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

4.3. Environmental Health and Environmental Impact: Policy and Practice in Emergency Water Supply and Sanitation

by Paul Sherlock1

1 Oxfam Public Heath Team, Emergencies Department

1. Introduction

1.1. Aim of the paper

The aim of this paper is to look at the gap between policy and practice concerning the environmental impact of refugees and displaced people and of emergency environmental health responses, and to discuss some possibilities for bringing policy and practice closer together.

1.2. Scope of the paper

The discussion will focus on environmental health work, which includes water sanitation and hygiene promotion as well as water supply in the context of wider environmental issues. Oxfam's response to emergency situations is usually in this field, and Oxfam is committed to integrating these related activities where possible.

1.3. Oxfam and emergency environmental health

Since Oxfam was founded in 1942, the organisation has worked with millions of refugees and displaced people in many different countries on emergency water supply and sanitation programmes. Over the past year, Oxfam has helped provide water and sanitation facilities for almost two million refugees and displaced people, mostly in the Great Lakes Region of Central and East Africa.

2. Policy Aims and Good Practice

2.1. Policy aims

One of Oxfam's fundamental aims is to work with poor people as a force for change to address the causes of poverty and alleviate suffering. Oxfam works towards increased sustainability of livelihoods of displaced people and refugees as well as resident populations. Working towards “sustainable livelihoods” is understood to mean “increasing the ability to maintain and to improve livelihoods while maintaining or enhancing the global assets and capabilities on which livelihoods depend.” It is obvious that in crisis situations priorities need to be decided within the range of assets and capabilities that are important in livelihoods. Oxfam aims to respond to urgent human needs in emergencies and help poor people to reduce their vulnerability (the inverse of sustainability) in crisis situations, and our focus is generally on public health work.

2.2. Good practice

In all of Oxfam's operational projects and work with local partners, project managers are encouraged to consider the sustainability of projects: for example, is operation & maintenance of water supply systems feasible and affordable, and is the water supply environmentally sustainable? There is a section in Oxfam's project application form to address the environmental impact of the proposed activities (this grant application form has to be approved before project implementation).

Oxfam's Public Health Team is particularly concerned with the effects of environmental degradation on people's health. In as much as environmental health work in emergencies is concerned with providing a healthy environment for refugees and displaced people to live in, it makes sense to avoid pollution in the area of the settlement, including pollution of local water sources and careless disposal of refuse. Oxfam is careful to maintain good relations with host communities and tries to avoid, where possible, depletion of local resources and environmental degradation in the areas around camps, which would affect local livelihoods.

3. Field Experience

The following examples illustrate just a few of the potential environmental impacts of the presence of refugees and displaced people and the water and sanitation projects that Oxfam has been associated with over the past few years. They show how, despite the best policy intentions, good practice is not always achieved, and illustrate some of the constraints to good practice discussed in section 4.

3.1. Jijiga 1988: unsustainable water supply

In May 1988, several hundred thousand Somali refugees arrived in the Ethiopian Ogaden desert from Northern Somalia (now Somaliland). Two camp areas were set up Hartisheik and Harshin. The latter, moving after two month to create Hartisheik 'B' camp.

Both local and international politics at the time meant that the camps were sited 72 km away from the main water source at Jijiga town. Water was trucked in small quantities from Jijiga to the camp from the start, but because water was short in the beginning, any local water sources in the area were exhausted by the refugees. These were mostly small water catchment ponds or 'burka's' used by the nomad population to keep their families and animals alive.

This created a problem for the nomads, so when the tanker operation improved, the nomads came to the camps there for their water, creating many conflicts. The water source in Jijiga was the main bore-hole for the town, so when more water was required, the town's own supply came under pressure. Additional bore-holes for the camp have now been drilled, only 45 km from the camp. But for three years water was trucked from Jijiga, putting pressure on the aquifer, and putting the town at risk and costing UNHCR $ 1 million per month.

