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.

  • Farah Guled

    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.

    • Farah Guled

      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.