmers are increasingly turning to Zaï, a traditional tactic that uses water more efficiently than modern practices, says Abdi. Farmers dig pits to catch water and then add compost and manure to attract termites that then burrow even deeper, allowing nutrients and water to seep into the subsoil. Studies show Zaï significantly enhances crop yields with less rain than other irrigation methods.

The country is also partnering with the Nairobi-headquartered World Agroforestry Centre to encourage farmers to adopt agroforestry — growing crops and trees on the same land. The practice has also been shown to increase harvests. 

On the energy front, Chad seems to be moving simultaneously in opposite directions. In July 2017, the country secured a loan from the African Development Bank to build a 32-megawatt solar plant near N’Djamena, the capital, as well as an electrical grid linking it to Cameroon. However, oil was discovered in Chad in 2003, along with natural gas (the country’s proven natural gas reserves have grown to nearly 1 trillion cubic meters — impressive-sounding, but still far behind Nigeria’s 182 trillion).

Other geologic good news includes deposits of gold, silver, salt and limestone to boost revenues and, ultimately, it’s hoped, economic and environmental resilience. There’s an irony, says Abdi, in a country that may end up using fossil fuels to battle climate change. But the strategy is unavoidable, he adds, because Chad needs to build a strong economic foundation to reduce dependence on agriculture, which is most vulnerable to global warming.

The odds are stacked against Chad. But its mix of resistance strategies offers lessons to others to avoid one-size-fits-all solutions, says Abdi, who gives Chad an outside shot at success. “I think there is a real opportunity here.”

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