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Environmental Impact of Refugees in Guinea

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Executive Summary
In July 1999, at the request of the Government of Guinea, the Secretary General asked UNEP to look into the environmental impacts of the refugee situation in Guinea. Over the years many Liberians and Sierra Leoneans have been forced to flee their homes because of conflicts in West Africa. Many moved to the border area in Guinea. To ascertain the environmental impact to the area, UNEP, in close cooperation with UNCHS and UNHCR, executed a pre-assessment: a rapid assessment consisting of a desk study and field mission. The pre-assessment does not pretend to have mastered all the subtleties of the environmental impacts -both physical and human- caused by the refugees in Guinea, nor does it pretend to present a complete overview of all activities taking place and all stakeholders involved. For this a full scale assessment would be needed. But UNEP feels that although more data and information would be needed for detailed findings and detailed recommendations, the pre-assessment provides sufficient basis for a follow-up as proposed in the recommendations section of this report. Not surprisingly, with such a transit population, it has proved to be difficult to accurately assess the total number of refugees, as not all refugees are registered, and many are living outside the UNHCR refugees camps. It is estimated that over 300,000 refugees live in the rural areas in Southern Guinea, while a same number are living in the urban centres (mainly in the south, but also in Conakry).

The Guinea Government, UNHCR and the Guineans themselves are to be commended for the manner in which they received the refugees. The refugees were allowed to freely locate in small camps close to existing villages, which has resulted in a high level of integration with the local population. This integration and synergy has prevented greater environmental damage.

High population densities in the rural areas and urban centres, mainly -but not solely- caused by the refugee influx, has resulted in a very high pressure on natural resources in southern Guinea. The apportion of the resources is unsustainable, leaving increasingly less natural resources available for an increasing population.

Some of the urban centres have received large refugee populations, in some cases exceeding the original population. While most attention and efforts are channelled towards the officially UNHCR camp registered refugees in the UNHCR refugee camps in the rural areas, the environmental problems in urban areas are also serious and to date not adequately addressed. There has been a rapid increase in solid waste generation without a viable system for collection and disposal in most urban centers. The national plans for the systematic and coherent development of potable water have been severely compromised by the large influx of refugees both in rural and urban areas, to the extent that demand now far outstrips available resources. The sanitation infrastructure and management in the urban centers is among the worst in West Africa.

There is an urgent need to promote practices that will encourage a more sustainable use of the natural resources in the rural areas. The ongoing need for arable land and the ongoing deforestation have significantly changed the landscape over the last years, with a general loss in biodiversity of indigenous plant and animal species. Specific issues are the shortening of fallow periods (decreasing soil fertility), deforestation, the conversion of swamps into agricultural areas (disturbed water systems). Reforestation with species with value to the local people should be supported. It is essential to increase local planning and maintenance capacities and clarify definitions of land ownership and users rights. The execution of reforestation initiatives should also be improved (coordination, maintenance).

Generally there is a good understanding concerning the environmental impact of the refugees by the organisations active in Guinea. However, present initiatives to address the environmental impacts are often sectoral, ad-hoc, short term, poorly coordinated, and concentrate only on the most affected areas. For example reforestation policies and practices are lacking far behind the Guinea Government's objectives, mainly due to lack of resources.

It is proposed to develop an urban programme with the objective to support the urban centers in Southern Guinea in building capacities in environmental management and planning. It is also proposed to develop an action plan for the protection and sustainable use of natural resources in the rural areas. Both the rural and urban initiative should address the urgent problems that are related to the refugee presence. Both initiatives should be presented during a Guinea donors conference that is being organised for later this year. They should be launched during a workshop to be organised in Guinea, where also the outcomes of this pre-assessment can be discussed with all stakeholders.

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