28 Feb 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

Managing environmental stress in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp

In the hot and dusty county of Turkana in northwestern Kenya lies the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp.

Informal settlements, constructed mainly using a variety of materials such as iron sheets, mud, or traditional thatching, dot the landscape and offer residents relief from the sweltering heat, which can sometimes reach 40 degrees Celsius during the day and only drop to the low 30s at night.

Besides the harsh climate, the camp lies in an area which is dry, windswept and prone to dust storms.  

Despite these challenges, since its establishment in 1992, Kakuma refugee camp has experienced an influx of thousands of weary and heavy-laden guests. It has hosted women, men, and children, fleeing conflicts in countries such as South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Ironically, this safe haven also shelters a variety of venomous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, which together with deadly outbreaks of malaria and cholera have posed grave challenges to the refugees, the host Turkana community and personnel working for the various humanitarian agencies operating in the region.

Due to the low rainfall and high temperatures, Kalobeyei has scarce vegetation.Water is accessed mainly from boreholes and distributed to residents via diesel generators and a few solar-powered pumps. (Source: Patrick Kihara/UN Environment)

The camp was meant to have a maximum capacity of 70,000 residents, but by 2015, the population had risen to 183,000. This led to the Turkana County government allocating land for a new settlement, which integrates both refugees and the host community, about 40km northwest of Kakuma.

Kalobeyei, which now hosts about 40,000 refugees, is expected to ease the population pressure in Kakuma.

However, demand for wood fuel, dependency on diesel power generators, inadequate liquid and solid waste disposal, as well as shortage of potable water for humans and livestock, are some of the challenges the camps need to resolve.

“Initially we thought the refugee camp would only last a few years but 25 years later it exists and nobody knows when it will close,” said Emmanuel Ouko the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) Water Hygiene and Sanitation Coordinator. The organization implements UNHCR’s sanitation programmes in Kakuma.

“Sanitation is a challenge because we are not able to allocate every family a latrine. In addition, water is scarce in the camp but the situation is worse in the host community. We are working with the authorities to extend access to the latter to enhance peaceful co-existence,” Ouko said.

Soil and land management as well as flood mitigation in the Kakuma and Kalobeyei pose challenges. As far as possible the raw material used in construction is sourced locally, but cement is transported from Nairobi. (Source: Patrick Kihara/UN Environment)

Due to the low rainfall, people in the area rely on boreholes for their water. The cost of the fuel needed to pump water is high, but by using solar-powered pumps – which operate for about 6-7 hours daily – the NRC says it is saving about 40 per cent of the costs of running diesel generators.

Kakuma and Kalobeyei also suffer immense pressure from the demand for firewood, which is the primary source of cooking fuel. This has led to the rapid exploitation of the existing woodlots and created tension with the host community. In a bid to reduce deforestation, some civil society groups are working with the local community to promote access to affordable solar-powered alternatives for lighting, thus enhancing security in the camps. Others are distributing indigenous tree seedlings to halt land degradation.

Environmental displacement
UN Member states are debating the Migration Compact Zero Draft at a time when an average of 26.4 million people are being displaced from their homes by natural disasters annually. (Source: UN Environment Frontiers Report 2017)

“In a world with nearly 70 million refugees, the impact of forced migration and displacement on the environment cannot be ignored,” said Oli Brown, the coordinator of UN Environment’s work on disasters and conflicts. “A change of mindset is occurring among humanitarian actors, who are increasingly looking to promote not just short-term stability, but also long-term resilience. Improving the management of natural resources is critical to achieving that goal.”

UN Environment hosts the secretariat of the Environment Management Group (EMG), a UN system-wide coordination body that provides guidance on environmental issues to communities and organizations around the world. The EMG has picked up the issue of the environmental impact of humanitarian action as one of its focal areas for 2018.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.

Further resources

Europe’s Refugee Crisis: A Taste of Things to Come?

Frontiers 2017: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern

Environmental Emergencies Forum                                                                               

Contact Oli Brown at oli.brown@un.org.