Shining light on refugees' energy needs

When refugee crises strike, energy provision is well down the list of priorities, and ad hoc solutions tend to persist for years, even when they are unsatisfactory, expensive, damaging to the environment, and in all ways unsustainable.

Dadaab, a complex of camps in northern Kenya that is home to a third of a million Somali refugees, is located in an arid, treeless region, but it gets through 120,000 tonnes of firewood a year, most of which has to be trucked in, as well as more than three million dollars' worth of diesel to run its generators. 

Even in camps where firewood is available, it has to be collected in sufficient quantities. In Chad, a UNHCR survey of two refugee camps (Kounoungou and Mille) last year found that 69 percent of households reported that members had been assaulted in the previous six months while they were out gathering firewood.  And the supply was never enough - 35 percent of families had skipped meals because there was no fuel to cook them, and 28 percent had eaten their food undercooked because the fuel ran out.

“Their energy requirement has effectively been put on their own shoulders,” says Ben Good, the CEO of the Global Village Energy Project (GVEP). “It's 'Find you own firewood'. For some that means collecting it; for others, buying it from local traders.”

In the humanitarian world, energy specialists are thin on the ground. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has only two - one based in Geneva and one currently in Jordan, where the influx of refugees from Syria has put a huge strain on the country's power generating capacity.  

“The humanitarian do-no-harm agenda is poorly represented in terms of environmental impact,” says Joe Attwood, an energy specialist with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “From the point of [view of] a humanitarian responder I would like to open up that discussion about why it is that do-no-harm does not embrace these issues.”

At the moment in a major emergency, participating aid agencies are coordinated through the so-called “cluster” system; there's a cluster for those working on health, those working on food, and those working on water and sanitation, for instance.  But there isn't an energy cluster.  Should there be?  

Betsy Lippman, who heads UNHCR’s Operational Solutions and Transition Section, says people have tended to think of energy as a cross cutting issue. “It's only something we've started to take a hard look at in the last couple of years.  Perhaps there will be an energy cluster in the future, but I'm not sure that it needs a cluster to be relevant or have impact.”

Most refugee settlements are not connected to the local power grid because host governments are opposed to any sense that they are permanent – even though the camps may remain for 10 years, or even longer. Now agencies are starting to explore ways of providing power which also benefit host communities, defusing political tensions.  Much of this work is going on in Jordan where the Syrian refugee population is urban and middle class and largely living in privately-rented accommodation subsidised by UNHCR. 

When funding to pay for this accommodation was running low, someone had the bright idea – a light-bulb moment – of offering landlords solar roof panels, which could be paid for out of the EU sustainable energy budget. This has proved a success: the panels were accepted in lieu of rent, the refugees and the host household both have electricity, and community relationships have improved. Also in Jordan, UNHCR is planning a solar farm at Azraq to supply the refugee camp there that will also feed power into the national grid. It will remain as a legacy for Jordan if and when the refugees go home.

David Nicholson, of Mercy Corps, says the humanitarian sector needs to stop thinking about refugee populations in isolation. “Many of these populations have ended up embedded for many, many years, and economies get moving within camps, but also within the surrounding areas.... We talk about wanting to create market-based solutions, but we still focus just on the humanitarian sector instead of the whole ecosystem.”

The larger camps offer sizeable markets and residents are already spending significant sums of their own money on firewood, kerosene and torch batteries. Businessman Mansoor Hamayun, whose company BBOXX sells solar power systems, doesn't just want to be a supplier to those running the camp; he wants to get inside the fence and sell directly to the users. “If you are talking about refugee camps and displaced populations, it's not an accessible marketplace for us,” he tells IRIN, “There are layers of bureaucracy. We have done quite a number of projects, but they are one-off; there is no ongoing relationship with the customer, the sort of thing we need in order to justify a long-term investment. We already have a lot of risks to deal with, but if they were to say, 'Hey, we have this really great camp, lots of customers, please come and set up shop’, then we would be like 'Great! This is a really great place to come!'”

Allowing private suppliers of sustainable energy solutions like Hamayun direct access to markets in and around camps would represent a dramatic shift, but such shifts may be what is needed. 

The goal of a new project, the Moving Energy Initiative, which involves both GVEP and the NRC as well as UNHCR and the London-based foreign policy think-tank, Chatham House, is to reform the relevant humanitarian policies and practices that affect energy provision rather than focusing on specific technologies like solar-powered stoves. Many refugee camps are strewn with a variety of such stoves and lamps, the remnants of pilots that were never taken to scale, or short-term projects abandoned when the money ran out.

Those behind the initiative, which is funded by DFID, the UK's Department for International Development, say they want to engage the private sector to be part of the solution. 

The Moving Energy Initiative is still a work in progress, but it is already raising some profound issues. Chatham House's Associate Director of Research Partnerships, Michael Keating, says, "What we are glimpsing is that a focus on energy provides an entry point to illuminate a wider set of issues – livelihoods, cost-saving opportunities, relationships with host communities, environmental protection, and the security, health and safety of displaced people.”

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