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Progress report: Refugees and the environment

Executive Committee Meetings

Progress report: Refugees and the environment

6 January 1997

6 January 1997

6th Meeting


1. At the forty-sixth session of the Executive Committee in 1995, a reformulated UNHCR policy on refugees and the environment was approved (A/AC.96/860, para. 25 ); the Executive Committee also requested the High Commissioner to revise UNHCR's interim guidelines on the environment to reflect the reformulated policy. This progress report, in accordance with the Executive Committee's request, reviews various initiatives taken to implement this policy. It reviews, in particular, the UNHCR Environmental Guidelines which were published in June 1996. The conference room paper also discusses some general environmental protection measures taken by UNHCR, including institutional strengthening and further development of expertise in environmental matters, it also touches on the financial aspects of UNHCR's environmental activities.


2. In late 1995, an Environmental Coordination Group (ECG) was established within UNHCR to promote, in a more coordinated and comprehensive manner, the Office's policy on the environment. The ECG consists of some 15 UNHCR staff drawn from various services at Headquarters. One of the ECG's first tasks was the preparation of the UNHCR Environmental Guidelines, which were based on the earlier interim environmental guidelines.

A. Main Features of the UNHCR Environmental Guidelines

3. The Guidelines are based on four basic environmental principles, which are derived from UNHCR's past and on-going experience with environmental projects in the field:

(i) the need for an integrated approach;

(ii) the premise that prevention is better than cure;

(iii) the need to maximize cost-effectiveness and overall benefits; and

(iv) the promotion of refugee and local community participation (See Annex I).

4. In addition, the Guidelines highlight two operational principles aimed at translating the above-mentioned four environmental principles into concrete action in the field. These two operational principles are financial integration and effective coordination (see Annex II). The Guidelines conclude with a series of observations related to environmental activities. First, a range of general measures relevant to all phases of refugee operations are noted (see Guidelines, para. 5.1). These measures are aimed at enhancing the institutional capacity of UNHCR for its environmental work. Next, issues related to the different phases of refugee operations - the emergency phase; the care-and-maintenance phase; and the durable solutions phase - are considered (see Guidelines, paras. 5.2-5.4). Finally, the Guidelines (para.5.5) address a number of technical concerns relating to various sectors (water, food, health, sanitation, domestic energy, forestry, etc.).

1. General Measures

5. The Guidelines point out that there are a number of environment-related measures that UNHCR should take, which are of a general nature and applicable to all phases of refugee assistance programmes, and whose purpose is to provide a common technical and institutional basis for more comprehensive environmental interventions. They also are intended to achieve consistency among sectoral activities. In a sense, these general measures constitute a basic framework within which UNHCR may approach environmental matters in a consistent and scientific way; they are also a work-plan. Among the measures highlighted in the Guidelines for action, the following might be noted:

(a) Modifications of sectoral guidelines: environmental concerns should be incorporated into sectoral guidelines/manuals, in line with established UNHCR environmental policies. Sectoral guidelines to be modified include those dealing with domestic energy, agriculture, livestock/animal husbandry and forestry.

(b) Promotion of environmentally friendly procurement: procurement is a vital component of refugee assistance operations and its rules and practices must be in line with environmental provisions incorporated into other UNHCR activities. Environmentally responsible procurement practices would include, for instance, avoiding the use of internationally prohibited chemicals and promoting the use of recycled paper. Support should be provided for similar programmes at the national level.

(c) Promotion of environmentally friendly technologies: UNHCR's basic approach is to apply existing technologies to actual refugee situations, and, rather than develop new technologies themselves, it encourages the introduction and testing of environmentally friendly technologies in the field (see paragraph 13).

(d) Upgrading of the environmental data base: the availability of accurate and up-to-date information is essential if environmentally sound decisions are to be made during UNHCR field operations. Investment in creating and upgrading a suitable environmental information system can quickly lead to better decisions. UNHCR's environmental information system should be geared to all phases of refugee assistance operations.

(e) Environmental training: training of UNHCR staff in planning, programming, supervision and monitoring of environment-related activities must complement other activities.

(i) Training of emergency team staff should include basic environmental principles and issues arising during the emergency phase, such as refugee camp site selection and design.

(ii) A training programme for field and headquarters staff would have the major objective of sensitizing them to the ways in which environmental concerns could be incorporated into their work. These training courses should be extended to UNHCR's implementing partners.

