In 2002, Ray Wilkinson wrote that it was a critical time for the environment. Looking 10 years into the past, he referenced then-High Commissioner Sadako Ogata, who said in 1992 that the “relationship between refugees and the environment has been long overlooked.”
Wilkinson reflected that in the decade since, not much had changed. “Environmental projects are often still regarded as ‘luxuries’ to be implemented only when more urgent matters are attended to,” he wrote then.
Now it is our turn to look back and reflect.
Since that original article was published not much has changed, with the exception that there are twice as many refugees, and the level of environmental destruction has accelerated.
We’re seeing a continuous cycle of conflict in many parts of the world, while simultaneously facing population movements as a product of climate change. Climate change in itself acts as a threat multiplier that impacts a populations’ access to water, food security and livelihood opportunities. These events – while at a shallow glance may seem unconnected – can ultimately fuel or exacerbate geopolitical conflicts that catalyze new waves of displacement.
Megatrends that we are already witnessing today could lead to humanitarian crises of epic proportions. While the true scale of these challenges remains unknown; it is our responsibility to look to the future, to be strategic in our attentiveness to these issues, and to ensure we are prepared as an organization to respond to the possibility much greater needs.
Desertification, rising sea levels, overwhelmed sanitation systems, and polluted or scarce water are likely to force hundreds of thousands more people to migrate. Not only will the international community have to protect and assist them, but it will also have to deal with the subsequent immense environmental pressure on the places they move to.
Out of the 30 countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees, 20 are least developed countries, already struggling to meet their citizens’ needs and protect ecologically sensitive areas.
When refugees transit into a new place they can further aggravate these environments, and in no small way. Thousands of metric tons of forest are cut down every day by people desperate for any kind of cooking or heating fuel. Chatham House reported last year that 80 percent of the 8.7 million refugees and displaced people in camps in Africa have absolutely minimal access to energy, with high dependence on traditional biomass for cooking and no access to electricity.
The environment is not just a refugee-specific issue; refugees are both responding to and exacerbating ongoing environmental catastrophes.
UNHCR Field offices and partners admit they are overwhelmed dealing with energy and environment challenges. Despite our knowledge that a dollar spent on prevention in this sector usually saves us eight or ten times that amount in response, there’s been too little investment in making our camps and our systems environmentally responsible.
I recently visited Tanzania, where UNHCR’s refugee camps are 100 percent reliant on fuel obtained by nearby forests. Hundreds of tons of wood are being consumed every single day. This massive deforestation threatens the stability of the ecosystems on which both refugee and host communities rely for their livelihoods and health. Further, it is not a safe way to provide energy and it certainly isn’t sustainable.
In light of the above, there have been some positive changes since Commissioner Ogata wrote in 1992 and since Wilkinson wrote in 2002. There is now far more global recognition of the urgent need to attend to our environment and the human causes of its degradation.
On UNHCR’s part, we are fully aware of the implications of environmental health and how refugees both affect it and are affected by it.
We know how important it is from a protection perspective that women and children do not have to go in search of wood and that our capacity to provide water and adequate shelter relies on the services provided by local ecosystems. We also recognize that competition with host communities for natural resources is a major source of conflict for many refugees, and a barrier to feeling safe and welcome.
We see that governments in countries where refugees have felled every tree for kilometers around a camp become less welcoming, and less likely to extend local integration as a durable solution. In fact, governments have told us fixing the way refugees interact with the environment in their countries is among their top priorities.
And we are taking important steps to make our projects more responsible and more sustainable. A wood conservation project in Ethiopia taught refugees and locals to construct woodless homes, plant trees and collect dry, fallen wood instead of killing living plants, which they used in fuel-efficient stoves.
A project in Uganda tested a green energy program that created a production facility for energy-saving stoves and biomass briquettes with support from UNHCR and other Safe Access to Fuel and Energy consortium partners.
Additionally, in Rwanda, UNHCR is partnering with a social enterprise based in Kigali to provide refugees and host community members with a safer and environmentally friendly household cooking solution. A recent pilot project showed that a highly efficient micro-gasification stove paired with locally produced pellets from renewable biomass sources can be a cost-effective, sustainable, and affordable option. The project also facilitated the creation of jobs for refugees in pelletizing and retail facilities. These interventions can reduce the exposure of women and children to toxic emissions by up to 98% as well as reduce the amount of wood needed to cook meals by 80-90%.
