Turning Refugee Camps Into Cities in the Ethiopian Desert

UN agencies, NGOs, and private companies work together to help refugees have an independent future
February 8, 2018 Updated: February 24, 2018

MELKADIDA, Ethiopia—In a remote corner of Ethiopia cluster five refugee camps, filled with Somalis who over the last 10 years have been driven from across the border by extremist Islamic violence and several years of punishing drought. Now, Ethiopia, with the help of U.N. agencies, NGOs, and private corporations is looking to turn these refugees into citizens, to help them become self-reliant, rather than dependent, and to transform their camps into cities—sustainable cities.

It is a bold plan, finding a permanent solution for those marooned in transient camps. My husband and I have had a front row seat as this effort gets off the ground, as work is being done to bring power to the camps and a newly burgeoning agriculture to this semi-desert.

We arrived in mid-November on a dirt runway at the airport in Dolo Ado, or “Dollo” as the locals call it. This is Ethiopia’s southernmost eastern region that backs up to the Kenya and Somalia borders, a tri-country place where all the local peoples mix and mingle, trade and deal.

The Ganale River has never dried up and gives birth to the possibility of sustainable life for these refugee camps, host communities, and Dolo Ado city.

Around 220,000 refugees are living in the camps Buramino, Hilaweyn, Kobe, Melkadida, and Bokolmanyo. Upon our arrival at our new home at the Melkadida United Nations High Court of Refugees (UNHCR) base, George Woode, head of UNHCR Sub-Office, briefs us on the situation here.

The weather is a scorching 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and the rainy season has just ended. For months during our stay here the sun is always shining with not a cloud in the sky, so it is no surprise that solar power seems to be made for this environment.

My husband is here with the group Engineers Without Borders (EWB). They have been assisting UNHCR’s Energy Team with installing five mini-grid solar systems for the medical clinics in each camp, plus small solar home systems for elderly or vulnerable persons so that these people will have lights at night and a charging unit for cell phones.

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Smiles all around as the solar grid is handed over at the Bokolmanyo health clinics. (L–R) Abdullahi Mohomed Adow, the energy ambassador of Bokolmanyo; Swee Sim, Engineers Without Borders; Diana Benato, UNHCR’s energy team coordinator; and Dr. Yared Henock. (Lisa Sim/Epoch Times)

Before we arrived, a solar street light program was already underway. EWB is also assisting with the training of ten persons from each camp dubbed solar technicians, who will specialize in solar energy repair and future installations. The technicians have been working on the solar street light program with the help of an American company called GAIA Partners.

In the near future, the solar technicians will earn a livelihood directly from the community by fixing, installing, and maintaining these solar technologies, without the camps needing to rely on outside support.

For now, the Ikea Foundation has provided the funding for the solar projects in these five camps. The foundation wants to make sure these solar projects get off the ground, and, when completed, hand them over to the camps for their direct ownership and care, so the camps can be independent and on their own.

Safer at Night

Abdullahi Mohomed Adow is the energy ambassador and head of the solar technicians at the Bokolmanyo Camp. He has been at the camp for eight years now, and, coming from a busy Somalian city, it was hard for him to adjust to rural life at the camp.

He explained, “Living in a refugee camp is not easy. I am educated and have skills in computer hardware. I like to work with my own arms and not rely on other people’s arms for help, but I have not much choice here.”

Epoch Times Photo“Solar is a new, safer technology so talking about it from a professional level and a business level we see the positive aspects,” Adow said. “From a professional side we learn new skills, and we can receive good wages with solar. From a business level, we see it is safer than the generators all the businesses use, as one young girl died from a generator shock not long ago here at the camp.”

I was told it was very dark at night before the solar street lights came. Since their installation, I hear stories from each camp about how the young girls are safer and how people are now able to avoid the snakes and scorpions that crawl around this area after dark.