2. Sectoral Activities

6. The Guidelines also elaborate various environmental measures in relation to various sectors. For example, they stress that attention must be given to:

(i) the carrying capacity of the local environment and the protection of environmentally sensitive areas in site selection and camp planning;

(ii) protection of water sources and storage facilities from pollution;

(iii) proper disposal of human excreta, waste water and hazardous waste;

(iv) promotion of energy-saving stoves, community-based grinding, energy-saving cooking methods, etc.;

(v) facilitation of multi-household cooking;

(vi) economic and educational programmes designed to reduce fuelwood collection;

(vii) promotion of alternative fuels;

(viii) controlled fuel wood harvesting;

(ix) reforestation;

(x) promotion of sustainable farming methods;

(xi) promotion of refugees' participation in environmental projects;

(xii) promotion of various forms of environmental education;

(xiii) promotion of environmentally sound income-generation activities.

7. These measures are to be introduced in harmony with each other, according to local conditions, both physical and socio-economic.

B. Progress in the Implementation of the Guidelines

8. The following paragraphs set out a range of initiatives taken by UNHCR to implement UNHCR's environmental policy and guidelines.

1. Research, Promotional and Training Activities

9. In April 1996, UNHCR, together with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Refugee Policy Group (an NGO based in the United States), organized an international symposium near Geneva on "Environmentally Induced Population Displacements and Environmental Impacts Resulting from Mass Migrations". Some 60 experts participated, drawn from governmental, intergovernmental, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions. The proceedings of the symposium have been published and include a "Statement of Principles" which sets out a framework for action to prevent and mitigate environmentally induced population displacement and to address the negative environmental consequences of mass migration.

10. In July 1996, a Regional Workshop on Refugees and the Environment in Africa was held in Dar es Salaam. The workshop brought together 18 UNHCR staff from 14 countries, as well as a few professionals from UNHCR's most active partners in environmental matters, host Governments and donor agencies. It focused on three important topics: sustainable household energy supply, participation in environmental management, and integrated and cost-effective environmental planning. The workshop produced specific recommendations concerning these key areas.

11. A major project was initiated in December 1996 to develop training materials for UNHCR and partner-staff, with the aim of promoting sustainable environmental management practices in refugee-hosting areas. The ultimate objective of the project will be more systematic and consistent environmental management policies. In the past, programmes to deal with the potential negative environmental impact of refugee settlements have often been fragmented and reactive, with insufficient emphasis on learning from past experience. The project will have the following components:

(i) critical analysis and interpretation of past and ongoing refugee-assistance operations, through case studies of selected topics in environmental management of refugee hosting areas; this analysis includes the development of a database of environmental projects, and an in-depth analysis of key topics in the field;

(ii) translation of findings from the case studies into training materials, and

(iii) training of UNHCR staff and collaborating organizations; training materials and programmes, (giving examples of good and bad practice), will be incorporated into UNHCR's existing training programmes;

12. A number of major organizations concerned with refugee-related environmental matters are involved in the project through participation in the steering committee and workshops. The development of more systematic environmental management policies hopefully will reinforce coordination among organizations involved in refugee matters.

2. Data Bases

13. The availability of accurate and up-to-date information is essential if environmentally sound decisions are to be made during UNHCR field operations. With this in mind, a geographical information system (GIS) environmental database was initiated at Headquarters in February 1994. This computerized database is continually updated, and includes worldwide geographical locations of refugee camps, numbers of refugees and main environmental parameters (such as topography, hydrology, vegetation and forest cover and protected areas) surrounding these camps. The information is supplemented with global positioning systems (GPS) used by UNHCR staff, and satellite imagery from which accurate, up-to-date maps can be produced. The environmental database and associated tools of GIS and GPS have been introduced in several countries for different types of UNHCR operations, including repatriation and durable solutions in Rwanda, contingency planning in the United Republic of Tanzania and Nepal, and monitoring deforestation in Zaire and the United Republic of Tanzania using satellite imagery. The GIS and satellite imagery are also used for important non-environmental activities including, most recently, monitoring refugee movements to assist logistics and planning in the Great Lakes region.

3. Sectoral Guidelines

14. As noted above, the UNHCR Environmental Guidelines are to be supplemented by related sectoral guidelines dealing with energy, agriculture, livestock and forestry. Drafts of some sectoral guidelines were prepared in 1996. These include: Forestry Guidelines for Refugee Situations; Domestic Energy Guidelines for Refugee Situations; Livestock Guidelines for Refugee Situations; Environmental Guidelines for Refugee Agriculture.