We are working with the country operation in Jordan and key partners such as the IKEA Foundation, KfW, and the Saudi Development Fund to expand the use of solar energy.
Looking to the future: What a green refugee camp looks like
Of course, there is so much more we could do. UNHCR and partners need to prioritize sustainable energy as well as initiatives linked to waste production, poaching, and land erosion, in order to better protect the environment. We need to ensure that we have the right staff, with sufficient resources to implement programs which both support the refugee and host communities, which in turn strengthens the overall protection environment.
It is a vision of “green” refugee camps, where people do not consume wood in excess of what they grow or can be renewed; where they earn income from restoring vital ecosystem services that were previously faltering. Where trees and shrubs are used for fruit and to stabilize the soil near waterways and prevent erosion.
In this vision of a green refugee camp, people collect water and reuse it, use solar energy and wind turbines instead of diesel generators. Green spaces in the camp provide places with shade and a sense of community. Sanitation facilities are set up smartly, to avoid polluting and even allow waste to be a part of the energy solution.
Community awareness about energy and the environment is effectively disseminated as everyone has connectivity and it is a core module in an enhanced learning environment. Shelters are built to adequately insulate in summer and winter. Where possible, refugees are able to grow products for their own use and sale.
The green refugee camps we envision contribute to a wider environmental strategy, rather than degrading it.
The key to achieving this vision is to understand and support the vision of host governments for how refugees can fit into their national environmental policies. What matters is the vision of host communities who want to reap benefits from the natural world without feeling threatened by competition or left out of new approaches. We need to find ways to allow everyone to recognize that coordinated, serious actions for protecting the environment provide win-win opportunities to meet everyone’s needs now and into the future.
For this to happen, UNHCR needs a holistic policy. Instead of focusing on the river that runs past the refugee camp, let’s look upstream—literally and figuratively. We need to concern ourselves with energy and the environment in a much more complete way: a more serious, sustainable and respectful way.
Supporting our staff to rise to the challenge
There’s a lot of enthusiasm about technology and about innovation. But what would be really innovative would be putting in place sustainable environmental strategies that connect with national strategies, which we would then find financial or development partners to support.
We need to start slowing the rates of environmental harm and start looking to see whether we can use refugee camps as a place to pilot good ideas and introduce best practices that host communities and governments can learn from and adopt. We need to work with refugees, our environmental staff in the field and their partners, in addition to other experts to see if we can start turning the tide from destructive practices to sustainable ones.
At UNHCR Innovation, we strive to help people identify the challenges, the options, and the solutions. We have a role to play in guiding some of these discussions, forging partnerships, enabling pilots and broadening the list of possible answers. We also need to be actively looking towards refugee and host communities, who often have their own appropriate solutions, and find ways to support these from the bottom-up.
UNHCR Innovation is looking for ways to explore waste-to-value options, embed environmental education into curricula, and find innovative funding models with the private sector and test existing energy delivery models such as “pay-as-you-go.”
We want to help refugees, host communities, and governments find ways to restore ecosystems and create mechanisms where displaced people can earn an income through sustainable natural resource management, thus linking environmental and energy issues with livelihoods and community resilience.
We also hope to foster serious conversations with other actors on how to get more dedicated, knowledgeable partners who are as passionate as UNHCR is about getting results on these issues. We need their help getting data about energy needs, consumption and alternatives. We need to work with governments to understand their priorities when it comes to energy replacement. From host country academic institutions to startups to development organizations, we need partners who are genuinely interested in addressing these issues.
For that to happen, UNHCR has to advocate with a stronger voice. We need better baseline data about costs and usage when it comes to energy and the environment—sorely lacking in most circumstances. We need more staff to help get data, strategize, and innovate.
We should not expect huge changes in a year or even several. But at a certain point, we must turn this ship around.
Kofi Annan wrote in the 2015 Chatham House report that the energy costs borne by refugees and humanitarians are “unnecessarily high, whether measured in terms of finance, the environment, health or security.” He said that entrepreneurship and technology, applied systematically, could respond to the needs of the uprooted and their hosts.
“Getting this right could yield significant benefits for humanitarian organizations, host authorities and governments and above all for the livelihoods and dignity of the forcibly displaced.
In another decade, someone else will look back and reflect on this article and how we have evolved as an organization. Let that person conclude, “We got it right.”
Photo Credit: UNHCR/S.Rich
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