By Umberto Bacchi
ROME, Feb 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A million trees are to be planted in Ethiopia to fight deforestation around camps hosting hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees who rely almost entirely on wood for fuel, a United Nations agency said on Wednesday.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the trees would be planted on 150 hectares of land in Ethiopia's western Gambella region to meet the growing refugee population's demand for energy.
Almost 300,000 people, mostly women and children, have found shelter in Ethiopia since conflict erupted in South Sudan in December 2013.
Fires used by the refugees for cooking are fuelled almost entirely by chopped wood, putting considerable pressure on local forests, FAO energy and forestry expert Arturo Gianvenuti said.
"Imagine tens of thousands of people - the population of a small city - who suddenly arrive in a location and start using forest resources," Gianvenuti told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. "The impact is visible".
The depletion of forests risks creating tensions with local communities and disrupting the ecosystem, as trees stabilize the climate, regulate water flows and provide shelter to numerous animal species, according to the FAO.
It also exposes refugee women to the risk of sexual abuse as they have to walk long distances in isolated areas to fetch firewood, Gianvenuti said.
To address some of these issues, the FAO plans to set up nurseries for fast-growing trees, like Leucaena and Eucalyptus, to supply refugees from four camps in Gambella with wood, he said.
The FAO and U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) have also agreed to monitor deforestation with high resolution satellite images and train local craftsmen to produce energy-saving clay stoves that would cut wood consumption by up to 25 percent, Gianvenuti said.
FAO also plans to monitor deforestation in Uganda, which has received 600,000 South Sudanese refugees so far, he added.
South Sudan plunged into civil war in December 2013 after a long-running feud between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, exploded into violence, often along ethnic lines.
The conflict has driven more than 3 million people from their homes and 600,000 more are expected to be displaced in 2017, according to U.N. estimates.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)