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This World Population Day, we explore how refugees can develop resilience with water

Women break ground on a garden plot located within the UN Women Safe Centre section of a refugee camp in Africa
Women break ground on a garden plot located within the UN Women Safe Centre section of a refugee camp in Africa. Photo: UN Women

Refugees from South Sudan in the Rhino Camp of northern Uganda will soon be fortifying their diets with okra grown in their own home gardens thanks to supplemental irrigation with grey water. The activity is one of many in a project co-led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) in East Africa which is helping refugees to reuse scarce resources.

“In refugee settlements in East Africa, resources such as water, firewood and fertile land are limited,” said Solomie Gebrezgabher, a research economist with IWMI and co-leader of the Resource recovery and reuse (RRR) in refugee settlements in Africa project. “However, many of those resources can be recovered and used again. As the competition for these resources intensifies, it becomes vital that we implement innovations that address food and energy needs and help increase the resilience of refugee settlements and their host communities.”

The growing number of refugees in East Africa highlights the need for such innovations. More than 2.2 million South Sudanese have fled from their homes in recent conflict and gone to Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and Uganda.

Host countries have allocated land where refugees can be protected and assisted. But the settlements are often in remote areas where access to limited natural resources and social amenities is shared with host communities. These are also areas where growing food crops can be challenging, particularly in the dry season. And as refugee populations persist in an area, erosion, land degradation and the loss of plant cover accelerates. In short, environmental sustainability becomes critical.

“When resources are as limited as they are in these settlements, we really must ask how can existing resources be repurposed to improve food security and energy use, particularly for women and children,” said Solomie. “The project’s circular economy approach offers solutions that link sanitation, waste management and natural resource management.”

Cultivating nutritious okra in the home gardens of Rhino Camp is a good example. The South Sudanese have long appreciated okra (which many call bamia) in their diets and some refugees even brought seeds with them. The refugees are provided small plots of land for their home gardens. Okra is a preferred crop in part because it tolerates dry conditions better than other crops and can grow in marginal environments. But it does require some watering and in settlements like Rhino water comes access can be difficult.

“Refugees need to wash their clothes, bodies and food with water and that water is usually lost down the drain,” said Solomie. “We are teaching the refugees how to collect that water and safely apply it to their home gardens. Estimates suggest that refugees at Rhino can generate 14 liters per person per day of grey water and that’s enough to keep a small okra patch alive during the dry season.”

With funding from the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the project was launched in June 2019 and will continue until May 2022. Its activities are implemented in the Kalobeye and Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya, Imvepi Settlement and Rhino Camp in Uganda, and Tierkidi refugee camp in Ethiopia as well as within their host communities. It aims to train 3,600 refugee and host community members across the six settlements and reach 200,000 others indirectly through radio and other communications tools.

To guide the capacity building events, researchers conducted a household survey among refugee and host communities in each country to understand the most important issues related to agriculture, agroforestry, energy and sanitation.

“These refugee communities consist disproportionately of women and children from many cultural backgrounds,” said Mary Njenga, a bioenergy research scientist with ICRAF and co-leader of the project. “So, it’s very important to ensure gender integration in the project cycle and processes.”

The project’s baseline assessment in 2020 found that the refugees do most of their cooking with firewood, but the supply offered by aid agencies can be insufficient and the availability of gathered wood is dwindling as natural regeneration cannot compete with demand. Some resort to trading their food aid to people in the host communities in exchange for firewood. Many of the refugee women are survivors of violent attacks and sexual assault in their home country and are exposed to risk when they search isolated areas for firewood. In response, the project is building new skills in converting organic waste and charcoal dust into fuel briquettes for cooking, which will help alleviate pressure on degraded lands.

It is unlikely that most South Sudanese refugees will be returning home in the near future. Building their capacity to sustainably recover and reuse resources like water and firewood in their settlements will increase their resilience over time as competition for ever-dwindling resources grows, including with host communities.

“These refugees live in settlements because that’s what they are doing … they are settling in new homes in a foreign land for a long term,” said Solomie. “We recognize that since our project is focused on capacity building, we will not see immediate results. But in time, I am confident that as we teach about innovations like the use of grey water, we’ll see okra sprouting in home gardens for many years to come.”

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