Asking the right questions

What does climate change mean for potential returnees to, for example, South Sudan – a land from which many had fled several decades ago? Will people who have lived in camps for the intervening years be able to resume a productive agricultural livelihood, should they even wish to? Will the crops that they may have traditionally grown still be productive in an area that may now be drier and hotter than before? Has anyone assessed the groundwater availability and recharge capacity? Are the varieties of trees that aid and development agencies are planting to rehabilitate the environment in former refugee- or IDP-hosting areas the most appropriate for what may be a changing climate?

Answers to such questions are largely unknown, not necessarily because people cannot work out the consequences but because – by and large – the planners and managers of relief and development operations are not asking these questions.

More proactive, focused and appropriate assistance is urgently needed for returnee situations, for example where people who are finally leaving camps or camp-like situations are able to return to their former homes and attempt to re-establish their lives and their livelihoods. In most situations of this type, people are provided with only the most meagre levels of support – on a one-off basis. Families trying to rebuild their lives and livelihoods are often unable to make ends meet and may have no option but to turn to environmental exploitation as a source of revenue and income.

Many communities in northern Uganda are currently in this situation, being unable to afford fuel and food prices, and with restricted access to safe drinking water. While waiting for their first harvest to mature, people are turning to illegal charcoal making as a means of income, exporting it to South Sudan where market prices are five to six times the local cost in Uganda. The consequences of wholesale land clearance for charcoal making and agriculture must be expected to have longer-term negative consequences for such regions, for the people who may once again live there as well as for the environment.


David Stone ( is Director of ProAct Network, an NGO concerned with the environmental ramifications of human displacement (


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