Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Environment: Preventing and repairing the damage

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1996

The mitigation of environmental damage is one of the priority items in today's refugee situations. Donors recognize that moderate expenditure can save enormous cost in repairing damaged lands.

The Ethiopian camel and donkey drivers along the dirt road from Jijiga to Hartisheik have a common complaint against the Somali refugees: they have chopped down trees over a wide expanse of eastern Ethiopia's dry savannah.

"They are brothers," says Abdul Abdi Ali, 40, as he heads toward the market in the refugee town of Hartisheik to sell firewood loaded on the backs of his camels. "They have cut down our trees. But we have no personal problems with them."

Since the influx of the Somali refugees in 1988, the areas around their camps have been severely eroded. Now, both refugees and Ethiopians have to travel miles in search of wood for fuel and shelter. The long-term consequences are expected to be costly for the host community, which will bear the burden long after the Somalis are gone.

The situation in eastern Ethiopia is similar to the predicament experienced by other countries caring for large numbers of refugees shrinking forests, poaching in game parks, pollution of water resources and soil erosion.

Environmental damage as a result of refugees' presence has been a major UNHCR concern for years. But the need to address immediate survival needs in emergency refugee situations often overshadowed projects to ease ecological problems in the past.

Donors recognize that moderate expenditure on environmental protection can save enormous costs in rehabilitation of damaged lands after repatriation. For this reason, UNHCR has facilitated activities of its implementing partners to provide some Rwandan refugee camps in the Great Lakes with fuel wood; to distribute fuel-efficient stoves in nine countries, including Kenya, Malawi, Somalia, Uganda and Zimbabwe; and to set up tree-planting programmes in Malawi and Pakistan. The two reforestation programmes, started in the 1980s, have also provided refugees and host communities with jobs.

In 1995, UNHCR issued a policy paper calling for the prevention and mitigation of ecological damage and the integration of efficient measures to deal with it in all levels of refugee operations. The initiatives require the participation of both refugees and host communities. This year, UNHCR released "Environmental Guidelines" to implement the policy, proposing the deployment of experts in the field and the education of both refugees and their host communities on the need to protect their fragile surroundings. Increasing attention is being paid to environmental planning. UNHCR has developed an environmental database at its headquarters in Geneva to support its work worldwide, including such areas as Ethiopia.

The regions around the Somali refugee camps in eastern Ethiopia have always been fragile. Abdi Hashi Abdirahman, 38, who heads the South East Rangelands Project (SERP), says British colonizers had once attempted to make a large part of Hartisheik and its surroundings a game preserve, allowing only limited grazing. So, for years, the sparse vegetation and forest cover was protected.

"Then the refugees came and started to cut down trees and soon there was no forest left," said Abdirahman. "The locals also chopped trees and made charcoal to sell to the refugees."

Abdirahman's office, which is part of the Agriculture Ministry, is promoting tree planting to counteract the ecological damage in the country's eastern region. SERP is heavily funded by the African Development Bank. It has five seedling centres to which UNHCR has contributed $2 million to promote tree planting.

To ease pressure on scarce water sources, UNHCR has been constructing water catchment basins and wells. It is now laying down pipes to bring water from one of its main sources in the region, in the Jerer valley, for the Somali refugee camp at Kebri Beyah that also would benefit the Ethiopians.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)