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Fatime Owye and her mother, Halime Djime, who travelled 700 kilometres to take the girl to the hospital for emergency care. Fatime's father, who owned a small herd of camels, left the family three years ago in search of work when the climate became too harsh for the camels. (Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail/Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail)
Fatime Owye and her mother, Halime Djime, who travelled 700 kilometres to take the girl to the hospital for emergency care. Fatime's father, who owned a small herd of camels, left the family three years ago in search of work when the climate became too harsh for the camels. (Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail/Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail)

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On the move in a warming world: The rise of climate refugees Add to ...

This year, the village suffered a perverse twist of fate. When everyone had given up on the rains, suddenly there were torrential storms, more rainfall than the village had seen in many years. But the farmers gained nothing. They had not gambled on the cost of seeding their fields. "We weren't expecting any rain, so I didn't plant anything," Mr. Goukouni said.

In the region around his village, farmers need 400 millimetres of rain annually to produce a crop. Over the past four years, rainfall has varied from 135 millimetres to 358 millimetres - not enough to sustain a harvest. And much of the rainfall is produced in torrential storms that cause more damage than benefit.

In the nearby town of Mao, the strange combination of drought and sudden torrential rain has had an unexpected result: huge fast-growing ravines that threaten to swallow up the town. This year alone, 350 houses were destroyed by the eroding sand, which also threatens to destroy a local school and the local airport. Sandbags and concrete walls have failed to hold back the rapid growth of the ravines.

A couple of hundred kilometres to the south, fishermen and farmers have been devastated by the dramatic disappearance of Lake Chad, one of the biggest lakes in Africa. The lake, shared by four countries, has lost 95 per cent of its size since the 1960s, partly because of climate change and partly because of overuse for agricultural irrigation. Experts say it could completely disappear within the next two decades.

Where once the lake had 150 species of fish, only about a dozen species are still alive today. The fish catch has dropped by 60 per cent, and thousands of fishermen have been forced to abandon the lake. From an airplane overhead, the lake is now revealed as a vast collection of shallow inlets and fingers of water, choked with weeds. It's an environmental catastrophe that imperils the 30 million people who depend on the lake, yet it has been virtually ignored by the world.

"When the water was deep, I could just throw out a net and it would fill with fish," says Paul Mbayou, who has been fishing on the lake for 17 years. "I used to get enough to sell in Nigeria. But now the fish are too small."

He takes a boat to check the traditional basket nets that he left in the weeds at the edge of the lake. But most of the nets are empty, and only one has a few tiny fish in it. "Nothing, nothing," he mutters as he checks each net.

The region around Lake Chad was once the breadbasket of the Sahel, but its farmers have seen their crops decline by 40 to 60 per cent in the past decade, as irrigation canals are left dry by the receding lake. Thousands of cattle have died, and the surviving cows are producing less than half as much milk. Even in this former breadbasket region, more than a fifth of the children are acutely malnourished.

The village of Ngambia was built in the 1940s on an island in Lake Chad. Then the lake receded, the village was left stranded in the middle of the desert, and the villagers had to stop fishing. They tried to grow crops, but they could produce only enough to feed their families for a few months of the year. So now the men have moved away in search of work, leaving the women and children behind.

The biggest town on the Chad side of the lake, Bol, has lost more than half of its population since the 1990s. Its mayor, Ahmat Tidjani Boukar, says the men have journeyed to Nigeria or Libya to become labourers or security guards, or have joined the Chadian army. Many of the women, he says, have become prostitutes or beggars.

"The community has always depended on the lake, but now there are no fish," the mayor says. "In the past, we exported fish everywhere. Now, we can't even produce enough for ourselves. It's very likely that people will just keep moving away."

Evidence like this is convincing some experts that the Sahel is becoming uninhabitable. Across most of Africa, average temperatures have been steadily rising for decades, while rainfall has been declining. The Sahel is one of the worst-hit regions. Climate change and human exploitation have left it vulnerable to extreme weather and a destructive cycle of drought and floods.

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