Refugee influx causing environmental degradation in settlements

todayMarch 8, 2022

By Kennedy Inyakuni

Although Uganda as a country has relaxed its policy to allow refugees to live outside camps, the country also has 48 refugee settlements most of which are in areas that are experiencing the worst forms of environmental degradation. As such a section of environmental protection agencies, ministries and the non-governmental organizations have said the influx of refugees in the country is a key contributor to the environmental degradation.

According to The Report for 2018-2019 conducted by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), soil and water have been polluted in refugee occupied areas and other Forest Reserves face depletion. About 240,000 South Sudanese refugees have been settled at Bidi- Bidi Refugee in Yumbe district covering the Sub Counties of Romogi, Kululu, Odravu, Ariwa and Kochi, which were areas once covered with trees and tall grasses and are currently large empty spaces dotted with young trees. Sand mining and stone quarrying are rife to earning living. Most of this is been blamed on refugees. But district authorities say the environmental degradation was in existence even before the arrival of refugees in 2016. Mr. Habib Edema Hussein a resident of the district said locals were already using the available natural resources for cultivation, charcoal production, timber, firewood in the area even before the influx of refugees. Mr. Muhammad Anule, an elder residing near Bidi-Bidi Refugee Settlement noted that before the coming of refugees, the impact of the destruction was not much felt by locals due to the low population. Whereas, Mr. Patrick Aleko, a refugee who is now trading in tree seedlings at Bidi-Bidi settlement said the problem has been caused by both nationals and refugees. According to him, refugees and nationals compete for wood fuels for cooking, logs and construction materials such as grass.
But Mr. Rashul Mawa Ijoga, the LC III Chairperson of Barakala Town Council that hosts Bidi-bidi Zone One settlement said that business men who deal in timber and logs are the biggest threat to environmental degradation in northern region. “Traders are targeting the old and endangered tree species that have stayed for over 100 years in total disregard to their contribution to the environment. Now look at this issue of stone quarrying, who is majorly involved in its business, the refugees. So we need to do something”, he said.

Currently, Uganda hosts more than 1.5million refugees; majority from South Sudan, DRC, Burundi, Somalia and Rwanda among others, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This makes the east African nation the top refugee-hosting country on the African continent and one of the top five hosting countries in the world besides Turkey and Colombia. According to the environmental protection body NEMA, for instance, of the 48 refugee settlements, only three have ESIA certification. But two certifications were undertaken after establishing the settlements, a situation that restricts monitoring, inspections and related enforcement to post settlement scenarios.

NEMA argues that although all the refugee hosting districts have been able to benefit from the governments interventions through various projects such as the Development Response to Displacement Impact Project (DRDIP), engagement and support to national environment agencies as initially conceived has not yet been realized which has fueled tensions between refugees and nationals for the available natural resources.
NEMA Executive Director, Dr. Barirega Akankwasah says refugees may not be the biggest degraders of the environment but their arrival comes with additional resource requirements such as energy, construction and water. Barirega said educating, monitoring and supporting refugees in best environment management practices are critical. Which he said has not been done due to lack of resources. But Rashul Mawa Ijoga, LC III Chairperson for Barakala Town Council that hosts Bidi-bidi Zone One in Yumbe District said they are working with various stakeholders including non-governmental organizations to restore degraded environment through tree planting initiatives. He said through OPM's DRDIP, trees have been planted for wood fuel in various sub-countries in Yumbe District just like it is being done in other refugee hosting communities countrywide. Mr. Julius Muchungusi, the head of communication in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), which acts as a coordinating entity of the refugee crisis, said NEMA has a constitutional mandate to carry out environment impact assessments countrywide; including around refugee communities.

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