Adow confirmed this. “Yes, it is much safer at night with these solar street lights. Especially young girls and old people like it very much.”

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A man and his donkey cart haul maize to be sold at the market in the Melkadida refugee camp in Ethiopia. (Lisa Sim/Epoch Times)

At the handover of two mini-grid systems to the Bokolmanyo health clinics, the new owners are presented a list of new responsibilities, solar care instructions, and how to budget the new systems now that they will not need to use the older fuel-sucking generators any longer.

“The fuel costs saved should go into the budget for batteries,” explained Diana Benato, UNCHR’s Energy Teams head coordinator, who led the handover to the smiling faces of the doctors and nurses that now own the solar grid systems.

“This is an exciting day of independence,” said one health care worker at Bokolmanyo clinic. Dr. Yared Henock agreed, “We are very happy to have the solar to keep the lights on and our sterilizer working here.”

In 2018, 650 more solar street lights will be installed, 4,500 small solar home systems will also be put up in the homes of the beneficiaries, and 52 other larger mini-grid systems will be up and running in the next few years. The larger mini-grid systems will either supplement or supplant the use of diesel generators to provide power to the camps.

All of these solar installations will be spread among the five camps equally as well as among the Ethiopian host communities that were here before the refugees arrived. The solar technicians should have a lot of work available to keep food on the table and money in the community

Looking to the Future

I ask Adow what he sees in the future of Bolkomanyo as far as energy independence goes, and if this place can really become a city.

“Yes, yes for sure we can have more independence,” he said, “with solar and less rely on generators for fuel. We can save money and as an energy cooperative we can use that money to put toward our new businesses, like for transportation and other tools.”

I do not see a city here in the very near future, but we see it in the future for sure, and it is exciting. It will come.
— Abdullahi Mohomed Adow, energy ambassador, Bokolmanyo Camp

“We can see wind and hydro in the future, as we have those resources here. Though we have our many challenges as refugees, I am very grateful for the donors that support us, and I pray for them every day for thanks. I do not see a city here in the very near future, but we see it in the future for sure, and it is exciting. It will come.”

An “Energy Awareness Day” in each camp brings out hundreds of people, both young and old, who learned about the importance of taking care of the solar street lights and the importance of solar independence. The events are spirited, with a live band that sings original songs about solar energy. Also, a live drama is performed.

In one act, a young kid throws a rock to break the solar street light as he feels it is too bright, and he cannot make out anywhere with his new girlfriend. As a result, an older lady walking in the now dark area falls and gets stung by a scorpion. All the actors scold the young boy for breaking the light. Then the solar technicians get called and come to fix the light. The audience sends a loud round of applause and laughs, and the music plays again.

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Newly built canals funnel Ganale River water to plants from a huge diesel pump. Melkadida farmers hope to replace the diesel pump with a solar model soon. (Lisa Sim/Epoch Times)

Making the Desert Bloom

At the UNHCR compound, we pile into Toyota 4×4’s and head out on the dusty, rocky terrain that the locals call roads here. We bump along, passing goat herders and a few donkey carts along the way while avoiding washed out cement bridges that used to go over the flash flood areas during the rainy seasons.

The air is very hot, dry, and thick with dust. Our AC is not working in the over 100-degree heat, and my thin scarf serves as a filter so I can breathe. Then in the distance, we see green vegetation, like an oasis, against the crusty brown and red colors that dominate everything else.

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“That’s the Ganale River!”, exclaimed Awale Degewoine, the UNHCR associate agriculture officer who works the agriculture sector in the five refugee camps in the area. He points his finger and traces the green horizontal line in the distance.

The Ganale is a major river that flows from northern Ethiopia and then joins the Dawo River from the south and the Webi River from the north to become the massive Juba River that pulses through Somalia like a lifeblood, before finally spilling into the Indian Ocean. The Ganale River has never dried up and gives birth to the possibility of sustainable life for these refugee camps, host communities, and Dolo Ado city.

