BY DAUDI NANA
KAMPALA. The constant stream of South Sudan refugees into Northern Uganda is putting a lot of pressure on the country’s already severely stressed water land forest and other natural resources, the minister of water and environment warned this week.
At the latest count announced by the UN on Thursday, South Sudanese refugees streaming into Uganda have eclipsed the one million mark, a truly troubling figure given the wide funding gap for much-needed emergency aid.
Most of the refugees are women and children. They represent the world’s fastest growing humanitarian crisis since fresh fighting broke out between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, assorted militias and former vice president Riek Machar last June.
Another one million South Sudanese have fled into DR Congo, Ethiopia and The Sudan up north.
Ugandan refugee officials say that host communities have been stretched to breaking point, straining relations and threatening the generous practice where new arrivals have traditionally been given small plots to cultivate and build temporary shelter.
With almost 2,000 South Sudanese civilians fleeing the ethnic armed conflict that has spawned untold violence, including indiscriminate rape and murder, seeking refuge in Uganda everyday, Minister Sam Cheptoris says there is an increased demand for water and sanitation services, as well as trees for poles and firewood as the population of refugees’ increases.
This has the minister worried enough to launch an urgent appeal to development partners to save the environment.
Environmental experts have already warned that as the world focuses on the noble and more immediately visible problem of resettlement of refugees, there is a silent and massive destruction of the environment going on — with longer term consequences.
Mr Cheptoris was recently addressing a stakeholders’ workshop at Hotel Africana in Kampala on water supply, sanitation and water and environment resources management in refugee settlements and host communities.
He reminded the meeting that not very long ago, the districts of northwestern Uganda had vast grassland with shrubs and trees, with many parts heavily forested. This is no more as the consistent influx of refugees meant more land had to be cleared for settlement.
There is a lot of progress being made in as far as provision of water, sanitation and hygiene services to the refugees, but at great social cost. Humanitarian agencies have been overwhelmed by the refugee influx from the world’s youngest nation.
“Operation and maintenance of water supply and sanitation systems in refugee camps is becoming a big challenge and strategies to address the issue need to be developed. This workshop should provide views on how best we can improve the situation,” said Mr Cheptoris.
Putting the issue of refugee-driven environmental degradation into perspective, the deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Adjumani, Moses Daliri, revealed that many boreholes have dried up, meaning water trucking remains the only source for water but it costing a lot of money and is unsustainable.
Mr Daliri challenged the meeting to review the challenges faced in the provision of water, sanitation and environment resources management in refugee settlements and host communities.
“There is need to identify the required actions for addressing the refugee crisis from a water and environment sector perspective in the districts of Moyo, Yumbe, Koboko, Arua, Adjumani, Nwoya, Amuru and Maracha,” said Mr Daliri.
He said the area is experiencing a significant reduction of the water levels underground, especially in the refugee settlements because a lot of boreholes were drilled in a confined radius. Most of these booreholes are drying up.
Already home to 1.3 million refugees and assorted asylum seekers, Uganda is in a unique situation. The UN resident coordinator and UNDP representative, Rosa Malango fears that this number is projected to increase by an additional 400,000 people at the end of this year.
It is no surprise then that the rapidly expanding refugee settlements are being held responsible for the adverse change in weather patterns on account of severe environmental degradation.
“The on-going influx of refugees in West Nile is undoubtedly placing an enormous strain on the communities and the environment in the districts hosting refugees,” he said. “The underfunded humanitarian programmes are leaving the refugees extremely vulnerable at all fronts.”
US ambassador to Uganda, Ms Deborah Malac said that given the fast growth of settlements due to the refugee influx rate, provision of water through sustainable solutions will take time. Only a fraction of the $ 2 billion Ugandan refugee officials say is needed to care for the refugees and host communities has been raised.
Ms Malac explained that scaling up of sustainable solutions is an urgent priority to ensure that refugees and host communities do not become dependent on aid.
In the meantime, in Adjumani district, figures from the local government indicate that over 11 million trees have been cut down since the refugee influx started in December 2013.
Mr Daliri says that environment reports indicate that as a result of these activities, the refugee and host communities have started facing the impact of the degradation.
Most of the refugees were placed in forested areas which are the sources for most rivers and streams.
“Because of the degradation, even our river system and these small streams have been affected. They are silted and so they are drying up,” said Mr Daliri.
For now, the Permanent secretary, ministry of water and environment Alfred Okot Okidi said the Ugandan government, UN and other partners are striving to replace what has been destroyed.
He explained that refugee households in Adjumani. Yumbe, Arua and Koboko were each given 10 trees to plant.
This is hardly enough mitigation. As Okidi pointed out, there is a pressing need to have international, collective responsibility to help fund projects aimed at protecting the environment in the refugee camps. Otherwise the universal accolades which have been showered upon Uganda for being the most hospitable country for refugees will soon begin to ring hollow.