Architecture Students Explore Housing Solutions for Refugees in Northern Uganda

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, has experienced international and domestic conflicts since its secession from the Republic of Sudan in 2011. Fighting beginning in early July 2016 forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Kenya, Sudan, and other regions within South Sudan, but primarily Uganda. The number of refugees entering Uganda increased from averages of about 200 per day the first half of the year to thousands per day starting in July, including more than 8,000 on July 21. Throughout September 2016, an average of 2,829 South Sudanese refugees crossed into Uganda each day; during a similar period, refugee settlements in the Adjumani region saw an influx of nearly 1,000 refugees per day. It is now the world’s largest refugee resettlement area. As of the end of 2016, Uganda hosted more than 600,000 refugees from South Sudan alone, adding to refugees in recent decades fleeing violence and other insecurities from Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other countries.

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC), a global leader in refugee resettlement that works in more than 30 countries, is coordinating resettlement in the region. 

The influx has placed a strain on refugee collection-, transit-, and reception centers, as sleeping quarters, latrines, food stocks, and health clinics approached breakpoints. Decongestion of such centers, i.e., rapid resettlement of new arrivals, became exceedingly urgent during the latter half of 2016 and early 2017, and remains a challenge. Meeting UNHCR guidelines for housing is a major challenge, while also incorporating cultural needs and preferences, and delivering on tight timelines and low budgets.

In response to these needs and conversations with DRC leadership, senior architecture students in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo, working with Professor Korydon Smith, took on this global challenge in the spring of 2017. Below is a sample of their work, which both frames the challenges of refugee resettlement and explores solutions for housing amidst the complex situation in Uganda.

Though not well known, “Uganda has one of the most favourable refugee protection environments in the world—providing for freedom of movement, right to work, and…land for refugee settlements.”

