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Conflict, acute food shortages, disease and widespread displacement have conspired to leave millions of people in need of help in Africa’s Lake Chad region.

This dire humanitarian crisis has not happened overnight. Conflict has plagued the region for several years. People in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger are all suffering the consequences.

In total, more than nine million people are in need of help – that’s more people than the combined populations of Scotland and Wales.

Here’s what you need to know about the crisis…

Is this crisis about a lake?

Short answer – no.

Lake Chad is a large freshwater lake that straddles four countries in Africa: Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger.

It is the people in the region around the lake who are affected by this growing humanitarian crisis.

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What exactly is the crisis about?

This is not a simple situation to explain. There are four main factors that have come together to create the current crisis: conflict, displacement, food shortages and disease.

Since 2009, the north-eastern part of Nigeria has been plagued by conflict, characterised by extreme violence against civilians.

In 2013, the insurgency increased its foothold in neighbouring countries, drawing Cameroon, Chad and Niger into the conflict.

Thousands of people have been killed and many more wounded. The fighting has led to huge levels of displacement – when people have to leave their homes in search of safety.

Sometimes they stay within their country’s borders, in which case they are referred to as ‘internally displaced people’.

Some choose to leave their country altogether, becoming refugees in the process.

Around 2.4 million people have fled their homes due to conflict – this number has tripled over the last two years.

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The vast majority of people who have fled the violence – about 90 per cent – are being sheltered by host communities that are among the poorest in the world.

This has placed huge pressures on already weak infrastructure.

For example, the village of Garin Wanzam, in Niger’s Diffa region, used to have just one well for its 1,500 inhabitants. Its population today has jumped to 30,000.

When you get large numbers of people congregating in places without access to health care and good sanitation – toilets, hand-washing facilities, clean water – then conditions become ripe for disease.

lake-chad-qa-4Health facilities lack basic medicines, while many health workers have had to flee the violence, further disrupting people’s access to health care.

In Nigeria’s Borno state, 41 per cent of health facilities have reportedly been partially or completely destroyed.

But perhaps the biggest concern across the region is food shortages.

A staggering 6.7 million people are facing severe food shortages. More than half a million children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

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The Famine Early Warning Systems Network says food shortages in north-eastern Nigeria are at ‘emergency’ levels in some places.

The next level up is famine.

Why hasn’t there been more media coverage?

This crisis is taking place in an inaccessible corner of Africa. Insecurity means it is difficult to travel to affected areas.

The story about the kidnapped Chibok girls brought the conflict into the international limelight, but there has been scant media attention on the humanitarian need.

Without a public profile, it is hard to attract funding to support relief operations.

The humanitarian response in the region is underfunded and not even close to meeting people’s needs.

It is effectively a ‘silent emergency’. Help us end the silence. 

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So what role is the Red Cross playing?

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one of the few humanitarian organisations able to access communities in each of the four countries.

Over the last year, the ICRC has drastically scaled up its work in the Lake Chad region – its operation there is now its second largest in the world, behind only Syria.

Since the beginning of the year, the Red Cross has distributed food to more than 900,000 people in Nigeria.

Money raised from our emergency appeal will support the ICRC’s relief work.

All images ©MackenzieKnowles-Coursin/ICRC

This blog was updated on 16 May 2017