I just skimmed through this 400 page study on the changing environmental landscape in Africa – it’s a truly remarkable report, that discusses everything from water resources, to the presence of phytoplankton along the coasts, to deforestation, arable land and urbanization, and provides a country-by-country analysis of the state of the environment on the continent.
400 pages is pretty long, but the press release is a good place to start and acts as an executive summary.
Interestingly, it had a section on the environmental impact and implications of refugee crises
Political conflicts tragically destroy lives and livelihoods. They also have adverse impacts on surrounding environments and signifi cant transboundary implications. Wars can destroy croplands, forests, waterways and their sources, and other natural resources, while refugees searching for safe havens can burden ecosystems and complicate environmental decision-making (Vanasselt 2003). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there were 2.4 million refugees in Africa at the end of 2006 (UNHCR 2006a). Environmental degradation can exacerbate conflict, which causes further environmental degradation, creating a vicious cycle of environmental decline, tense competition for diminishing resources, increased hostility, inter-communal fighting, and ultimately social and political breakdown. Ecological warning signs related to confl ict and its impacts include limited habitable space, decrease in production of goods, and a heavy human “footprint” (Wolf 2007).
They also have a map that accompanies this paragraph, showing the location of refugee camps around the continent. You’ll notice that almost every country on the continent is home to a refugee population – and, as events in South Africa and Ghana have demonstrated recently – these uprooted communities tend to be catalysts of instability. Refugee and IDP camps in the Eastern DRC are known to have harbored Hutu rebels since the genocide in Rwanda, prompting international aid agencies to pull out or minimize their assistance – which means, among other things, that these communities need to live as scavengers in their environments.
As the paragraph above rightly notes, we are going to start seeing a lot more displacement due to natural causes, to environmental destruction – recently, events in Myanmar and China demonstrated this. The conflict in Sudan is in part due to a fight over the availability and sharing of natural resources, which are less abundant than they used to be. As a result, even if conflicts on the African continent tend to be diminishing, as this report highlights, we may see a shift in the causes that create refugee situations, particularly as the natural environment becomes further depleted.
In Guinea, the environmental consequences of population movements are of frightening proportions:
Less than one-third of Guinea is now forested,reflecting many decades of uncontrolled deforestation. The primary drivers include growing demand for agricultural land and dependence on wood and charcoal for 90 per cent of all energy needs. The humid tropical forests of southeast Guinea have been reduced to less than five per cent of their original extent (CBD 2002). This is in part due to an influx of at least 600 000 refugees from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire during the past 15 years, which has placed increased demand on forest resources. Refugees have expanded the local populations by as much as 40 per cent in some areas, resulting in local population densities close to 400 people per square kilometre (CBD 2002).
Overall, the report is slightly frightening. I encourage you to check out the amazing “before and after” satellite photos, which couldn’t be more clear in showing the high level and incredible pace of environmental destruction. The drying up of Lake Chad, a vital source of fresh water for the Sahel region, is testament to this.
It is encouraging, however, that this report was published, and that light is being shed on this issue. When it comes to socio-economic development, it is now absolutely clear that environmental constraints will have to be mainstreamed into development strategies if those are to be sustainable.