3.2. Ngara 1994: unsustainable water supply

When about 250,000 people fled Rwanda to the Ngara area of Tanzania, they were directed by the Government to a site at Benaco. This was due to the existence of a lake that had been made in 1986, and that there were no local inhabitants living or farming around the lake. Two days after the refugees had arrived water was being pumped out of the lake to be treated with chlorine and distributed through tap-stands. However, it took about a week to get people to move from the lake to the tap bars, in the mean time Oxfam had started to construct a water treatment plant and distribution network.

It was quickly realised that the lake alone could not supply all the refugees, estimates showed that it might last 4-6 months. However, the lake did last 8-9 months into the next rainy season. UNHCR reacted very quickly to the possibility of the lake running out by recruiting an agency to drill 24 bore-holes. While it was of great benefit that these holes were made so quickly, very little drilling data was left and pump test yields proved to be much higher than the actual yields. More disturbing was the fact that the wells were left unlined - in two months, three had collapsed, and there were fears that all the others may do the same. It was not possible, for a variety of reasons, to move the refugees to sites with more suitable water supplies. So additional bore-holes were drilled in the valleys between the hills, all tapping the same aquifer.

Early in 1995, there were signs that the water table was beginning to drop significantly and by mid 1995, a hydro-geologist employed by Oxfam was predicting that the aquifer would be exhausted by the end of the year. Oxfam is now conducting a more detailed study to try to quantify what rate of water abstraction the lake and the aquifer can sustain and make recommendations for settling some refugees elsewhere, or developing a scheme to pump water from the Ruvubu river. The problem now, in the current situation of great and growing pressure for the return of refugees to Rwanda, is that the Tanzanian government, UNHCR and donors are likely to be unwilling to start any major new investment such as alternative camps or the Ruvubu river scheme.

3.3. Goma 1994: resource depletion and local pollution

Nearly 1 million Rwandan refugees arrived in Goma in July 1994 and settled for over a year on the edges of one of the most important nature reserves in the world. The environmental impact of these settlements, particularly the destruction of forest for fuel-wood and construction timber by refugees has been widely discussed and well documented. Aid agency activities also contributed to the environmental degradation. Sanitation programmes have used hardwood planks cut from natural tropical forest to construct latrine slabs. Control of the origin of this timber is extremely difficult in this part of the world.

Construction of water systems and disinfection of defecation zones involved the use of quicklime, produced in the camps with local limestone and fuel-wood. Huge amounts of refuse were generated in the camps some of which was dumped in the national park, including medical and other dangerous wastes. The camps were sited on impermeable basalt lava flows, where latrines fill quickly. They had to be emptied and the contents dumped off the sites.

3.4. Drilling in Mutare, Northern Rwanda

Oxfam has been under considerable pressure from the Rwandan government to provide water in the Mutare area of Northern Rwanda for returnees who have been living in Uganda since 1959/60. Many of these returnees are cattle owners and the water supplies is as crucial for the survival of the animals as for their owners. The area concerned is adjacent to the Akagera national park, and could suffer major environmental degradation if large numbers of cattle were able to graze there because of the provision of new water supplies.

Oxfam is exploring water supply options to the resident population of the northern part of this region, where agriculture is traditionally dominant over livestock keeping and where relative large numbers of people live. Oxfam has initiated participatory research and project planning with staff, local NGOs, authorities and (new) residents. Local perceptions of humanitarian needs, environmental change and development potential were assessed, and activities which are both socially acceptable and environmentally responsible are being planned.

4. Practical Constraints

There are several reasons why achieving environmental related policy aims may be difficult to achieve in practice.

4.1. Conflicting priorities and limited resources

There is often a serious conflict between the need to respond to the immediate humanitarian crisis and the need to ensure that the response does not have a negative environmental impact. The first priority for donors, co-ordinating bodies and (international) implementing agencies is to save lives. This may mean depleting scarce natural resources and accepting sanitary conditions far below internationally accepted standards, especially in the early stages of crisis.

Host governments and other (local) organisations and groups will generally agree with that but must also consider several local interests, from political to social, economic and environmental.

