World Refugee Day: improving refugees’ access to energy

Last month, a 2 MW solar plant was commissioned to supply power to the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. The plant, funded by the IKEA Foundation, will supply free power to Syrian refugees fleeing the brutal, 6-year civil war. A similar project is underway to power the Zaatari refugee camp, the biggest refugee camp in Jordan.

UNHCR, the United Nation’s refugee agency, described the solar plant’s impact on the residents through the words of a refugee named Fatima, a 52-year-old single mother from rural Damascus.

“In Syria, we were used to a particular lifestyle, and then we were disconnected from it when we became refugees,” she said. “For someone who is used to having electricity, you cannot imagine how difficult it is to live without it.”

“Before [the solar plant], when we cooked a meal we had to throw the leftovers away because there was no safe way to store food,” Fatima explained. “When we got too hot, we had to pour water on our clothes to keep cool. Now we can listen to music or have a cold glass of water, and daily life no longer ends when the sun sets.”

90% unelectrified
The Moving Energy Initiative, a collaboration seeking to meet the energy needs of refugees and internally displaced people, estimates that 90% of all refugees in camps do not have electricity access. Of the 17 million refugees in 2016 under the UNHCR’s mandate, 50% were living in private accommodations, 25% were in refugee camps, and 20% had an unknown living status.

Limited and short-term funding remain one of the main challenges inhibiting energy access in refugee camps. A lack of funding has inhibited the UNHCR’s work in providing energy access as the available funds have gone first to more immediate medical and food needs. The UNHCR’s operations in Syria and South Sudan, which together account for 40% of the 17 million refugees, were short 10% of the required funds for operation.

Host governments often do not want to encourage permanent construction within the camps; instead, governments take the politically expedient option of treating the camps as temporary, overlooking the reality that the average refugee spends 17 years in a camp.

Building a solar system or perform proper long-term maintenance on solar lighting and efficient cookstoves requires multi-year funding and planning. This kind of long-term is challenging to facilitate in refugee camps.

Lowering costs, improving safety
Nearly 85% of the 24 refugee camps run by the UNHCR use diesel generators to meet some or all of their administrative power needs. In the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, camp administration and infrastructure alone account for around 20% of total energy spending each year. Given the high cost of diesel, many camps can utilize solar and battery storage to lower the energy costs of their administrative operations.

Owen Grafham, Project Manager at Chatham House, informed pv magazine about recent developments using solar to displace diesel generation.  “We are soon starting a project working with International Rescue Committee in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya to shift health clinics serving refugees and the host community from diesel to solar power. This will show that renewable energy technologies can save money that can instead be reinvested in other vital services.”

For the refugees living in the camps, the introduction of efficient cookstoves and solar lanterns will also improve their health and safety. Based on the World Health Organization, an estimated 20,000 forcibly displaced people die prematurely every year as a result of pollution from indoor fires. Efficient cookstoves reduce smoke and indoor air pollution while cooking.

Since the cookstoves use less wood, they also require the collection of less firewood. Firewood collection is done principally by women and is a dangerous task. A study conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières, an international humanitarian organization, found that over a five-month period in Sudan, 500 displaced Darfuri women and girls were raped while collecting firewood and water. Solar lighting within refugee camps can also improve safety and lifestyles as many refugee families choose to stay in their tents when darkness settles.

Lost liberty
In many countries, the refugees’ legal rights are few or non-existent. Additionally, it is common for refugees living in camps to need a travel permit to move outside of the refugee camp.

Refugees cannot legally work in most countries, which often results in a black market for labor where refugees are paid substantially less than citizens. The lack of legal rights and the inability to work depresses their incomes making it even more difficult to access advanced energy services.

Uganda is the best example of a country that empowers refugees by allowing freedom of movement and work. The Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford recently found that in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, 21% of refugees run a business that employs at least one other person. Around 40% of those employees are Ugandan citizens. This study and others have shown that restoring rights to refugees not only improves their lifestyle but also the lifestyles of the host country’s citizens.

Author: Dustin Zubke