Around 11,000 people fleeing clashes between herders and fishermen in northern Cameroon arrived in neighbouring Chad at the weekend, a provincial governor in Chad said on Monday. About 20 people have been killed in what officials say is Cameroon’s worst ethnic violence in recent memory. Clashes broke out last week between fishermen and herders from different ethnic groups over a dispute about holes the fishermen dug in the ground. “Yesterday, our social services received nearly 11,000 refugees who came with almost nothing. They don’t have bedding, a change of clothes or food,” Gayang Souare, the governor of Chari Baguirmi province in northwestern Chad, told Reuters. “There are wounded among them who require immediate medical care and children who are without their parents,” he said, adding that local capacity to provide for the refugees was quickly being overwhelmed. The violence in Cameroon’s Far North region is taking place in a zone where the army has for years been battling Boko Haram and, more recently, militants linked to Islamic State. Local officials say it is the worst ethnic violence they have seen, with one of the reasons being that residents have acquired weapons in recent years in response to insecurity caused by Boko Haram and local bandits.

As is often the case with issues of this nature, the underlying cause is rarely ever addressed as we have seen in countries grappling with similar conflicts. Ethnic clashes of this kind are rare in Cameroon; however, it is more common in neighbouring Chad and Nigeria – particularly in this context of sedentary farmers and semi-nomadic herders. It comes as no surprise that the already volatile north of Cameroon that is plagued with violence from Boko Haram now faces a similar ethno-religious clash as we see in northern Nigeria between herders and farmers.

With the inflow of light weapons, which communities and vigilante groups now use to protect themselves from attacks, it is easy to see how this can quickly escalate. Notwithstanding, the underlying issue here is that the region is dealing with the emerging consequences of climate change. Northern Cameroon shares a similar climatic dynamic with Northern Nigeria and Chad. This implies that it faces the same struggle for ever scarcer resources owing to growing desertification, the wilting of the region’s rivers and lakes and unpredictable and changing rainfall patterns.

In this case, fishers from the Mousgoum ethnic group built dams and holes to divert water flow to boost fish catches; an act which was seen as an affront by ethnic Arab Choa herders, who in watering their livestock, reported them constantly falling into ground holes dug by the fishers. This was enough to trigger the carnage that has now left close to 11,000 people displaced. To resolve these types of confrontations between local communities and nomadic herders in Cameroon, Chad or Nigeria, systems thinking approach is imperative.

The causes and effects of climate change and adapting cattle rearing as well as fishing methods and techniques to account for these have to be reckoned with. Cameroon currently faces a myriad of issues from secessionist-provoked violence to Islamist insurgencies in its Northern region and now communal clashes. Allowing another fissure point to fester into outright conflict is the last thing Central Africa’s biggest economy.