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Quest4Africa Part 2 – Nature trails at Lake Tana and Sustainable Refugee Camps

Last week I participated in the second Quest4Africa (Q4A) workshop, which again took place in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Before I go into details, I want to share some words about the fantastic venue of the workshop. This time it was held in HoA-REC&N‘s (Horn of Africa Regional Environment Centre & Network) new headquarter, located in the Gulele Botanical Gardens (GBG), in an environmental friendly building, overlooking the city of Addis Ababa. This modern approach is more than a landmark and will be one of Addis Ababa’s beacons in the future.

“We pledge to have the first nature trail at Lake Tana functional before the next Quest4Africa event”

On invitation of UNESCO I participated in Q4A for the second time and one of my main tasks included a follow up of recommendations, based on my presentation from May, to work towards sustainable tourism at the recently established Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve. Following the opening ceremony and the key note presentations, I had to chair the session dedicated to tourism at Lake Tana. After a fruitful discussion, the members of the session agreed on forming a workgroup, which made the pledge, to develop two innovative, smartphone based nature trails at Lake Tana. One trail will focus on bird life at the shore in Bahir Dar and the other trail will broach the issue of botany and forests between the northern lake shore and Gondar. The concept will follow the good experience, which we made with the GPS adventure park in the Teutoburger Forest Nature Park and the Muscat Geotourism Guide. The workgroup has been established by international experts, which include, among others, Ethiopian governmental and non-governmental organizations and individuals, as well as participants from the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) and NABU. The first nature trail is expected to be ready in the first half of 2016.

My further involvement at the workshop was focused on the round tables for sustainable, environmentally friendly refugee camps and the idea of developing an Abrahamic Botanical Garden. Again, Q4A was a well organized event, bringing together experts from all over the world, sharing innovative ideas, and to bring these from rhetoric into action. Q4A Part 3 will take place in 2016 and might be located in another African country.

The day after the workshop I took the chance to establish new, and to take care of existing, cooperations and partnerships. Meetings took place with ECOPIA, HoA-REC&N and scientists from the School of Earth Sciences at Addis Ababa University.

“Undertake a baseline assessment, on water resource management and feasibility studies for refugee camps”

This was the written purpose of the coming tour in the official travel order, an UN form with many details, mainly for security reasons. Because next to my participation in Q4A, I was invited to join and contribute to a mission to one of the refugee camps at the Ethiopian – Somalia border. Early in the morning, at 6 am, we left Addis Ababa towards the eastern part of Ethiopia for the mission, which has been organized by UNESCO and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The first part of the journey took us on the modern, six lane highway towards Adama, also known as Nazareth. In Adama we had to make a stop, because our car was facing some technical issues. At that time I doubted that we would make it to our final destination, another 600 km eastward. But all could be fixed and we continued through spectacular landscapes in the Rift Valley, with numerous volcanoes, vast lava fields and acid lakes. While approaching Awash National park, we climbed down the road from 2.500 meters above sea level to below 900 meters, where we have been welcomed by baboons, oryx and guinea fowls on the roadside. Later we left the lowlands to climb up the eastern Ethiopian highlands, the car still in a good condition 😉 While night time was approaching, driving in the darkness was not so easy, with people, livestock and hyenas on the road. Finally, around 8:30 pm we reached our preliminary destination, the Ras Hotel in the city of Harar, which’s historic center is listed as a World Heritage Site.

The next morning, again at 6 am, the team assembled in the hotel garden, to continue the journey to the city of Jijigar. It took us around two hours to make it until there. On the way we were crossing a breathtaking sandstone landscape near the Elephant Sanctuary in Babile, before we passed a final mountain range, which opened the view into the wide plains of the Somali region. In Jijiga we had a short kick off meeting with the regional UNHCR representative and the local authorities, before we drove another one and a half hour to reach the Sheder Refugee Camp, which is located around 15 km from the border to Somalia.

While our convoy was coming closer to the refugee camp, most of the team members became more quite and thoughtful, because nobody knew what kind of situation we would find in the camp. We parked the cars outside and walked into the camp on one of the well structured paths. What first attracted my eyes, were the solar powered street lights and the big signboards, displaying the relevant zone and block number. While the streets were empty when we arrived, our presence fast made the round and streets were filled up with people of all ages. Against my expectation, I was mostly facing happy and healthy looking people. Kids started taking pictures from us with their smartphones and we started discussions with the residents. It became obvious from the beginning, that nearly everybody was happy to find shelter in the camp and to be off from war and fear. One of the boys presented his self written song about refugees, while others invited us to see their sparsely homes and gardens. We continued our tour through the camp, passing by the football stadium, the school and the graveyard. Accompanied by many people on our assessment tour, repeatedly we felt the great satisfaction of the refugees, to find a safe harbor in Sheder.

Honestly, the overall situation was better then expected. The Ethiopian authorities and the involved UN, governmental and non-governmental organizations are doing a great job, with providing all fundamental basics, in order to facilitate a humanely life. Of course there is plenty of room for improvement and this is where our mission is coming into facilitation. The environmental conditions must be improved, the availability of water (currently 14 liter per person and day for drinking, cooking, washing, etc.) is marginal and this is where rain water harvesting can play a role. This first rapid assessment gave us a good overview and now we can start our work, to develop project proposals, which hopefully will contribute to improved circumstances and better living conditions. This will also include thinking of creating job opportunities, recycling of any resources used, and of course the involvement of the adjacent Ethiopian communities. Figures? The Sheder refugee camp is hosting currently around 12.000 refugees from Somalia, with two other neighboring camps (each with nearly 15.000 refugees) in the Jijiga region. UNHCR is providing detailed data about these refugee camps, which can be obtained form the official website and which are worth to be studied.

“The visited refugee camp, and the way Ethiopia is providing support in the displacement crisis, in a country, which is currently facing a drought, that is harming its own population, is a cue to all wealthy countries and in particular to politicians in the world, who are groaning in exasperation about the current challenges”

Finally our challenge is the development of sustainable solutions in the refugee crisis, which are not only applicable in Ethiopia, but also on a global scale. Governmental, non-governmental and UN organization, in particular with involvement of the private sector, like INTEWO, LivingCon, GUARDIAN INTEGRATORS and ECOPIA, are capable to provide solutions. Sustainable.

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(Selection of images limited to Sheder Refugee Camp – the rest you better visit as a tourist; not processed)

After some hours we returned back to Harar. Exhausted. Blessed with hope. The next morning, at 6 am, we started hour journey back to Addis Ababa, crossing again the beautiful and proud country. Also the car made it 😉

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