An Eye Opening Visit to the World’s Second Largest Refugee Settlement: Bidi Bidi

Posted on March 6th, 2019

HYT has taken the exciting first steps West of the Nile to work in the world’s second largest refugee settlement: Bidi Bidi. The settlement is home to 750,000 South Sudanese refugees making it Uganda’s, unofficial, second largest city.

Bidi Bidi, located in Uganda’s extreme North West, has spectacular semi-arid landscape.

Yumbe Town, an NGO Epicentre

Yumbe town, previously a small, rural trading centre is now a hive of NGO activity at the heart of the settlement. Large UN trucks kick up the dust while electrical generators buzz constantly to compensate for the lack of a central grid.

The settlement resembles and operates much like many rural towns in Uganda.

The difference in landscape and climate between Jinja, HYT’s base in the South-East, and the extreme North-West is drastic. It is late February, Bidi Bidi has gone four months without rain and the temperature regularly exceeds 40oC.

The environment is unable to sustain the massive population of refugees. Monthly food packages arrive from the World Food Programme.

A UN-NGO Government

The massive influx of people in 2016 initiated an immense international effort to meet the needs of the men, women and children who were forced to flee their homes. Spearheaded by the UN, who are supported by a multitude of organisations, the settlement has left the emergency phase and entered recovery. The UNHCR (UN refugee agency) have a monumental task of managing the effort to ensure refugees are accommodated for according to the Sphere Humanitarian standards.

The UN Refugee Agency branded tarpaulins are very common in the area, a constant reminder of the humanitarian crisis still ongoing.

Under the guidance and management of the UNHCR, NGO’s form consortiums to tackle each sector of development: Livelihoods, Shelter, Food, WASH, education and protection. Each consortium is lead by a nominal NGO.

HYT’s arrival was timely, finding an environmentally friendly alternative to the burnt brick is a hot topic amongst NGO’s involved in construction.

HYT was delighted to attend the monthly meeting for the shelter department and the Zone 3 partner meeting, both lead by the UNHCR. It soon became apparent that the big players in construction were very serious about understanding ISSB and incorporating it into their plans.

The HYT team soon found excellent marrum deep in the heart of the settlement.

Devastating Deforestation

The humanitarian crisis has taken its toll on the environment. The tree population has been decimated for cooking and construction. A recent environmental impact assessment conducted in Imvepi refugee settlement found that 80-90% of firewood is used for brick burning, it has reached such extreme levels that the office of the Prime Minister is considering banning NGO’s and contractors from buying burnt bricks.

We counted 119 brick burning kilns during a 20 minute drive from Yumbe to Zone 3, Bidi Bidi.

It is no longer just environmentally conscious individuals or organisations applying pressure on NGO’s and contractors to find an alternative to the burnt brick; the environment itself is applying pressure: there simply are not enough trees.

Mango trees are some of the only species that live to maturity thanks to their high yields.

Firewood is imported from far flung regions as there are not enough trees in Bidi Bidi to keep up with demand. Meanwhile, frequent conflicts occur over the few remaining trees between refugee and host communities. The deforestation leaves the semi-arid region vulnerable to climate change, soil degradation and desertification.

The skills passed on to HYT graduates are more valuable than ever as influential players wake up to the need for sustainable construction.

It is a very exciting time to working with ISSB, HYT with its 12 years of experience is looking to lead the movement away from burnt bricks and transform Uganda’s construction industry.

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