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More support needed to fight environmental degradation around refugee settlements

A view of Omugo refugee settlement in Arua District in Uganda. (PHOTO/UNHCR)

KAMPALA – On the occasion of World Refugee Day, 16 non-governmental organizations including ACT Alliance, Action Against Hunger, Care International and Danish Church Aid (DCA) have called for urgent action to prevent and mitigate the impact of environmental degradation around refugee settlements in Uganda.

Others include BRAC, Danish Refugee Council (DRC), Finn Church Aid, International Justice Mission (IJM), International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).

The list also includes the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Oxfam International, Plan International, Save the Children and World Vision

Uganda currently hosts more than 1.25 million refugees, most of whom rely on natural resources in and around refugee settlements for domestic fuel, construction, and livelihoods.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Uganda’s refugees consume at least 1.1 million tonnes of firewood every year, as fuelwood is the primary source of energy security.

Each individual in the refugee community is estimated to consume up to 1.6 kg firewood per day, compared with host community members who consume up to 2.1 kg per day. This puts a strain on the availability of wood, grass and other resources in refugee-hosting districts.

These say, the impact is not only environmental – it also fuels increased competition over natural resources between refugees and the Ugandan host community. While the latter continues to show considerable generosity in hosting refugees, they rely on the same trees, grass and water sources as refugees.

As scarcity increases, so do tensions over access to, and management of, natural resources. Violent incidents affecting both refugees and Ugandans have already occurred, as documented in research done in Lamwo, Adjumani, and Arua by International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI).

Scarcity of resources has an acute impact on women and girls who are responsible for the day-to-day collection of firewood and grass for thatched roofs.

They can spend 12-24 hours collecting firewood which these say, the refugees have to seek further from their homes, putting them at risk of sexual violence.

Refugees and Ugandans living around the refugee settlements also rely on the same natural resources to make a living.

Sustainable management of natural resources is therefore key to enable Uganda’s promoted policy of self-reliance and inclusion of refugees, especially as humanitarian assistance suffers from insufficient funding.

National and international actors responding to the refugee situation in Uganda, including signatories to this statement, are investing in alternative sources of energy and efforts to mitigate environmental damage.

Environmental protection has been identified as a key priority for Uganda’s refugee response. The Ugandan government is developing a water and environment response plan to address environmental degradation in refugee-hosting areas, under the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) and supported by the humanitarian response led by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and UNHCR.

But “more concrete action has to be undertaken on the ground.”

“Tree planting in and around the refugee sites has been significant but remains insufficient,” they noted calling on Ugandan authorities, UNHCR and its partners to increase reforestation efforts, and ensure follow-up.

As less than half of the refugee population and 20% of the host community use energy-saving stoves, these say, the same actors should increase their distribution and the efficiency of their use.

The 16 non-governmental organisations noted that community dialogues and sensitization have yielded results, but need to be scaled up to allow refugee and host community leaders to adequately detect, prevent and address tensions around natural resources.

To do so, “we call on international partners to direct resources towards programmes that address environmental degradation and promote peaceful co-existence among communities affected by displacement. International commitments to share responsibility with major refugee-hosting countries like Uganda have to be translated into real action and, crucially, financial support.”

A recent UNCHR report indicates that more refugees continue to arrive especially from the DRC, and large-scale returns to their country of origin remain untenable in the short time, given the protracted situations in Uganda’s neighbouring countries.

Without a significant increase in investment, environmental degradation in refugee-hosting districts will have serious consequences for many years to come.

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