Reflections on relationships between the environment and forced migration

By Decimon Anywar (Published 23rd March 2018)

This week, from 17-23 March 2018, Uganda held its first ever Uganda Water and Environment Week, timed to coincide with International Day of Forests (21st March), World Water Day (22nd March) and World Meteorological Day (23rd March). It is important that in the course of this week we were able to reflect on the complex relationships and interactions between the environment and forced migration.  

Uganda currently grapples with a mass influx of refugees from South Sudan, with all the attendant immediate impacts on water, forest and other environmental resources in areas of dense settlement. Reports from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) show that the regeneration capacity of natural resources in such areas is being suppressed, a dynamic that is not only fueling conflicts with the host population but also contributing to climate change. Urgent action is thus undoubtedly needed to mitigate the environmental impacts of forced migrants, and Refugee Law Project is exploring reforestation options in Adjumani, Kiryandongo and Lamwo districts, with funding support from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, through engagement of both refugees and the host community in dialogues and tree planting. 

However, it is equally imperative to look at Uganda as a whole, a country in which forest coverage has declined by 122,000 ha/year from 1990 to 2015 with the greatest loss being in 2005 to 2010 where the country lost about 250,000 ha of forest annually (States of Uganda’s Forestry 2016). The further efforts for tree planting have yielded only 7,000 ha/year for the last 15 years despite a number of reforms in forestry practice. While the need to mitigate the impacts on environment by forced migrants who arrive in Uganda is clear, the need to tackle the broader pattern of environmental degradation, which has nothing to do with refugees, is even more urgent, lest Uganda becomes a producer of environmental refugees in the coming decades. 

As we reflect on the multiple dimensions of the innovative Uganda Water and Environment Week therefore, we advise that both the refugees and the host population be provided maximum extension services to ensure they have a shared understanding of the benefits of environmental protection, and of their roles and responsibility in sustainably utilizing the resources. 

We also call for recruitment of more technical staff in the environment field, both in civil society and government, as well as capacity building of local environmental committees. We note the need for improved policy frameworks and legislation to help guide and regulate the use and protection of natural resources, and, more immediately, for tree planting to be measured not only in terms of numbers planted but also in terms of the number that survive to maturity. 

Waste management, increments of environmental financing, better planning of environmental resources, integration of environmental issues in other development sectors and environmental impact assessments all deserve further attention if we are to be accountable to the next generation for the environment that they are born into but had no part in creating.

The writer is the Climate Change Officer at Refugee Law Project

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