UNHCR, Uganda country website

Outlining the Challenges

“By 2015, Uganda had become the third largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, after Ethiopia and Kenya, with more than half a million refugees. That number is rising rapidly”. Refugees have fled to Uganda from countries in conflict like Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, and several others. This influx has resulted in a cultural melting pot of various ethnicities and religions. The largest refugee settlements are located in northern Uganda, proximate to South Sudan. Other sizeable settlements can be found along the Tanzania / Rwanda border in the south and southwest of Uganda. “At 31 May 2014, the asylum seeker/ refugee population was 379,668 individuals in the settlements and Kampala with an additional population in various transit centers while they wait for longer term assistance in the settlements.”
Out of a total 57 million global deaths in 2008, 36 million, or 63%, were due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Comparatively, it is estimated to be that NCDs are only responsible for 27% of mortalities in Uganda. In Uganda, the amount of deaths due to injury are roughly about 33% less than the global average. Therefore, the large remaining portion of deaths in Uganda can be attributed to communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional diseases. Prevalence of these diseases are often correlated with environmental and behavioral factors. In regards to behavior, malnutrition and unsafe sex are the leading causes for communicable diseases which include nutritional deficiency, diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, and HIV. Leading non-injury, non-NCD deaths caused by environmental factors include air-borne illnesses, air pollution issues as well as WaSH (Water and Sanitation Hygiene.)
Refugees around the world face poor living conditions within resettlement camps. In particular, women face more troubles regarding these environments; this includes issues of safety and privacy. One could ask what is being done to mitigate or reduce these conditions, and what can be done in the future to assist and aide women refugees; however, there is already a plethora of acts, guidelines, recommendations, and organizations that are researching, developing, and implementing ways to send help to women in these threatening environments.  The next question that might come to mind after learning this is, why do these conditions persist?
Uganda’s population increased significantly over the past 20 years; its growth rate triple that of the world average. As a result, existing water and sanitation services have been faced with unprecedented demand. The availability of natural resources in Northern Uganda cannot adequately serve the needs of the people residing in the area. Water and sanitation are two of the major issues with which Ugandans struggle today, and though progress has been made, it struggles to keep up with this growth.
Traditional homes in both Uganda and South Sudan are constructed primarily out of natural, local resources. In South Sudan, for example, approximately 90% of homes are grass thatched mud huts. Materiality and construction methods are arguably the most significant aspect of the challenge to provide homes to refugees fleeing to Uganda refer to. Considerations of price, availability, ease of construction, and appropriateness must be asked. The solution should take into consideration the social and cultural factors of both populations.  However, it must also consider design and construction by the UNHCR creating an even tougher challenge. This study aims to explore the vernacular architectures of both South Sudan and rural Uganda in comparison to the specifications for refugee resettlements provided by UNHCR via the Sphere Handbook. It will also evaluate the materials used in these traditional designs in respect to availability and price.
South Sudan imported 537 million USD worth of goods in 2014. Over half consisted of food and food products, while a third of the goods were machinery and transportation products. In the same year, South Sudan’s exports totaled 4.03 billion USD. The country’s main export is crude petroleum, which accounts vastly for 99% of the load, and 60% of the GDP. South Sudan is the most oil-dependent country in the world. China is the chief consumer of the product, purchasing 98% of this natural resource. These figures make South Sudan’s global market incredibly vulnerable. The current conflict in the country is highly detrimental to the country’s economic productivity. In 2015, the country’s GDP dropped 5% because of the conflict. Conversely, the 2014 positive trade balance was a good sign to the nation’s wealth. The balance may be a huge factor in the (13%) rise of GDP per capita prior to the conflict. If the country can find peace it has hope for its GDP to rise. Unfortunately, this positive balance of is not found within the country. Only 10% of people in the country work in industry or commerce jobs, so the distribution of wealth is poor. For those working outside the oil sector, which is approximately 80% of the population, wages are low or unpaid. This large sector of informal agricultural work accounts for only 15% of the GDP. This is because the majority of this work is done by unpaid households that are living off of subsistence farming. The remaining work is governmental, and the unemployment rate is 12%.
Currently, the average time refugees spend living in temporary camps is 17 years. The duration in which refugees remain in camps and settlements has been steadily increasing for years.  With the average time period increasing, it may be beneficial for these camps to consider transitioning, or prepare for permanent communities.  UNHCR has already addressed that refugee camps need to become more sustainable and develop more long-term plans in order to become truly successful. There are plans to integrate refugees into host communities in order to benefit both the refugees and the host community’s economy; however, steps must first be taken to improve existing infrastructure in these camps.
Land use in Uganda is comprised of various policies and regulations that regard the native population. A level of complexity is brought to Uganda’s land use that is unique to the country, this complexity is caused by the large influx of refugees. Citizens of Uganda can purchase or inherit land. However,  issues are arising with the growing population of refugees receiving land from the government, often taken from the native population. By understanding and using the systems that are already in place, we can learn how to strategize land use and the location of newly arriving populations in an equitable way.
Often, refugees are relocating to refugee camps, where people are gathered in slum-like conditions, devoid of a sense of place or home. In Northern Uganda, one problem that incoming refugees face is a lack of community, or belonging. There are many factors that can help facilitate a sense of community among a group of people. These factors can be psychological, social, emotional, or physical. The study of what makes an individual feel welcomed often starts with a look at how an environment psychologically affects an individual. There are generally four aspects that encourage a sense of community: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and a shared emotional connection.

