It is estimated that there are presently some 30 million environmental refuges and a further 17 million other refugees and displaced persons from wars, persecution and other causes. The former have fled from resource scarcity, from deforestation and environmental degradation, climate change impacts, overpopulation, displacement by development projects, etc.
It has been suggested that the number of environmental refugees could rise to 150 million by 2050 as one of the results of climate change.
It was estimated that in 2001, some 12 million refugees and 5 million ‘internally displaced persons’ were forced to settle in resource-scarce areas, putting further pressure on people, water and the environment.
Large displacements of population can cause instability or conflict in the host country, country of origin, or within a region. They entail depletion of scarce resources, overcrowding, shortage of potable water and unsanitary conditions that can lead to disease epidemics. If sustainable systems are not put in place, water sources may be depleted and/or contaminated, which eventually could be a source of serious friction with local host communities.
Studies show that between one-third and half of all illnesses in refugee camps are caused by poor water supply, inadequate sanitation services and deficient hygiene practices.
In 1994, when one million Rwandans fled the country after the genocide to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, as many as 60,000 children died from a vicious cycle of water shortage and water-borne diseases, including cholera.
In some refugee schools, because of an inadequate water supply, over 40% of refugee school children regularly skip classes to help collect water. In some cases refugees have to wait six hours on average every day to collect water. As a result, they collect unsafe water at unguarded locations in an effort to save time, exposing themselves to assaults and multiplying the prevalence of diarrhoeal diseases.
The principles of water supply in refugee and internally displaced persons (IDPs) situations are based on core values that help protect their safety, rights and dignity. These include the following:
an equitable distribution of at least 20 litres per person per day of safe water, so that it does not become a source of power that can be abused for various forms of exploitation
secure access to water points so that the potential for sexual and gender-based violence is mitigated
an adequate number of water distribution points in close proximity to the dwellings, so that physical burden (time and energy) on women and children is lessened
participatory planning in place with the refugee community, so that development and operation management of the water supply system and sanitation and hygiene promotion activities are in accordance with their particular needs and cultural practices.
Source: UNESCO Water Portal, June 2006