Emergency programmes that minimise negative impact on natural resources may cost more to implement and take more time. On the other hand, the funding crisis usually occurs several months after the onset of a refugee situation, so the first few weeks would be the best time to secure resources for mitigating environmental damage. Furthermore, some choices made in early stages of emergencies can minimise medium and long term costs and/or environmental degradation, which would imply financial savings.

4.2. Short term planning and programme inertia

Indeed, during the emergency phase, the priorities of all involved, most importantly the refugees and displaced people themselves, are short term. Even after the emergency passes, these situations usually remain politically unstable which makes governments, donors and implementing agencies cautious about longer term programmes and funding. Even where there is scope for longer term planning, it is hard to change the direction of large programmes, in which inertia quickly sets in. This is particularly true for decisions about relocating camps, which involves large financial investments, new energy and further disruption for the refugees and displaced people.

4.3. Political and security constraints

The situation of refugees and displaced people is a political issue at all levels. They have an impact on local politics, they may be used by host governments as a bargaining tool or for gaining revenue, they have political significance for the countries or areas they leave, and politics within settlements of refugees and displaced people is often crucial to the outcome of programmes. The security implications of significant numbers of displaced people and refugees are many and various, ranging from disputes with local people over water supplies to the creation of bases from which to launch attacks on the country that was fled. Security is also an issue for agencies working in camps, and may severely restrict the control they have over their programmes.

4.4. Unsuitable sites

Decisions on where to settle displaced people and refugees have critical significance for subsequent environmental quality and potential, and yet basic considerations such as having a sustainable water supply and terrain suitable for installing latrines are often ignored by political and security constraints or competition for better land. Refugees and displaced people are usually settled on land which, for example, may be available only because of lack of water.

Whether settlements are large and concentrated or small and scattered has particular significance for the local environment. But the agencies which are to be involved in service provision are often not able to influence decisions on settlement type and location, because of overriding political of financial constraints. Indeed, there is often a conflict between the costs of reaching a scattered population and the frequent health, livelihood and environmental benefits of avoiding large settlements. This tension may bring different agencies into conflict (see 4.5 below).

4.5. Fragmented response

The growing tendency, when a mass displacement of people occurs, is for a large number of agencies to become involved, each with different responsibilities and objectives. The environmental impact of the programme as a whole is the responsibility of many different actors, creating difficulties for co-ordination and integration of activities.

4.6. Inadequate information for planning

The information usually available to agencies planning emergency environmental health interventions is extremely limited, partly because of the speed at which decisions have to be taken, but partly because information needed for incorporating environmental considerations into emergency work is not accessible, or readily available. Agencies may unwittingly create environmental hazards, or planners may create inappropriate settlements because they are not fully aware of the impact of their decisions. Baseline data may not exist, leading to problems later on, in measuring the environmental impact of programmes thus reducing learning opportunities.

4.7. Poorly developed environmental impact monitoring and assessment

When looking at the environmental impact of emergency water supply and sanitation projects, it is difficult to compare environmental costs with other project outcomes, particularly when human lives are part of the equation. As mentioned in 4.6, the baseline data for impact studies is usually lacking. The UNHCR have produced guidelines for environment-sensitive management of refugee programmes (UNHCR 1994) and for environmental surveys and studies; other agencies have produced guidelines as a result of specific studies (e.g. ERM, 1994). These still need developing to be more useful in emergency situations, and have yet to be widely adopted by implementing agencies. Oxfam is also in the process of updating its own guidelines, on water and sanitation and wider environmental issues. A major aspect for further consideration in assessment and monitoring systems is the level of consultation and participation of both displaced people and local residents, especially in early emergency stages.

4.8. Poor relationships with local authorities, private sector, CBOs and NGOs

UNHCR as the co-ordinating body in most situations has responsibility for co-ordination with local authorities, and relationships between implementing agencies and local authorities are often weak. Few international agencies will have contacts with local NGOs and CBO (Community Based Organisations). This may be due in part to a high “turnover” of international staff and a short-term outlook of the agencies. The poor relationships may explain partly the lack of local information and (political) difficulties in negotiations.

