Eastern Chad: UNHCR and refugees fight to hold back the desert

News Stories, 21 August 2009

© UNHCR/A.Rehrl
In Amboko refugee camp in southern Chad, UNHCR Environment Officer Amadou Boubacar, centre, explains to colleagues and refugees from Central African Republic how to look after tree seedlings.

ABECHE, Chad , August 21 (UNHCR) Stopping the Sahara desert from steadily taking over eastern Chad's still semi-arid Sahel zone is a major environmental challenge, what some would call a David and Goliath battle.

Chad, one of the driest and hottest countries on earth, celebrated the Day of the Tree on Thursday, the culmination of the Week of the Tree, when its 9.4 million people were encouraged to plant at least one tree each.

During the week, Chadian President Idriss Deby invited UNHCR Representative Stefano Severe and other heads of UN agencies to plant trees together with government officials in the outskirts of the capital, N'Djamena. A similar ceremony was held in eastern Chad's capital, Abeche.

"It was very touching," said UNHCR Deputy Representative Emmanuel Gignac in Abeche. "We all kneeled on the ground together and planted our trees, and afterwards some Chadians approached me and expressed their sincere thanks."

The 320,000 refugees sheltering in Chad were also invited to plant trees, and UNHCR supported the regional reforestation program in Africa's Sahel zone by planting 400,000 trees in eastern Chad this year.

Nature is not a supermarket providing endless supplies. It is rather the responsibility of each and everyone to safeguard the environment for generations to come.

Campaign run by UNHCR's office in Gore, southern Chad

Preparations started back in March when groups of Sudanese refugees in 12 UNHCR-run camps in the east began working in tree nurseries, filling tens of thousands of tiny plastic sachets with sand and earth.

They then planted a baby tree in each sachet, placed them in the shade to protect them from the average 45-50 degrees Celsius heat and watered them carefully for months. Rain is a scarce commodity in eastern Chad, but by August, in the middle of the three-month rainy season, the soil is ready to nurture a plant.

"This year, together with our implementing partners, we will plant 250,000 forest species and 150,000 fruit trees," said Andrea Masini, UNHCR's environmental officer in Abeche. "Together with local authorities we have identified a total of 200 hectares -- equal to the size of 100 football fields -- outside refugee camps, sites for internally displace people (IDPs) and villages for our reforestation program."

Fruit species like lemon, papaya, and mango trees are distributed free to refugees, IDPs and locals to be planted near their homes. Experience in the two-year-old reforestation program showed that trees planted at people's homes have the best chances of survival. Many planted in fields died from lack of water or were eaten by donkeys and cows.

The forest species like acacia and drought-resistant spiny prosopis are planted in reserved areas and will be protected by fences and cared for over a year to improve their chances of survival. Then it will take them three or four years to grow big enough to offer some shade, while fruit species reward their owners with a crop after just two or three years.

While the 250,000 Darfur refugees in eastern Chad suffer extreme climate conditions in the harsh desert, the nearly 70,000 Central African Republic refugees in southern Chad are more blessed by nature. And UNHCR used the Day of the Tree to teach them ways of respecting that environment.

Besides planting seedlings, refugees in the south were encouraged not to cut trees indiscriminately, but to leave one standing every 12 to 15 footsteps when they do need to clear land.

"Nature is not a supermarket providing endless supplies. It is rather the responsibility of each and everyone to safeguard the environment for generations to come," said the campaign run by UNHCR's office in Gore, southern Chad.

By Annette Rehrl
In Abeche, Chad

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Environment

How UNHCR and partners seek to minimize the environmental impact of refugee operations.

Crisis in the Central African Republic

Little has been reported about the humanitarian crisis in the northern part of the Central African Republic (CAR), where at least 295,000 people have been forced out of their homes since mid-2005. An estimated 197,000 are internally displaced, while 98,000 have fled to Chad, Cameroon or Sudan. They are the victims of fighting between rebel groups and government forces.

Many of the internally displaced live in the bush close to their villages. They build shelters from hay, grow vegetables and even start bush schools for their children. But access to clean water and health care remains a huge problem. Many children suffer from diarrhoea and malaria but their parents are too scared to take them to hospitals or clinics for treatment.

Cattle herders in northern CAR are menaced by the zaraguina, bandits who kidnap children for ransom. The villagers must sell off their livestock to pay.

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Battling the Elements in Chad

More than 180,000 Sudanese refugees have fled violence in Sudan's Darfur region, crossing the border to the remote desert of eastern Chad.

It is one of the most inhospitable environments UNHCR has ever had to work in. Vast distances, extremely poor road conditions, scorching daytime temperatures, sandstorms, the scarcity of vegetation and firewood, and severe shortages of drinkable water have been major challenges since the beginning of the operation. Now, heavy seasonal rains are falling, cutting off the few usable roads, flooding areas where refugees had set up makeshift shelters, and delaying the delivery of relief supplies.

Despite the enormous environmental challenges, UNHCR has so far managed to establish nine camps and relocate the vast majority of the refugees who are willing to move from the volatile border.

Battling the Elements in Chad

Chad: Relocation from the Border to Refugee Camps

Since fighting broke out in Sudan's western region of Darfur last year, more than 110,000 Sudanese refugees have fled into Chad. They are scattered along a 600-km stretch of desert borderland under a scorching sun during the day and freezing temperatures during the night.

Access to these refugees in this inhospitable region is difficult. Staff of the UN refugee agency drive for days to locate them. Bombing in the border zone and cross-border raids by militia from Sudan put the refugees at risk and underscore the urgent need to move them to camps in the interior. In addition, the approach of the rainy season in May will make the sandy roads impassable. Aid workers are racing against time in an attempt bring emergency relief to these refugees.

Chad: Relocation from the Border to Refugee Camps

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