SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — The dire living conditions in refugee camps have often been a focus for international humanitarian attention.
Many who are uprooted from their homes during violent conflict, travel countless miles in search of safety in the camps only to face new perilous circumstances.
Living conditions within the camps are often characterized by limited resources, which cause the inhabitants to depend on the environment in ways they normally would not. Typically, environmental considerations are put aside while refugees deal with health and education deficiencies even though these humanitarian concerns are intricately linked to environmental ones.
Environmental degradation impacts lives of refugees in a number of ways, further increasing their difficulties. Deforestation near the camps is the most obvious example of environmental degradation. Refugees often demand firewood at a rate that the environment cannot replenish, causing the refugees, often women and children, to search increasingly further away, putting them at increased risk of violent attack.
Continued overuse of resources, regardless of the crisis, is unsustainable and can only lead to more struggle.
Increased regional conflict is another consequence of environmental degradation. For many local populations, management of the local natural resources was stable until the influx of refugees who increased the demand on the local environmental. This can lead to an increase in violence between the two groups as they both rely on the same resources to survive.
The environmental degradation caused by the increased populations around refugee camps desperately demands more attention than it is getting.
It is understandable that groups from the international community focus on the more visible suffering of the refugees but they should not ignore this contributing factor. The environmental degradation of the areas around the refugee camps directly contributes to suffering and violence that occurs to those living in the camps.
There are ways to include environmental sustainability into refugee programs. Adding more environmental sustainability teachings to the educational and training programs for the refugees would contribute to improving the conditions for camp inhabitants while also preventing the cycle of poverty.
Many refugee programs already include a degree of education and poverty reduction; it would be an easy transition, therefore, to train international staff to assist in sustainability teaching.
Reducing the amount of wood required for cooking is another potential solution. A number of new cooking stoves have been developed to reduce the amount of firewood needed to reach cooking temperatures. With less wood required, the forests surrounding would have a chance of recovering.
The international community could contribute by supplying food items that are not as cooking intensive. Rice, for example, requires extended cooking times, and burns more wood. Preferred choices for reducing cooking times include fresh meat, fruits and vegetables. If fresher food choices were demanded from the NGOs and international community, it also would encourage more local purchases, triggering economic growth.
Rooftop gardens are among the sustainable land- and water-use programs refugees are undertaking. Dheisheh, an older refugee camp in Palestine where space is limited, uses open water pipes to create gardens, a process that also encourages better water management.
Increasing environmental sustainability could lead to improved relationships between local populations and refugees. If local residents see the effort refugees are putting into maintaining and cultivating the land, there is a chance the divide could be decreased as they share in new work to preserve their natural environment. Currently the competition over resources has only increased struggles between the two groups.
These opportunities invite serious consideration by groups working to improve the situation for refugees by mediating visible and dire necessities of the refugees as well as reducing some of the root causes of suffering. So often, environmental concerns are overlooked in times of great humanitarian crisis, but they can be transformed in to opportunities for renewed environmental sustainability.
Julie Cook is a graduate student graduate student at the Diplomacy and International Relations School at Seton Hall University. He work focuses on international environmental policy.