Powering humanitarian sites: renewable energy in refugee camps

August 19 recently marked World Humanitarian Day, a time to support those on the front lines of humanitarian efforts; and reflect on the crises conflicts have inflicted on whole communities by displacing people who are forced to suddenly migrate while fleeing war zones, natural catastrophes, or hostile persecution. There are a number of fundamental resources all humanitarian camps require – such as shelter, food, clothing, healthcare, and books. However, one critical resource had been overlooked for some time – energy. Without it, refugees and internally displaced persons cannot heat water, prepare food, provide lighting, and stay warm.

The nexus between humanitarian aid and renewable energy is an area that more students, researchers, humanitarian organizations, governments, NGOs, and private sector entities need to focus on across Africa; and this has been gaining momentum over the recent years. When people flee conflict zones or natural disasters and enter humanitarian camps, they are often provided with temporary shelter and food, but are still responsible for their own fuel and water. Many humanitarian and church organizations only send over food items such as tinned meat, bags of grain, and beans. People with refugee or internally displaced persons (IDP) status often still need to cook for themselves, and this requires a source of fuel. Many are then forced to wander into nearby forests to get firewood or other biofuels to burn. Not only does this contribute to deforestation, but cooking over fire pollutes the air and contributes to negative health effects.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 4 million people lose their lives to non-communicable diseases a year from inhaling black carbon, and other fumes from cooking over fire. This problem has resulted in the creation of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), which works with groups and initiatives such as Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) and Practical Action to provide clean cooking technologies in refugee camps. The same applies to heating water to make it drinkable and providing lighting in the shelters.

A 2016 Energy and Buildings publication pointed out that energy expenditure for cooking and lighting in this context is estimated to be around $200 per year per household; and those introducing improved cook stoves and solar lanterns could save $303 million a year in fuel costs after an investment of $334 million.

The Central African Republic, Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, and Nigeria are examples of African countries currently riddled with civil strife, war, and conflict; and millions of people are being displaced as they flee for their lives. Billions of dollars through organizations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have gone into securing safe spaces for refugees and IDPs across Africa, including the Dadaab site (one of the biggest in Africa with over 230,000 people in five camps and would be the fourth largest city in Kenya, Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado, Uganda’s Bidi Bidi, and Yida in South Sudan.

Azraq in Jordan is an example of what countries across the African continent should be looking to replicate. Powered by a 2-megawatt solar farm, over 20,000 Syrian refugees in 5,000 shelters are provided with reliable, clean, electricity while residing in the camp. More specifically, connected to the national grid, families can utilize a fridge, fan, television, light, and charge their phones to keep in contact with those outside the camp.

[Photo: Azraq solar PV farm in Jordan]

One of the biggest challenges of our time is looking out for the interests of people while protecting the environment, and temporary humanitarian sites with thousands of displaced persons are no exception. To put it into perspective, Africa holds about 26%, and there are over 68,000,000 refugees globally. The big picture here is the consequence of climate change impacts, which the use of clean energy can help to mitigate. With displaced populations in the hundreds of thousands residing in unplanned settlements as large as a small town (and in many cases for an indefinite period of time); their needs and the impacts this can have on the environment should not be overlooked.

These areas of intersection in the context of sustainable development should be a key area of focus at research and academic institutions. ISNAD-Africa hopes to continue to foster connections and collaborations through its outreach programs such as the Mentoring for Research Program (MRP); where students working on energy, environmental, and climate change issues network with professionals and academics from around the world to support their efforts.

One way to do this is to connect with nontraditional partners not necessarily working on energy and environmental issues directly, but championing a cause that comes as a result of investing in clean energy. The multiple benefits of providing clean, reliable, sustainable energy range from improved air quality and health; to uninterrupted reforestation efforts. These kinds of relationships can shed light on mutual areas of overlap and action that can have a greater impact.

The private sector and government can use this as an opportunity to develop energy resources such as solar farms and decentralized grids. Governments can then also consider integrating humanitarian settlements into the state, and converting them into assets from being liabilities.

Women’s’ rights and empowerment groups can also be approached to combine efforts. From a gender aspect, women and girls in particular who leave humanitarian sites – sometimes walking 5 to 10 km away as nearby areas are already deforested – in search of fuel to heat and cook expose themselves to violence. Thieves and rebel soldiers for instance roaming surrounding areas can ambush them and inflict violence on the way. Women are still primarily responsible for preparing meals, and so some advocates can argue that the integration of renewable energy development in refugee camps is a women’s issue, as well as a health issue. Lighting provided all over the camp can make the entire site more secure for all inhabitants, in addition to replacing kerosene lamps inside shelters which have proven to be dangerous.

There is room for other sustainable innovations occurring on these humanitarian sites that could potentially be paired with providing clean energy, such as refugees growing their own food as they do in the Mishamo camp in Tanzania – which can help prevent food supply shortages. Once the food has been grown, making sure there is a clean energy source available to prepare it. Another example of this is Pugnido camp in Ethiopia, which offers a foster care system for children; as well as primary, secondary, and vocational education. Ensuring they can still gain some form of education and have the light that they need to do so, once it has gone dark.

For those who are invested in sustainable energy and the development of Africa, and want to see alternative energy used to their maximum effect; this is an area that specialized research and relevant partnerships can positively impact thousands of people. Ideally, we want a continent free of war and instability, but while conflict continues to persist, we can find ways to alleviate the burden on refugees and those facilitating their security while protecting the environment. Refugee camps in Africa should be a priority for local communities and national governments who can work with researchers and students to find technological solutions. The need for sustainable energy in refugee camps will continue to require more attention and expertise.


This article was first published on the Renewable Energy World Magazine blog.

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