New research shows that investing in clean cookstoves and solar lanterns could benefit people, the planet, and NGOs’ budgets
Stretched humanitarian agencies could save millions of dollars – and reduce carbon emissions, deforestation and violence against women and girls – if solar power and other clean energy sources were installed at refugee camps, according to new analysis released today.
In the first report looking into energy use in refugee camps around the world, a consortium of NGOs, thinktanks and donors says that the refugees’ energy use has been neglected by both the international energy access lobby and by humanitarian agencies. In refugee camps, 90% of families have no access to electricity. There’s also often no street lighting, putting women and girls at greater risk of sexual attack if they need to go to the toilet at night.
At Dadaab refugee camp families spend an average of 24% of their income on energy!
“This as an energy access problem,” said one of the report’s authors, Chatham House senior research fellow Glada Lahn , at the launch of the report last week. “These displaced people and refugees are part of the 2.9 billion living in energy poverty around the world, but the sustainable development goals and the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative didn’t mention them. They are a grey area.”
The widespread introduction of efficient cookstoves and basic solar lanterns could save $323m (£212m) a year in fuel costs to humanitarian agencies and among refugees themselves, the report calculates. In Kenya’s Dadaab camp, where 350,000 Somali refugees live, the UNHCR spends $2.3m a year on diesel oil and each family spends an average of $17.20 a month on energy, 24% of its income (this compares to 4% in the UK).
However, providing such equipment would require a one-time capital investment of $335m , which with the current way humanitarian response is carried out and funded is an obstacle. “Humanitarian agencies tend to look at immediate response rather than long-term development planning,” Lahn said. “One of the main challenges that we found again and again is that the UNHCR and other organisations in this field have very short-term budgets.”
The report’s authors recommend humanitarian agencies move away from a donations-focused funding model. They suggest the creation of a fund for energy infrastructure that could be accessed by humanitarian agencies. “The idea is to create a facility where humanitarian agencies can borrow money at a concessional rate to make these kind of investments and they will pay them back in time,” says Simon Collings from NGO GVEP International, which also contributed to the report. “Investments would initially come from the big development finance organisations, like the World Bank and EU.”
The UK’s Department of International Development (DfID) is looking into the idea of a fund for green energy for refugees, and hopes that more detail of how it would work can be put in place before the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016. “I think the humanitarian community needs to take ownership of it,” said Razi Latif, environment and climate adviser at DfID.
Working with the private sector would be another way to improve energy access and reliability in camps, said the report’s authors. “Many of these refugees are established, and people can pay for their energy needs,” said Lahn. If private companies were responsible for equipment they could keep them efficient and maintained over time as well, she added, saying lack of engineering expertise at camps prevents machines from working at their best.
Another innovative way to get financing for renewable energy projects in refugee camps would be to appeal to climate-related funding, those involved with the report suggest. “The money that DfID is providing is classified as climate finance,” said Latif. “We’re using climate finance from the UK to win social benefits as well as climate benefits. That’s an innovative way to fund.”
Much of the existing renewables provision in refugee camps – clean cookstoves and solar lanterns – is donated by NGOs and social enterprises on a small scale. Lahn said they found “a litany of pilots that have failed”, either due to lack of funding or broken equipment that wasn’t maintained.
As well as saving money, providing clean energy in refugee camps would decrease carbon emissions: more efficient, less polluting cookstoves and basic solar lanterns would reduce emissions by an estimated 6.85m tonnes of C02 a year, the report said. It also found that wood equalling around 49,000 football pitches of forest (64,700 acres) is burned by families in camps every year, in countries that are already suffering from deforestation. Lahn adds: “Women and girls are always relied on to go outside the camp to collect firewood, and the instances of rape and violent attack are just horrifying.”
Lack of firewood is also a problem for refugees. The report’s authors said many were missing meals because they didn’t have enough fuel, while dangerous cooking stoves also carry the risk of fire. Earlier this year 700 people were left homeless after a fire in a refugee camp in Thailand. Using kerosene carries another risk. The researchers found instances of children being poisoned from drinking the toxic fuel, often kept in plastic water bottles.
Beyond solar lanterns and better cook stoves, another solution would be installing solar grids and more permanent renewable energy infrastructure. But the report’s other author, Owen Grafham , programme coordinator at Chatham House, points out that is often difficult politically for host governments. “Making any investments for refugees and displaced people is often a tricky sell,” he said. “By doing so they are instantly recognising a level of permanence.”
But there is increasing recognition that life in refugee camps in the new normal for millions of people. “Many of the camps that we’re talking about have been there for many years,” said Lahn. “The average time spent as a refugee is 17 years. In the case of Syria, we cannot see those refugees returning any time soon.”
The report recommends that refugee camps’ energy needs be aligned with host governments’ existing policies and ambitions so that projects can benefit both displaced people and locals. For example, in Thailand reforestation is high on the government’s agenda and in many countries that host refugee camps improving access to energy is a high priority. Jordan’s government is already planning to install a solar plant to provide power to Azraq refugee camp and the neighbouring villages.
“It’s much better to invest in something that leaves a legacy for the country and builds better social relations,” said Lahn.