4. Procurement

15. Procurement is a major element in UNHCR's activities. The environmental effects of the goods UNHCR supplies could be considerable, with potential negative effects on refugee camps and surrounding areas, as well as on the wider global environment. As an environmentally responsible organization, UNHCR has started exploring ways to integrate environmental concerns into procurement practices, without compromising the quality of what is bought. Work is now being done to develop environmentally friendlier procurement guidelines, focusing on some environmentally important items such as recycled paper, pesticides, potentially harmful chemicals and cooking utensils. A draft text of the UNHCR Guidelines on Environmentally Friendlier Procurement has been prepared.

5. Appropriate Environmental Technologies

16. UNHCR's basic approach is to apply existing technologies to actual refugee situations, including encouraging the introduction and testing (rather than development) of new technologies in the field. A number of new environmental technologies are being assessed for their applicability to refugee situations, including:

(i) solar cooking: a comprehensive review of literature on the experience of UNHCR and its partners with solar cookers was conducted. A two year solar cooking programme in Kenya was appraised; further field testing of the technology will be undertaken in Ethiopia. This research indicates that solar cookers may be appropriate in certain conditions, such as in a climate ensuring sufficient sunny days or in places where fuelwood is scarce or where there are no alternative sources of cooking fuels. Some degree of openness to new cooking techniques is also necessary;

(ii) grass burners: preliminary observation of acceptance of grass burners in refugee settlements is underway;

(iii) biogas: field testing of biogas for cooking fuel will be carried out in 1997 in camps in Nepal;

(iv) paper poles as building materials and support for plastic sheeting: currently, plastic sheeting is delivered to refugees without support materials, which has led refugees to use wood from forests near camps as building materials. Paper poles have been analyzed for technical feasibility. Field testing for cultural acceptability, and appropriateness for use as building materials in refugee situations, will be carried out in 1997.

6. Country Projects

17. Environmental projects, with the support of Governments, bilateral aid agencies, inter-governmental bodies, non-governmental organizations and other United Nations agencies (UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, International Fund for Agricultural Development), have been initiated and reinforced in a number of countries.

18. In the Great Lakes Region of Africa, activities include establishment of tree nurseries, reforestation, provision of fuel-efficient stoves, promotion of alternative fuels, provision of firewood, policing of protected areas, and environmental education and campaigns. An effort has been made by UNHCR and UNDP to launch comprehensive environmental rehabilitation in the region.

19. In Kenya, the second phase of environmental operations (RESCUE II) started in Dadaab camp. In Uganda, a set of environmental projects have started with the aim of achieving sustainable use of natural resources in refugee settlements. A new multi-year environmental project has started in Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire to address deforestation problems which were aggravated because of the refugees' presence. In Malawi, a modest environmental project was resumed in an effort to rehabilitate forests damaged by Mozambican refugees. An environmental project to protect forest areas around a refugee camp continues in Nepal. In Pakistan, the large scale environmental rehabilitation project initiated and promoted by UNHCR and the World Bank was concluded and evaluated at the end of 1996.

20. In the United Republic of Tanzania, a project for the development of a sustainable domestic energy policy for refugee affected areas has been conducted. Major findings include:

(i) free fuelwood provision may not necessarily be effective in reducing refugees' firewood consumption;

(ii) environmentally sound technologies should be introduced under the right socio-economic conditions; and

(iii) socio-economic conditions to reinforce refugees' environmental rehabilitation efforts should be fostered. These lessons are being reflected in the development of projects to address emerging environmental needs in the Kagera and Kigoma regions in the United Republic of Tanzania, as well as other countries in the Great Lakes region. Environmental planning exercises are being initiated also in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.

8. Model projects

21. A number of projects have been initiated as "model" or pilot projects, in which one of the aims is to assess the feasibility and scope of the environmental activity and its broader applicability.

22. Refugee environmental education and awareness raising projects have been carried out in a number of countries. In Kenya, an education project to enhance environmental awareness amongst teachers, children and part of the adult population started in February 1996. It is implemented in collaboration with UNESCO and other organizations working in refugee camps in Kenya. This produced three sets of curriculum materials which were tested in teacher training sessions held in August. Similar environmental education projects are being planned and initiated in Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

23. In Kyrgyzstan, consideration has been given to the way in which environmental health issues arising from industrial development should be dealt with, and an investigation was conducted into possible mercury contamination in a refugee settlement located near a mercury mine.

