Envisioning A Green Refugee Settlement

Simbi Foundation
5 min readJul 4, 2022

Issues regarding climate change can lead one to feel quite hopeless when we are not seeing government action at the rate necessary. An additional lack of corporate action to prevent climate change means people in underserved communities around the world are being left behind. International governments who have failed to take action and support Uganda in their refugee response have left refugees without support with environmental matters.

The solar panel installation on our BrightBox classroom at Yoyo Central School.

At Simbi Foundation, environmental sustainability is a core element of our initiatives to enhance access to education in remote and refugee communities globally. We are dedicated to being conscious of our environmental impact and maintaining hope in the face of climate change.

Critical actions must be taken globally to ensure a greener, fairer future for all life on our planet. Keep reading to see some of the approaches we take to mitigate our environmental impact in our projects.

Environmental Struggles in Refugee Settlements

The UNHCR estimates that there are 82.4 million refugees worldwide, 86% of whom are hosted in developing countries. Consider Bidibidi refugee settlement, located in northern Uganda, which is home to 240,000 people seeking refuge from war and instability in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Burundi.

A glimpse of the challenge with waste management in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement.

People seeking refuge in settlements like Bidibidi face unimaginable challenges. A study conducted in 2019 at Bidibidi refugee settlement involving the UNHCR offers insights regarding these challenges that we can consider:

The shift towards ever more permanent refugee settlements has fostered a need for self sufficiency and a dependency on the environment of the settlement. Sudden, dense population growth (as was seen in Bidibidi in 2018 as the South Sudanese civil war hit a peak) puts a strain on the local environment, sparked by the immediate need to source building materials for accommodations and to clear land for agriculture. A lack of access to global resources, and an over-reliance on the UNHCR and NGOs, can quickly lead to a dependency on local timber for buildings and cooking fuel, causing mass deforestation. In Bidibidi, this has created a discrepancy between host communities and refugees, whose use of biomass fuel is asking even more of an already-depleting resource.

Global climate change also disproportionately affects those in developing countries or in remote or refugee settlement contexts, due to limited access to the resources needed to prevent or mitigate climate-driven events like flooding, droughts, or other extreme weather. Communities living in Bidibidi, for example, explained how the rainy season is becoming more and more difficult to predict, seemingly arriving later each year. These extreme and uncertain weather conditions hinder agricultural prosperity — a means of income for communities and an already scarce source of food.

The start of a new community can enable more challenges. A demand for resources along with a lack of access to education and international government support for Uganda’s refugee response is another contributing factor to a large dependence on local natural resources. Further, a new population can take time to develop social cohesion and strong leadership to evoke environmentally sustainable initiatives.

Envisioning a Green Refugee Settlement: How We Can All Help

One of the biggest challenges of achieving a green refugee settlement is fostering both environmental sustainability and refugee prosperity. Given the variety of challenges already faced by refugees, let’s consider what we can do to help.

Data sharing between humanitarian organizations and government operations, in settlements like Bidibidi, is key for maximizing impact. Active communication among these organizations can prevent an overlap of efforts in some areas and insufficient support in others.

Enhancing access to education in refugee settlements is another key factor to promoting environmental sustainability. Education focused on adaptation and resilience can help protect agricultural livelihoods, while education on broader environmental matters can improve leadership initiatives including waste management and deforestation reduction. We’re proud that the offline digital library in BrightBox classrooms, Simbi Learn Cloud, includes incredible resources for each of these areas. Click here to demo the resources we make available.

A student using Simbi Learn Cloud to access learning materials in the BrightBox at Yoyo Central School.

Lastly, let’s consider a global response to prevent further climate change. The disproportionate exacerbation of climate change on developing communities like refugee settlements is out of their control. One of the most impactful things we can do to be a part of the solution is to campaign and put pressure on our local governments to take climate action and ensure that no one is left behind on a global scale.

Simbi Foundation’s Initiatives

Our environmentally sustainable projects aim to achieve our shared vision of green refugee settlements with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and our partnered communities. At Simbi Foundation, our goal of being environmentally sustainable has translated into various projects that we aim to scale and utilize to improve our environmental impact in refugee settlements.

Our BrightBox classrooms are solar-powered, creating a sustainable energy micro-grid for schools and means that schools can rely less on dirty energy for their core operations (lighting, projectors, etc.) replacing a common practice of burning coal or timber for energy. The solar panels on the roof of the BrightBox create a clean and renewable energy source that can power multiple classroom blocks in a school, as well as the technology inside it and a community device charging service.

Our Interlocking Stabilized Soil Block (ISSB) water catchment tanks are made with sustainable resources. The bricks for the water catchment tanks are created from local soil and clay at the construction site, mixed with minimal cement. Shaped using a press, and left to dry naturally, harsh emissions and deforestation required for traditional fired bricks are removed. These ISSB tanks are also far more durable and less environmentally damaging than plastic barrel tanks.

The Interlocking Stabilized Soil Block (ISSB) water catchment tank at Yoyo Central School.

Furthermore, the BrightBox classroom is made from a recycled shipping container! Implementing a recycled shipping container is not only cost efficient, but reduces waste and demand for supplementary building material obtained through deforestation or fire burned bricks.

Together these projects aim to enhance access to education — a key factor of promoting environmental awareness throughout entire communities. Simbi Foundation will continue to prioritize sustainability in our projects and hopefully inspire more organizations to do the same so that nobody gets left behind as we work together to take care of our planet.

Written by: Emily Messmer