Refugee camp in Nepal adopts eco ethos

A Bhutanese refugee camp in Damak, Nepal is giving its displaced inhabitants a brighter future thanks to green investment

From the outside, the Bhutanese refugee camp in Damak looks like a traditional Nepalese village. It’s surrounded by a thick jungle, and a sea of bamboo structures mingle with trees, making the camp ‘invisible’ from the nearby highway. What is remarkable about this Bhutanese settlement is how little it resembles the refugee camp of our imagination. It almost operates like an ad hoc sustainable village.

If it weren’t for a UN refugee agency banner, you would never think that you had just entered a place usually associated with rows of tents sheltering thousands of men, women and children queuing for aid handouts.

Here, from bamboo structures to solar lighting, several organisations have been building sustainable, eco-friendly projects that respond to refugees needs.

“Our family has had a very painful past. When the camps were first created, life was difficult. We are trying to resettle in Australia now, but living conditions here have improved a lot in the last couple of years,” a 60-year-old refugee told me as I explored the narrow alleys of this ‘mini-Bhutan’. I did a quick calculation and realised that he and his wife had been living in the refugee camp for more than 20 years.

“If it weren’t for a UN refugee agency banner, you would never think that you had just entered a place usually associated with rows of tents and queues for aid handouts.”

Situated between the emerging superpowers of India and China, the isolated Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, hailed by some as ‘the last Shangri-La’, has generated one of the highest numbers of refugees in the world in proportion to its population. Little did I know that behind its gross national happiness index lies the story of an inter-ethnic conflict which forced more than 100,000 refugees – almost one seventh of Bhutan’s total population – to seek asylum in Nepal.

When we hear of Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley struggling amid a harsh winter, or of the Nigerian refugee crisis, the orderly accommodations of this Bhutanese refugee camp truly seem to be an exception to the rule. The site has gradually been ‘upgraded’ as various organisations started linking green and environmentally sustainable projects to issues of development and livelihood.

Susmita, a 35-year-old refugee shared that until five years ago there was no lighting; after sunset the camp would shroud in darkness. Refugees were forced to use a minimum of 1 litre of kerosene a month just to light their rooms. Simple activities such as studying for children were difficult; visiting the toilet and collecting water dangerous, particularly for women and girls.

As part of the overall improvement of living conditions, more than 176 street solar lights have been installed “raising security and comfort standards for refugees”, Santosh Shrestha, representative of solar company Suryodaya Urja explained.

The company set up the renewable energy infrastructure and trained refugees to independently maintain the system. Most Bhutanese have not had any paid work since living in the refugee camp, but the project provides a degree of ‘green-job skills’ suitable for future employment after possible resettlement – a prospect that looks increasingly likely. In 2007 a total of 107,807 Bhutanese refugees were registered in Nepal, following the implementation of a major third-country resettlement programme. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that less than 10,000 refugees will be left in the camps by the end of 2016.

Walking around the bamboo huts I notice several reflectors that look like the remains of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. I was later told that the camp is home to the world’s largest solar cooking project. The Vajra Foundation supplied and installed about 7,000 solar cookers, benefiting the 25,000 Bhutanese refugees who are currently living in two camps.

“When we started distributing solar cookers there was a kerosene shortage in the camp. Today, refugees still use them, although less. We took this idea from similar projects which were set up in camps across Africa,” Dor Bahandur Bhandari, vice chairman of the Vajra Foundation told me.

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Since refugees usually don’t work during the day when the sun is high, they are able to cook dinner in advance without having to spend money on gas or kerosene. Because it uses no fuel and costs nothing to operate, solar cooking is useful in refugee camps where people are housed closely together, and the danger of accidental fires is high. Suraj, a man in his 30s, told me of the several fire breakouts which displaced hundreds of Bhutanese refugees and destroyed their huts.

Finding a home away from home is challenging for most refugees. But in this microcosm, carrying out daily activities is relatively easy; you see women fetching water and hear children repeating the alphabet from their classrooms. Elders told me that the quality of public health and education has been adversely affected by the departure of skilled refugee workers who were resettled. Yet you can still see youngsters running home gardening projects that help the community to break the dependency on donor aid and external assistance to meet its daily food needs.

Most of the camp is built in bamboo available locally in the southern part of Nepal; a highly renewable resource which has long been common in Asia and the South Pacific. From schools to huts, the bamboo structures prove just how durable, eco-friendly and aesthetically pleasing the perennial evergreen plant can be.

Over the years, I visited several camps in both Asia and the Middle East, where degradation of resources and the environmental concerns that affected refugees were largely ignored. Most of the 50 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide are living in appalling conditions with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement and inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation. Even though the majority of Bhutanese refugees dream of going back home or of being resettled, their current living conditions in Nepal allow them to live in a secure and peaceful environment.