How to Permaculture Refugee Camps

Malcolm Johnstone
Thursday, 9th March 2017

How permaculture principles and design can be applied to refugee camps to make them more sustainable and liveable.

Temporary IDP camps (internally displaced camps) built for those in Iraq, as well as many other conflict situations, are often more permanent than initially planned.

Camps built in a few weeks for an influx of people are, years later, small towns with shops, schools and bustling social activity. These towns however, are not sustainable due to the lack of an industrial or agricultural base. Simply, they don't create any internal value to trade with outside. Instead they rely on external inputs – government salaries for a lucky few – but more often, food vouchers, goods and cash from humanitarian organizations.

Aspects of permaculture can improve the sustainability of these camps and have positive effects on food security, nutrition, livelihoods and self-esteem.

Given that the camps are usually planned quickly in accordance with long-established planning guidelines, the usual starting point for implementing ideas from permaculture is in an existing camp, rather than in the spatial planning phase. (Though, permaculture has a lot to say about spatial design). That said, there are many permaculture aspects that can be implemented at the household plot level and in the water reticulation system that have excellent impacts.

WASH, or Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, in the humanitarian sector has the most promise from a permaculture perspective. Innovations in this area have the potential to assist in the production of food, help protect shelters through establishing wind-breaks, beautify a neighbourhood, employ people and increase the skills, social interaction and self-esteem of camp residents. Here is how to get there:

Food

Thinking in zones is a design technique in permaculture that helps reduce the effort required to make a system work. The zones are determined by the place where most of the activity happens – usually the home – and the availability of water – which could be from the roof of the house, or another location.

The inner zone is a great place to grow herbs and vegetables for use in the kitchen. These kitchen gardens require a relatively high amount of water, so should be placed near to both the kitchen and a water source. In camp settings there is often enough space around a shelter or tent for a small and productive kitchen garden.

Slightly further away, in zone 2, fruit trees might be planted, as they require less water. Raising chickens might be considered here to keep the weeds down, fertilize the soil and provide eggs and meat.

Taking advantage of paths that are travelled often is a useful innovation of permaculture systems. If people are already moving in a direction, why not plant something along the way that they can tend or pick? In a camp situation if water must be carried some of it could be used to water plants on route. If the chickens are on a convenient path then kitchen scraps can easily be fed to them. 

Protecting shelters

The borders of the camp, or along the sides of streets are good places to run drains, and to grow trees as windbreaks. Exposure to the wind and sun reduces the life of an emergency tent and protection from these elements makes a camp a more pleasant place to live. Fast growing trees can be planted at the outset of camp construction.

Employment

Permaculture relies a lot on manual labour so is suited to camps where labour is one of few assets people have. Setting up systems of water reticulation and planting trees can often be supported financially by humanitarian organizations. The systems can then be maintained by camp residents. 

Skills, Social interaction and Self-esteem

Boredom in IDP and refugee camps is a real issue for residents. Learning skills and undertaking activities can be a way to achieve various aims at personal and community levels. The process of planning, digging, planting and tending can be therapeutic, can deliver new knowledge and can integrate a community together.

Beauty

Stark rows of tents, often in remote locations, provide uninspiring views for camp residents every day. Permaculture, with its focus on gardening, can assist with beautifying an environment with plants. Living fencing can replace fences, and if planted in a zigzag can provide plenty of ecological niches to support other types of plants and animals.

It’s never too early to start thinking from a permaculture perspective. Humanitarian organizations in Iraq should start now!

Useful links

How permaculture can respond to refugee camps

Building resilience after earthquakes

Creating community through language

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