Building on Existing Solutions

A combination of climate and geographic location expose Uganda to a wide array of natural disasters such as: droughts, famine, epidemics, diseases, floods, land-slides, hail storms, crop pests / diseases, and earthquakes. In addition, man-made disasters are prevalent, such as: conflict, wars and internal displacement, fires, transport accidents, and environmental degradation. The combination of these challenges prove to be detrimental in regards to the millions of people residing in Uganda. Many adjacent countries also are facing current conflicts; people from South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are forced to flee, many finding refuge in Uganda. Uganda, a country that faces internal issues of its own, now faces dire need for temporary and permanent housing for both its refugees and citizens.
The Ugandan housing crisis has rapidly expanded with rises in both host and refugee populations. This has created a challenge to provide low-cost and quickly constructed houses. Both the Primitive Hut and Modular constructions have features that can provide insight to this issue. The Primitive Hut is a simplistic structure that utilizes repetitive elements. Modular construction does so as well, yet on a different scale. The task then could be to provide a synthesis of these two constructions, with the local materials available.
Adequate shelter, an essential component to wellbeing, is guaranteed to refugees through the UNHCR’s protection mission.  The agency provide tents, plastic sheeting, and tools, which often include nails and rope.  It is then typically the responsibility of the asylum seeking individuals or families to build and sustain the shelter in which they reside, until other accommodations can be made.
The experiences of fear, trauma, loss, depleted social structures, and relocation that refugees face during the conflicts from are challenges that continue to have an impact for years after resettlement. The journey to resettlement camps are often long and hazardous, and the resettlement process is often a strenuous process. In addition to these pre-existing factors, most refugees settle within camps where they experience overcrowding, lack of amenities, racism, low quality housing, and little sense of community. These living conditions have significant effects on the mental health of the residents living there, often contributing or amplifying common diagnoses.
Refugees are accustomed to insufficient or subsistent levels of existence in regards to various essentials like food, water, and shelter. Oftentimes, these services are dependent on delivery and a traditional model of delivery. The inability to live independent of organizational influences is a major challenge that prevents refugees from experiencing a smooth transition into a new country. The dependency such organizations exists because of conditions that do not empower refugees with the methods of gaining shelter and food independently in new settings. Some organizations provide trainings to refugees, such as the Danish refugee Council (DRC,) which offers training for multiple methods, including vocational, financial, life and protective training. If methods of construction and agriculture were offered or incorporated into training, refugees would be able to build homes that produce food and therefore build independent communities that are self-sustainable.
The most exercised and famous system currently practiced in Western culture is the grid. The grid is a framework of spaces guided by parallel and perpendicular crossings. A less systematic design prominent in other cultures is the practice of the non-conforming, otherwise known as free-form which is encouraged by tradition and culture. Refugee housing that are built follow the grid system pose as being efficient to refugees. This system is desired by individuals who create them but not necessarily by those who will be living in them. Refugees settling in Uganda come from the free-form system and feel their displacement further in these housing systems. Although both systems have their respected pros and cons, a conformity of the pros for both would establish an effective housing prototype for refugees. The configuration that can achieve this is biomimicry is a design based off of the intrinsic logic of nature.
In 2002, the majority of the world’s governments agreed “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level…to benefit all life on Earth” has not been met.  Meaning, biodiversity is a growing problem, and the governments of the world are not doing their part to change this growing problem.  A parallel problem is the 65.3 million people that have been forcibly displaced worldwide, and the fact that only 107,100 of those people have been resettled.  That means that about .16% of this problem has been solved.  Due to the lack of solutions that have been found for these problems separately, it is possible that these two issues may need to learn from one another.
Studies show that, on average, each US citizen is responsible for generating 7.1 pounds of waste per day. In 2013, Americans produced 254 million tons of trash. Only about 87 million tons of this material was recycled or composted. This creates a national diversion rate of 34%. The EPA recommends source reduction, which aims to eliminate extraneous materials such as packaging, recycling, and composting as primary objectives to counter this issue. As some cities in the US struggle to reach this average, others have pioneered innovative and effective methods to deal with waste.
Eliminating extraneous hardware, materials and cost has a lot of potential in the search for a cheaper and more comprehensive solution towards refugee housing. Throughout history, cultures have innovated these methods through traditional styles. New Technology has also contributed techniques, reflecting back to times before mass production of hardware.

Exploring Prototypes