In humanitarian contexts, environmental degradation can be long lasting and incredibly difficult to reverse. In 1995, for example, the government of Zaire (now DRC) estimated that more than 3,758 hectares of forest land were lost within the first 3 weeks of Rwandan refugees’ arrival in South Kivu Province.1
Sudden, large concentrations of people living in crowded camps and communities during conflict or after natural disasters can rapidly deplete the area’s natural resources. Camps for displaced people are often located in already environmentally fragile areas, which can be particularly negatively impacted by a sudden influx of new residents.
Most people living in humanitarian settings rely on wood fuel for their basic energy needs – cooking, lighting, and heating, as well as for income generation. They often have no choice but to search for firewood on their own, thereby further depleting the area’s natural resources. Not only does firewood collection have negative impacts on the local ecosystems by undermining forest regeneration and agriculture, but it also can trigger tensions between refugees and host communities over dwindling resources and may lead the local government to ban firewood collection entirely, which can lead to even bigger consequences for refugees who have little access to other alternatives for fuel.
From the earliest stages of response, it is important to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of camps. Environmental management and rehabilitation projects such as forest conservation, tree planting, and the establishment of green belts and woodlots in areas surrounding camps can be very successful in creating safe and sustainable access to energy sources for populations in need. Doing so in tandem with local governments and environmental authorities where possible is also advised. It is also essential to implement projects that reduce the need for wood fuels through more efficient technologies and alternative income generating activities.
1 The Environmental Impact of Sudden Population Displacements - Expert Consultation on Priority Policy Issues and Humanitarian Aid (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters - European Commission Humanitarian Office, 1995, 101 p.)