24. Finally, discussion is underway in a number of countries to introduce some new approaches to environmental problems, for example, social forestry (greater refugee control in forest management) and commoditization of firewood.

C. Financial Considerations

25. The Environmental Guidelines set out the broad principles for the funding of refugee-related environmental projects (see Annex II, Financial Integration). With UNHCR's current financial systems, it is difficult to obtain a comprehensive picture of resources spent by UNHCR on environmental projects; it is even more difficult to track the resources directly invested by intergovernmental, governmental and non-governmental bodies on such projects. The UNHCR Environmental Guidelines propose some steps to address this problem. It is also hoped that the new systems to be developed in the framework of the implementation of the Project Delphi recommendations will enable UNHCR to have a more complete picture of UNHCR funds dedicated to projects related to environmental protection

26. UNHCR's current Financial Management Information Systems records information about the following environment-related sectors: supplies and logistics; physical planning; water; sanitation; food; domestic energy; forestry; agriculture; livestock; community services/education; income-generation. With the exception of the forestry sector, all cover a range of activities, only some of which could be considered environmental. It is for this reason that it has been difficult to obtain a complete picture of UNHCR expenditure on environmental activities. In the Guidelines (see Appendix 1), a core list of environment-related activities, grouped according to sector, has been compiled. Other environment-related activities which cannot be readily assigned to a specific sector have been grouped as "common environmental activities", for example, the preparation of an environmental master-plan. This categorization will provide the basis for annual statistical and financial reporting of environmental expenditure. Responsibility for collecting this data falls to branch offices, while the office of the Senior Coordinator for Environmental Affairs has the responsibility for processing it.


27. UNHCR involvement in environmental activities is very much a collaborative effort. Coordination with other actors, in particular national Governments and development agencies, on UNHCR's new environmental policies and initiatives is essential to achieve effective and consistent environmental actions which will have a sustainable impact.

Basic Environmental Principles

The UNHCR Environmental Guidelines are built on four basic environmental principles:

(a) Integrated approach: environmental actions constitute an integral part of refugee assistance operations, and thus should not be considered in isolation. Environmental issues should be considered at all levels and in all sectors of UNHCR's activities. To do this, the decision-making processes should be modified to achieve and institutionalize progressive integration of environmental factors.

(b) Prevention before cure: preventive measures should be the norm rather than the exception. Some environmental impacts, such as those upon health and biodiversity, are irreversible. Thus, once damage is done, it can never be reversed. Furthermore, preventive measures are usually less expensive than curative ones. The preventive approach requires more emphasis on environmentally sound planning and measures in the early stages of refugee assistance operations.

(c) Cost-effectiveness and overall benefit maximization: an approach based on cost-effectiveness is essential to maximize the use of whatever resources are available for addressing environmental problems in the field. The extent to which environmental measures should be introduced in the field is to be determined in such a way as to maximize the net benefits of the projects to all concerned parties. In this analysis, environmental costs and benefits have to be quantified as accurately as possible so that environmental values are properly taken into account.

(d) Local participation: environmental problems are best handled with the participation of all actors concerned. For field operations, participation of the beneficiaries as well as of the local populations in setting objectives, planning, and implementing activities is considered crucial to making environmental measures sustainable. Particular attention has to be given to poor and vulnerable persons, refugee women and refugee children, who suffer disproportionately from refugee-related environmental problems.

Operational Principles

The Guidelines focus on two operational principles:

(a) Financial integration: all environment-related action required during the emergency and care and maintenance phases should be an integral part of UNHCR's response, and budgeted under Special or General Progammes, as applicable. This is essential to ensure consistent environmental damage prevention and limitation in the field. Other environmental requirements, such as rehabilitation, would receive limited UNHCR funding, under Special Programmes, and be covered by special consolidated appeals, or by other bilateral or multilateral development funding sources.

(b) Role of actors concerned: the role of actors in addressing environmental concerns specific to refugee situations should be defined according to their relationship to environmental problems linked to refugees, and to resources they may contribute to those problems. Host Governments and UNHCR should take leading roles; refugees and local populations as well as local government official sand local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should be involved in environmental planning and projects; coordination with and assistance from other United Nations agencies and international NGOs should be promoted; and, in cases where environmental damage is extensive, both multilateral and bilateral development agencies should be involved.