Nyumanzi in the northwestern Uganda district of Adjumani was a vast grassland with shrubs and trees, parts were forested.
Several kilometers away is Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement, the largest refugee settlement in the world. The settlement was formerly grassland and forest.
This phenomenon is replicated in other districts in this part of the country where South Sudan refugees have been resettled.
Figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show that Uganda hosts over 900,000 refugees from neighboring South Sudan. More refugees are expected as fighting continues back home.
Experts are now warning that as the world focuses on resettlement of the refugees, there is a silent and massive destruction of the environment.
Trees are being cut down to create space for shelter, farmland and wood fuel.
In Adjumani district, figures from the local government indicate that over 11 million trees have been cut down since the latest refugee influx started in December 2013.
As a result of these activities, the refugee and host communities have started facing the impact of the degradation.
Most of the refugees were placed in forested areas which are the watershed for most rivers and streams.
“Because of the degradation, even our river system and these small streams have been affected. They are silted and so they are drying up,” Charles Giyaya, the Adjumani District Environment Officer told Xinhua in a recent interview.
Last year, the region faced a prolonged dry spell which led to low crop yields that pushed up the food prices. Some experts attribute this to the cutting down of trees.
Because of the need to supply safe clean water, many water boreholes have been sunk in the settlements. This has come with its effects.
“We are experiencing the reduction of the water levels underground especially in the refugee settlement because there are lot of boreholes that have been drilled,” said Giyaya, noting that because of this, many of the boreholes are drying up.
The Ugandan government, UN and other partners are striving to replace what has been destroyed.
Refugee households in Adjumani were given 10 trees to plant but they were destroyed by the long dry spell.
Titus Jogo, the government official in charge of settlements in Adjumani argued that despite the setback, environmental protection must be scaled up.
He argued that there is need to have international collective responsibility to help fund projects aimed at protecting the environment in the refugee camps.
Giyaya told Xinhua that in Adjumani alone, over 700 million shillings (close to 200,000 U.S. dollars) are needed annually to replace what had been destroyed.
He said there should be tree planting programs that last more than three years to achieve the desired results.
“If we had a program that establishes a plantation and manages it up to three years when the trees can manage on their own, then I think we can achieve what was destroyed,” Giyaya said.
He said out of the 11 million trees that have been destroyed in Adjumani, only one million trees have been planted.
Expert also advised that instead of sinking more boreholes in the settlements, one borehole could be drilled and the water is piped to the different parts of the settlement.