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Planning Dadaab, the world’s largest refugeee camp

Tents pitched by the team in Ifo extension camp on 26th July 2011. Photo courtesy of Rodgers Gacewa ( LWF/DWS Field Surveyor)

Dadaab in Kenya is the biggest refugee camp in the world. It is roughly 80 kms from the border with Somalia. Its population on 24 July 2011 was 387,893.  There were 40,434 new arrivals in July – equivalent to the population of a small town. Another 40,000 or so had arrived over the previous six months. They come from drought-stricken and war-scarred Somalia. The Dadaab complex is now Kenya’s fourth largest “city”. I have been talking to two young professional planners who work in the camp. This is what they told me.

Origins of Dadaab

Dadaab refugee complex was established in 1991 following the collapse of the Somali government. Since then it has become home to what are now generations of “temporarily” displaced people. The complex is mainly composed of three camps, Dagahaley, Hagadera and Ifo.  All these camps are within a radius of approximately 18km from Dadaab main offices which house the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its operating partners, including over 20 implementing partners.

The camps were originally designed for 90,000 people. As the capacity became exceeded there were discussions with the local host community and the Kenyan Government about the need for additional land to reduce congestion in the exiting camps.

These discussions started back in 2009. The outcome was the planning of extensions for the Ifo camp and at Kambi Oos, approximately 5 km away from Hagadera. However, it took a long time for the Kenyan government to give its consent for the two new camps; this only came on 21 July 2011. Both new camps are currently under construction for subsequent relocation of new arrivals.

The planners

The Lutheran World Federation/Department for World Service (LWF/DWS) was invited into Dadaab by UNHCR in October 2007. Their work includes camp management and planning. Their team is currently planning the two new camps, Ifo extension and Kambi Oos, which are targeted to settle 180,000 refugees by 30th November 2011. Jeremiah Atho Ougo and George Wesonga Auma are two young planners working in this team.

Jeremiah (28) graduated from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, in Urban and Regional Planning. He is a member of the Kenyan Institute of Planners (KIP). He has worked on planning and environmental projects in Nairobi and Kisumu, and is a registered Environmental Impact Assessment /Audit expert with Kenya’s National Environmental Management Authority.  He has been working in Dadaab for two years now.

George is pursuing a post graduate degree in Project Planning and Management at the University of Nairobi. He graduated as a physical planner from Maseno University in Kenya. He has over five years experience in physical planning having worked with government, in the private sector and currently with an NGO. He has also worked in Uganda with a private consultant in planning eight municipalities. He is a Graduate Member of KIP

Other planners working in Dadaab refugee camp with LWF/DWS include: Antony Mwangi, Nancy Achieng Auma, Duncan Nasengo and Elizabeth Apiyo Akello all of Maseno University, Regina Njeri Muchai  (post graduate of  ITC, University of Twente, Netherlands) and Daniel Njoroge of University of Nairobi.

The team also includes engineers and surveyors. It has the job of implementing the camp plans on the ground. This involves sub-dividing the proposed refugee sites into equal sized plots for residential use, and planning for basic services – roads, schools, recreation areas and health centres.

Environmental sustainability

As planners, they are acutely aware of the natural environment in which the camps are being developed. As Jeremiah explains, “Dadaab is in Kenya’s arid and semi arid lands.  There is a thorny vegetation cover, though some parts are severely flooded during rainy seasons. Extension to the camps were proposed and are currently being implemented with a target population of 180, 000 to begin with for the remaining part of this year. Particular environmental issues of these sites were identified through a combination of aerial images, Google Earth, thematic maps and field visits that were guided by the local community. Through this we were able to identify a site in a less fragile ecosystem. An environmental impact assessment was carried out as a basis for an environmental management plan for the area.”

Economic and social concerns

George explains that as planners they have made provision for land uses for income generating facilities that can help support refugees’ livelihoods. Similarly the layout has taken account of the need for spaces for primary and secondary schools, health facilities, and religious uses among others.  “We have had to recognise and plan for the social diversity of the residents”, he says. Thus there are playing fields on which youth organizations can play football, but also spaces for younger children too.

