For thousands of years, Lake Tanganyika was an exquisite sight that soothed and supported generations of Congolese people. Those living by its shores in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have snoozed in hammocks under the tropical sun, watching their children splash in Africa’s oldest, deepest and longest lake. In the evenings, when boats head out for fishing trips, local people would light campfires on the beaches to fry their catch and dance to rumba.
But in the past two months, storms, torrential rain and flooding have killed at least 13 people and destroyed 4,240 homes and 112 schools along the DRC’s Lake Tanganyika coast. In less than a generation, the stretch from Uvira to Moba, 250 miles long, has become a place of catastrophe for the local people, who are dependent on the lake for food, trade, transport and their livelihood.
When I’m asked about the issues facing people in the DRC, I point to violence, the use of rape as a weapon of war, the Rwandan president Paul Kagame, mass displacement and hunger; all of which are fuelled by impunity and now a new killer: the climate crisis. Floods and storms in a tropical country such as the DRC are natural. The problem is that storms and exceptional tides lapping metres high that used to occur once a decade are now frequent events.
As global temperatures rise, torrential rains have steadily increased, even during the dry season, while deforestation in the DRC – a byproduct of poverty and violence – is affecting the entire Congo basin ecosystem with flooding and erosion.
A warmer, more erratic lake is flooding homes, destroying schools, ruining crops and, significantly for a country with 27 million people suffering from acute hunger, decreasing yields of fish and crops. This pushes up food prices in one of the world’s poorest countries, which is ranked 175th out of 189 on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index.
Since mid-April, 72,080 Congolese people have been displaced, according to the UN. What if global temperatures are allowed to rise by 3C above pre-industrial levels by 2100? Given that the DRC is home to more than half of Africa’s lakes and rivers, the consequences of doing nothing for the fast-growing population in coastal regions are unthinkable.
This is a global, regional and local crisis that we cannot ignore. Located in the western branch of the great African Rift Valley, and shared with Tanzania, Zambia and Burundi, with the DRC possessing almost half of the 1,136-mile-long coastline, Lake Tanganyika is home to about 17% of the Earth’s available surface fresh water and a hotspot for biodiversity dating back 10m years.
Scientists say the lake is home to more than 840 aquatic plant and 1,318 animal species, including almost 300 species of fish found nowhere else in the world. Up to 200,000 tonnes of fish are caught in the lake annually – so a major source of protein for millions of people in the region is at risk from rising water temperatures.
Put simply, the lake’s value to local people – and in the fight for global climate justice – is difficult to overstate. Despite this, the world’s attention remains elsewhere. Tens of thousands of Congolese displaced by the climate crisis are already living in makeshift camps without security or running water.
What aggravates the situation is the violence, fuelled by impunity, which has killed more than 5.4 million Congolese and continues to leave millions displaced and facing acute hunger. This only amplifies reliance on the lake and the forests that surround it – which cover 107m hectares of land and store 8% of the world’s forest carbon – for food, survival and income.
Solutions are possible. On a global level, we urgently need a commitment on ending carbon emissions. At a regional level, the DRC needs an immediate and massive reforestation programme to stop soil erosion and flooding. If nothing is done, the Congolese people could face a much more turbulent and deadly future.