The road becomes less rocky and gives way to soft dirt as tall maize plants start to surround our vehicle. Birds sing and the air feels fresher the closer we drive toward the river.

I notice some bananas and papayas as we step out of the vehicle. Awale proudly shows me the pumping station with its gigantic diesel pump that irrigates several mile-long canals that cut through over 80 hectares (198 acres) of well-cropped land.

He smiles broadly, and said, “We can grow maize, sorghum for cereals and animal feed. We grow onions, tomatoes, and hot peppers for vegetables. For fruits, we have here watermelon, bananas, papayas, and now, after several years of grafting, we can grow mangoes! For citrus, we have limes and lemons. We also have a new forage crop, Sudan grass, that helps farmers to not use all the maize for animal feedstock, and this makes for better silage. We even make our very own sesame oil.”

I learn from Awale that the land is equally split between the Somali refugees and the host communities. Each hectare is cut in half between one refugee and one host. They can grow what they like, but try to keep a variety so no one crop dominates the fields. Maize was the main crop of choice before the refugees came about nine years ago. It was consumed by both animals and humans.

Bigger Pumps

This is the first big harvest using the new pump and the new canals. Mohamed Ibrahim, the agricultural chairman for the host community of Melkadida, reflects on how things have changed, as Awale translates for him: “You see, before the refugees came we had very little land to cultivate and our six water pumps were small and broke often. We had a lot of droughts. Yet we still managed to have good crops and make a living from farming.

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A new forage crop called “Sudan Grass” is held by a farmer in the refugee camp of Melkadida in Ethiopia. (Lisa Sim/Epoch Times)

“We have now a new scenario since the refugees have come, we have a new bigger pump, better canals for water, and we have more crops, not just maize. We expect very high yields this harvest, and we will become independent to run our farms to make food and a nice living.”

For now, UNHCR is funding the crops and the fuel that runs the pumps, plus fixing anything that breaks. In 2018, the farmers should make enough money off their harvests to fund any repairs, and the fuel and seeds needed in the future. They will then be a cooperative like the solar technicians and run their own businesses.

Awale is working passionately at helping the farmers save seeds and learn composting. He strives for organic practices. He believes in even keeping some of the native skills of hand tilling the soil instead of bringing in large, expensive equipment that he feels only destroys the soil, making for more weeds that leads to more pesticides.

Awale said, “Even though the farmers will have their independence we, at UNHCR, will be a consultant for them as long as needed, to help them constantly improve.” He sees solar powered pumps replacing the diesel ones as another advancement for their sustainable future.

New Businesses

I ask Ibrahim what has changed in Melkadida over the past six years? He answers with a glimmer in his eyes as he looks toward Melkadida in the background: “We have seen a lot of changes, but the best ones are new businesses, like the grain house, the slaughterhouse, and a bigger market for more goods to be sold. I hope in the future this can become a sustainable city soon!”

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Mohamed Ibrahim stands proudly next to one of the first grafted mangoes that will bear fruit in just a few years (instead of the 6 years that having fruit-bearing mangos would normally take). (Lisa Sim/Epoch Times)

As we leave the farming site Ibrahim gives me several ears of corn to take home. The corn is much different than American corn. It is not sweet, but very filling and tasty. The food here seems packed with nutrients and flavors.

Even though the peppers, tomatoes, and onions are much smaller than the U.S. versions, they taste better. The watermelon is so sweet with so many seeds it reminds me of the melons I ate when I was a kid in the ’60s.

After months living in the camps, it is time for us to leave. As our plane rises from Melkadida’s new airport, which opened just a few weeks ago, I can see the camps far below. I imagine them becoming the sustainable cities that are hoped for, cities that may in the future have something to teach us.

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Miles of canals cross 80 hectares of land split up equally between host communities and refugees in Melkadida, Ethiopia. (Lisa Sim/Epoch Times)