Participatory Planning

George and Jeremiah stress the participatory nature of the planning in Dadaab. “Women and minority groups in the very culturally diverse refugee communities are represented in Site Planning Committees” explains Jeremiah. “These Committees are responsible for monitoring the camp layout plan. Members get training for this task – thus building capacity and enhancing camp maintenance”.

George adds that local leadership and representatives of the host community, including government representatives, were fully involved throughout the process of planning the Ifo extension and Kambi Oos. He stresses the importance of planners’ communication skills in delivering the development. “When there are encroachments on green areas and other land use violations, skills in negotiation and conflict resolution become very important.”

Public service

At a time when many planners in the UK are feeling under pressure, the immense challenges faced by these practicing planners in the Dadaab refugee camps are a cause for sober reflection. The development of Dadaab has been very controversial in Kenya, with the government there concerned about the scale, permanence and costs of the immigration and fearful about insecurity. Conversely there are criticisms of the restrictions placed on those in the camps, which prevent them travelling elsewhere in Kenya.  In the midst of these tensions there are young planners doing a professional job with commitment, and looking for solutions that provide shelter and security for people in desperate need, aid livelihoods and respect the natural environment.

Today, planning’s public service ethos makes it unfashionable. Yet this ethos is fundamental to the deployment of planning skills as part of a humanitarian relief effort, as in Dadaab.  At this difficult time we need some iron in the soul.

Jeremiah and George were one of the winners of the Commonwealth Association of Planners Young Planners’ Essay Competition, 2010.

4 Responses

  1. Thanks Cliff for a fascinating and inspiring account of the experiences of planners working within this refugee camp.

    I think we forget when we see these camps on news broadcasts on TV the efforts of NGOs, UN and people (desperately trying to survive) in making these temporary settlements work in the face of extreme difficulties notwithstanding rapid growth. I once wondered (via my rather middle class western privileged existence) when ‘living’ in the temporary Glastonbury annual festival city of 250,000 people for just 3 days how the whole place managed to function in terms of order and resources. And this was a ‘camp’ which had millions of pound stirling of investment and thousands of staff and workers cleaning toilets and feeding revellers via hundreds of food stands.

    Therefore I commend, admire and greatly envy those Kenyan and Ugandan planners working on the frontline amongst the refugee people and its diverse community. There are lessons here for planners working in more developed nations in how we lose touch with people living in our cities and communities especially as we too easily sit at a desk for 8 hours a day without meeting/ speaking with people of the communities we serve. It also make me also wonder how we are not putting our skills to good practice and going to these areas of the world which are most in need of these skills we’ve acquired as planners.

    Well done to Jeremiah and George and good luck to them!

    • Thanks for these comments. One interestng statisitic I found while researching the Dadaab story is that in the six months from January to June this year, as the camps “overflowed” and informal settlement around the edges became more extensive, 358 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence were reported. In comparison the figure for last year was 75. Of course, not all assaults get reported, so one must be cautious about interpreting the figures, especially from far away. However, I would hypothesise from the coincidence of a sharp rise in assaults and the rapid spread of settlement beyond the planned areas of the camps, that the kind of planning that Jeremiah, George and their colleagues are doing helps reduce the risk of sexual violence. In general in the planned areas, and in the new planned extension, toilets are provided in locations where there is some oversight from police or refugee workers. However, the lack of such provision in the unplanned areas leaves women more vulnerable.

  2. Am one of the Refugees living in Dadaab complex since 1992, and iam appreciating UNHCRfor the Work they have done by extending and establishing new camps for Somalis refugee.

  3. As we rufugees our main problem is Buufis (resetlement isues). U may see a person waiting for 2 years only JVA, 4 those countries which offers resetlement such as USA, CANADA, UK, SWEDEN AUSTRALIA please make it easy…. For a period of six months is enough.
    Thanks.

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