5. Suggested Ways Forward

5.1. Programme integration

In order to appreciate the overall impact of an emergency programme on the environment, planning, monitoring and evaluation of the various programme elements have to be brought together. This is achieved most effectively where there are few agencies implementing broad programmes, rather than where there are a multitude of agencies of different levels and areas of competence, with overlaps and gaps in programme cover. For this reason among others, Oxfam is moving towards a more integrated approach to refugee programmes. For instance, in the Ikafe settlements of Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda, Oxfam is engaged in a broad programme of refugee assistance which covers distributions, water supply and sanitation, health and income generation. Where there are many different agencies involved in the same programme, effective consideration of environmental impact demands strong co-ordination and a willingness on the part of the agencies to accept the role of co-ordinating bodies.

5.2. Information, preparedness and consultation

Good information already exists in and about many places which are (potentially) subject to large population influxes, in the form of satellite images, aerial photographs, maps, ground surveys and Geographical Information Systems (GIS). The data are held by a variety of bodies, including government ministries, universities, local development projects, companies, NGOs and defence forces. It is often time consuming and difficult to access and assemble relevant data when emergencies occur.

Information related to water resources, land uses etc. should be made more readily available, in a form more convenient for planning interventions. Desk studies could be made on areas where population movements are likely to occur, so that a basic understanding is developed before the emergency occurs, and for short term decisions with better long term environmental consequences. This could be done by a co-ordinating body such as UNHCR or a consortium of agencies, which could then make the relevant information available to implementing bodies when needed.

Improved co-ordination between local organisations, including authorities and NGOs, is essential for this data collection and indeed it could have a local focus. It would in that case also offer possibilities for developing preparedness plans and structures in collaboration with these organisations.

5.3. Agreed procedures and minimum standards

Environmental impact mitigation measures need to be outlined in proposals to donors and coordinating bodies. This requires more practical and widely acceptable guidelines which recognise the outstanding operational difficulties faced by implementing agencies. Monitoring and evaluation of programmes should take into account their negative environmental impact. This requires the broadening of programme objectives and evaluation. Environmental monitoring should begin as close to the start of an emergency as is practical, and should be reported on regularly. More effective programme planning, monitoring and evaluation demands clearer criteria for measurement, and a commitment to provide the resources needed.

5.4. More realistic planning horizons

It is often true that temporary settlements of refugees and displaced people have lifetimes spanning years rather than months. This is known, even as we battle with fast moving events at the beginning of a crisis. Oxfam's response in water supply and environmental sanitation tends to use equipment which may last for many years and to engage the communities involved in a way which produces sustainable management of the infrastructure installed.

5.5. Better site selection

So much which affects the health and welfare of displaced people and refugees depends on the site in which they live. The environmental impact of such people depends crucially on the location and size of the settlements. The conditions for people in camps could be used as an argument for less environmentally damaging settlements. Dispersed settlements, while being more difficult to service in some cases, provide more healthy places for people to live in and have less negative impact on natural resources nearby.

Practical Constraints

1. Conflicting priorities and limited resources
2. Short-term planning and programme inertia
3. Political and security constraints
4. Unsuitable sites
5. Fragmented response
6. Inadequate information for planning
7. Poorly developed environmental impact monitoring and assessment
8. Poor relationships with local authorities, private sector, CBOs and NGOs.

Suggested Ways Forward

1. Programme integration
2. Information, preparedness and consultation
3. Agreed procedures and minimum standards
4. Realistic planning horizons
5. Better site selection


Eade, D. and Williams, S. (1995) The Oxfam Handbook of Relief and Development, Oxfam Publications, Oxford.

ERM (1994) Refugee Inflow into Ngara and Karagwe Districts, Kagera Region, Tanzania: Environmental Impact Assessment, for CARE International and the Overseas Development Administration. Environmental Resources Management, London.

Hoerz, T. (1995) Refugees and Host Environments: a Review of Current and Related Literature, for GTZ. Refugee Studies Programme, Oxford.

UNHCR (1994) Interim Guidelines for Environment-Sensitive Management of Refugee Programmes, UNHCR. Office of the Senior Co-ordinator on Environmental Affairs, UNHCR, Geneva.