development energy health

Energy access for refugees

The world faces all kinds of energy challenges, but here’s a specific one: refugees. When people are displaced in large numbers, they are likely to end up in makeshift camps. Those offer only the most rudimentary shelter, and while there are ways of providing safe but simple sanitation facilities, energy provision is more complicated. Consequently, 89% of people living in refugee camps have no electricity.

refugee campThat means they have to turn to other energy sources – battery torches for light, and firewood for heat and cooking. 80% of refugees in camps cook on firewood, to the detriment of nearby woodlands. 64,700 hectares of forest are cleared and burned every year in areas near refugee camps. Ironically, this means that some of the most desperate people on earth can have disproportionately high carbon footprints.

When nearby sources are exhausted, wood or charcoal has to be bought. That can be very expensive. Along with batteries, many households will spend a quarter of their income on energy.

There are health risks as well as environmental and financial costs. Women and girls are at risk of sexual violence when out of the camps looking for firewood. There are obvious risks to using open fires and kerosene lamps in tents or similar temporary structures. Smoke and fumes are a health hazard in themselves.

That’s three good reasons to act. As the Moving Energy Initiative report says “improving access to cleaner and more modern energy solutions would reduce costs, cut emissions and save lives.”

One immediate intervention would be the provision of more efficient cooking stoves, which would improve air quality and reduce fuel use. Biogas stoves would be even better. For energy, those buildings on camps that do have electricity – usually schools, clinics or administrative buildings – will often have diesel generators. Where possible solar panels should be used instead. In some cases it may be possible to install solar micro-grids. These sorts of measures would improve the lives of refugees and host nations, as nearby communities often suffer from the environmental degradation around the camps.

At a deeper level, there are agencies specifically responsible for health, food, water and shelter among refugees. Electricity is considered an optional extra. An organisation working specifically on this would help both in planning, raising awareness, and in securing funds. Another problem is that camps are built at speed as a temporary solution, but their populations often remain there for years. Nobody wants to invest in what is supposed to be temporary, so higher quality infrastructure doesn’t get built. The UNHCR is experimenting with solar installations that can be left behind when camps are closed, transferring over to supplying local communities instead.

As winter draws in, the need for modern energy will be acutely felt by tens of thousands of refugees. It will be too late for many families this year, but there is an urgent need to get energy access for refugees onto the agenda.

  • If you want to do something today, buy someone a WakaWaka solar light and charger for Christmas. For every one bought, another is given away to a refugee family.
  • You can find out more about the Moving Energy Initiative from partners Practical Action.

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