Cover Image
close this bookThe 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.)
close this folder4. CASE STUDIES
View the document4.1. Cooking Energy for Refugees: The Cases of Zaire and Kenya
View the document4.2. Impact of Humanitarian Crisis on Ecosystems (emphasis on vegetation)
View the document4.3. Environmental Health and Environmental Impact: Policy and Practice in Emergency Water Supply and Sanitation
View the document4.4. The environmental impact of refugees in Africa: suggestions for future actions
View the document4.5. When Refugees Stream: Environmental and Political Implications of Population Displacement

4.2. Impact of Humanitarian Crisis on Ecosystems (emphasis on vegetation)

by Urs Bloesch1

1 Swiss Disaster Relief

1. Introduction

This paper is based mainly on experience at field and policy level in the recent humanitarian operations for Rwandan and Burundian refugees and displaced people in Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire. The impact of a massive influx of refugees/displaced people on the environment with emphasis on the vegetation will be analysed. Some recommendations on the policy level will be presented for reducing the damages to ecosystems.

2. Environmental Issues

A massive influx of refugees/displaced people may lead to an over-exploitation of the local ecosystems and thereby to a long lasting reduction of the natural resources for the local communities. This may provoke severe social conflicts between local people and the refugees/displaced people. This impact is twofold:

a) Immediate impact on the environment:
Need for building material for refugees huts

b) Gradually increasing impact on the environment:
Energy needs for cooking and heating, needs for water and sometimes fodder for livestock.

The cutting of trees and bushes for building shelters starts rapidly after the arrival of the refugees/displaced people in an area. After a few days, the damage to the vegetation is done. This activity is very difficult to prevent. Usually, greater damage results from satisfying daily needs (energy, water and grazing). However, this kind of damage can be reduced if appropriate measures are taken.

Full protection of the vegetation within and near a camp is not realistic. Nevertheless it is pertinent to reduce the destruction of the vegetation as far as possible in order to protect the soil. Otherwise, there is the risk of rapid soil erosion entailing a considerable loss in soil fertility.

Different ecosystems (see examples below) react quite differently to external disturbances.

a. Rwanda

Rwandan displaced people 1993-95/Burundian refugees 1993-94

- Mainly steep (slopes), densely cultivated landscape, except the area of Mutara (Northern Rwanda)

- Very strongly modified ecosystem (anthropogenic) mainly through cultivation

- Limited wood resources available in dispersed afforestation composed of exotic species (mainly Pinus sp. and Eucalyptus sp., latter species has a high potential to sprout after cutting)

- Water available, but locally very variable

- Except the area of Mutara, very few pastures


Long lasting negative environmental impact can be strongly reduced, provided the soil, especially on steep slopes, can be protected by minimal vegetation cover.

b. Tanzania Rwandan refugees in Kagera Region 1994-95

- Very variable types of open savannah, mainly flat to hilly landscape, predominant tree and shrub savannah with a canopy cover of 20 - 40 %

- Strongly modified ecosystem (anthropogenic) mainly through fire and grazing

- Average standing volume of about 20 m3/ha (savannah land), very little afforestation

- Stocking rate about 2 ha for 1 TLU (Tropical Livestock Unit)

- Water resources very limited.


The savannah vegetation has been modified over centuries by regular fires. If loss of the humus can be avoided (area of Benaco camp is heavily threatened), a rehabilitation of the savannah vegetation should be possible by natural regeneration (eventually to complete by plantations in some areas). Nevertheless, this region lacks the capacity to provide fire wood and water for 700,000 refugees for long periods of time without causing long-lasting negative environmental impact.

Burundian refugees in Kigoma Region 1993-95

- Miombo woodland in mainly flat land, canopy cover over 60%
- Relatively mildly modified ecosystem through cultivation, grazing and fire
- Average standing volume of about 80 - 100 m3/ha (Miombo woodland), very little afforestation
- Stocking rate about 1 - 2 ha for 1 TLU
- Water resources limited.


The essentially flat landscape, the relatively high standing volume and the annual growing rate of the vegetation are favourable for avoiding a long lasting negative environmental impact.

c. Zaire

Rwandan refugees in Goma Region 1994-95

- Outside the National Park of Virunga the area is densely populated and fully cultivated (volcanic soil with very high fertility)

- Very fragile ecosystem of the moist montane forest: if remaining primary forest is destroyed by clear cutting the impact will be almost irreversible

- Very limited wood resources available in forests far away from the camp sites (50 100 km and more)

- Very few pastures available outside of the park.


The destruction of the vegetation of the National Park of Virunga was rapidly increasing. The environmental negative impact will be long lasting. This region could not support the high number of refugees without destroying the natural resources for the local communities.

Rwandan refugees in Bukavu Region 1994-95

The same remarks as for Rwanda

The cited examples demonstrate the great difference in vulnerability of ecosystems of different regions. But also within each region the local ecosystems vary considerably.

Obviously, one has to consider additional factors, such as those listed below, which influence the degree of damage to the ecosystem caused by massive influxes of refugees/displaced people.

- Topography*

- Local availability of burning material (fire wood or other organic material) or alternative energy sources*

- Availability of pasture*

- Climate*

- Energy needs of refugees (defined among others by food items, family cooking/community kitchen, type of stove)

- Number and type of livestock

- Number of refugees

- Length of stay of refugees/displaced people

- Rapidity to start an environmental operation and their efficiency

The choice of the site is primordial in view of reducing the negative environmental impact. The impact of all factors marked by asterisks as well as the specific fragility of an ecosystem are decisive for the choice of the camp site.

3. Approach of a Environmental Operation


To safeguard natural resources, the essential base of the socio-economic development of the local communities, in the areas affected by refugees/displaced people. This aim should be achieved by:

Preventive action:

Reducing as much as possible the damage to the environment, especially through the controlled provision of burning material (building material), the promotion of energy saving methods of food processing, setting up of a water provision programme and, if necessary, by defining livestock management.

Curative action:

Contributing to the rehabilitation of the environment considering the specific ecosystem and the land use priorities defined by the local population

The environmental operation should be elaborated together with all participating local and international agencies, and together with the local population and the refugees/displaced people. The responsibilities and the role of each participant have to be clearly defined. Special emphasis has to be given to the environmental education of local communities and refugees/displaced people.

4. Conclusion

Some recommendations at the policy level:

- In regions with a high risk of humanitarian crisis it might be advisable to elaborate maps indicating areas with a fragile ecosystem

- Environmental aspects should be an important factor for camp site selection

- Environmental aspects should be considered from the very beginning of a humanitarian crisis (requires an environmental expert in the first assessment team)

- Involvement of local population/organisations in the environmental operation from the very beginning

- Possibilities of using different alternative energy sources for the energy needs (cooking/heating) of the refugees

- Distribution of low energy-requiring food items in case of shortage of locally available burning materials.