Dollo Ado — Ethiopians would like to continue to be good Samaritans to the hundreds of thousands seeking refuge from drought and conflict in neighbouring Somalia, but massive camps in fragile environments have sparked concern among both the government and the people sharing space with the refugees.
"We have had a million refugees at one time," said Ayalew Awoke, Ethiopia's deputy director for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), the government's refugee agency. Ayalew helped establish ARRA more than two decades ago.
"But the environmental damage these camps have done to our environment is irreversible - wooded areas have turned into barren land, as happened in Hartisheikh near Jijiga [in the southern Somali region], which hosted more than 200,000 Somalis at one stage."
Hundreds of thousands of Somalis arrived in Hartisheik, located near the border with Somalia, amid the armed opposition to Siad Barre's government in 1988 and clan warfare in the early 1990s, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). They congregated in what became, for a time, the world's largest refugee camp. "The first refugees arrived in appalling conditions; many died of exhaustion, hunger and lack of water," said the agency.
"Since the influx of the Somali refugees in 1988, the areas around their camps have been severely eroded. Now, both refugees and Ethiopians have to travel miles in search of wood for fuel and shelter," UNHCR reported in 1996. "The long-term consequences are expected to be costly for the host community which will bear the burden long after the Somalis are gone."
The damage is still unfolding. Ethiopia's Somali region is now home to the world's second-largest refugee complex, Dollo Ado, and it saw the world's largest influx of Somali refugees this year.
The region's fragile environment is also one of the most vulnerable to climate change, with decreasing rains and soaring temperatures putting its predominantly agro-pastoralist population at great risk,according to climate scientist Chris Funk of the US Geological Survey.
Melkadida, a rural settlement in southern Ethiopia, about 75km from Somalia and from Dollo Ado, offers a vivid illustration of these problems. Until last year, Melkadida's 20,000-odd residents led lives largely untouched by development, with few shops and no school or clinic.
Then drought struck the Horn of Africa in 2011, driving more than 40,000 Somali refugees into their 'kebele', or neighbourhood. Their arrival, and the subsequent attention of the international aid community, brought positive developments, including a school and medical facilities. But it also did considerable harm, destroying the environment and introducing a culture of consumerism and waste, says Ahmed Mohammed, the kebele's chair.
His tone is devoid of malice or accusation. Rather, he acknowledges the refugees' predicament: "They have lost a lot more than we have, and in times of need, we have to share with our brothers."
Still, the once pristine and wooded environment of the kebele has been destroyed, Mohammed said. "We have more than twice our number of people who also need wood to cook food, build houses, fences and beds - all our trees are gone within the 10km radius of our kebele."
Trees bring rain, he reckons, and without them the rains are becoming scarce. Melkadida residents were also affected by the drought in 2011, and they fear the diminishing rains will make things even worse in the future.
The newcomers also created a massive market that introduced plastic bags to the area; in the last two years, at least 200 cows and goats died from ingesting plastic bags. At least 600 animals, mostly goats, were also stolen, sometimes at gunpoint.
"The Somali refugees, who are mostly pastoralists, are used to eating meat, which they are not getting, so we understand," said Mohammed. "We do not like to raise these issues - you are asking so we are telling you."
These concerns were also recently raised by a team conducting an evaluation of the humanitarian response, funded by a variety of UN agencies and Save the Children.
How long will the camps remain?
Somalis continue to arrive in Dollo Ado, driven by poor rains and the threat of insurgent group Al-Shabab at home. Their numbers have fallen from the peak 2,000 per day in July 2011 to an average of 30 per day.
Nuria Mohamed Nur spent 15 days traveling to Dollo Ado from Boden, in southwestern Somalia. She, like others IRIN spoke to, said she would have come earlier, perhaps last year, if the money had been available. "We borrowed from family, relative and friends to pay drivers," she said.
By October this year, more than 25,000 Somalis had fled to Ethiopia - making it the largest recipient of Somali refugees in the region so far, according to UNHCR. There are five camps already full and a sixth camp is being planned.
The host community and Ethiopian officials have begun to voice concerns over the apparent long-term nature of the Somalis' displacement. "We understand the need, and we can have the camps here for two or three years, but not more than that," said an ARRA official in Dollo Ado.
Assistance at home
There have been reports that Somalia might be on its way to finding peace, and efforts are underway to provide assistance to Somalis within Somalia, said Russell Geekie, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Somalia.
"The number of IDPs [internally displaced people] heading toward Doolow [a Somali town across the border from Dollo Ado] or crossing into Dollo Ado has dropped dramatically," he said. Even so, insecurity in Somalia remains a concern, especially in areas that were affected by famine last year.
"Humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organizations working in Somalia continue to explore access to areas throughout southern and central Somalia to improve the provision of services to those in need in their areas of origin," he continued. "People are better served if we can limit their need to move far from home to seek assistance - be it toward one of Somalia's borders or urban areas such as Mogadishu [the Somali capital]."
Humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP), are providing assistance to people in need in Luuq, in Somalia's southern Gedo Region. But there is concern that aid provided in these centres could create more camps, drawing people from rural areas. Geekie said the aid agencies "are also very mindful of pull factors".
UNHCR's environmental guidelines (as well as the 2005 revised version) suggest the host community should play a leading role in minimizing the environmental impact of refugee camps. "The host government's openness to enter into a technical dialogue with the donors on this, and related issues, is thus considered important," it said.
ARRA's Awoke says he has raised the issue with donors and agencies but he is not satisfied with the response. "People and the media have already forgotten the famine in Somalia - we are still living the consequences."
Awoke says most people do not appreciate the impact the refugees have had. "Imagine if 200,000 or 300,000 people just showed up in a European country," he said.
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.